picture: Nicolas de Camaret, Flickr
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, as it is called by the locals, is the most remote inhabited region in the world. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 3000km from the Chilean mainland. Easter Island makes up the south-eastern point of the Polynesian triangle, which consists of islands in the Pacific, including New Zealand and Hawaii as the south-western and northern points. One might expect the 5000 islanders to lead a happy and peaceful life on their tropical island. Unfortunately, this is far from being true – Rapa Nui has quite a troubled history.
Easter Island was discovered by Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722. The Dutch admiral found a primitive society relying on cannibalism due to the lack of food. Interestingly, he also found evidence that the island must have once been a flourishing eco-system that managed to sustain itself. There was a huge number of stone statues, scattered and destroyed – the famous moai with their oversized heads. However, these statues were once crafted carefully and distributed all over the island, a demanding task that the European settlers could not associate with the primitive lifestyle of the Rapa Nui. Indeed, the Easter Island inhabitants were so confused that they failed to remember how their ancestors managed to transport the statues all over the island; they believed the moai had walked there. This lead to a number of theories about the cultural heritage of Easter Island, the most fantastic one being that the island was visited by spacemen.
After Spanish settlers visited the island in 1770, Spain annexed it. But since the island was so remote, underpopulated and with a lack of resources, the Spanish never actually colonized it. In 1877, the Peruvians came to the island to enslave the inhabitants; 110 people stayed, mainly old people and children. Easter Island was later annexed by Chile in 1888 and became an autonomous territory – at least formally. However, the Chilean government turned the island into a giant sheep ranch run by a Scottish company. The small number of remaining Rapa Nui were forced to stay within their village Hanga Roa. In 1966 the Rapa Nui were finally granted Chilean citizenship.
Today, Easter Island is open to tourism and immigration. Tourism accounts for approximately 80 per cent of the island’s economy. However, the opening of the island to the rest of the world has also led to a couple of problems. Firstly, some Rapa Nui see immigration from the mainland as a problem. Today about two thirds of the population are continentales, the name for Chilean mainlanders. Some of the inhabitants of the island feel like Chileans are taking over, as they occupy most jobs in tourism. Moreover, some are scared that the fragile eco-system of the island will be damaged by mass tourism.
Another important issue is the Rapa Nui claiming that land that originally belonged to their ancestors was stolen from them. The Chilean government introduced the Ley de Pascua in 1979, after a number of islanders claimed their property rights. This law prohibited the sale of land on the island to any non-Rapa Nui buyers. However, it failed to take into consideration the handling of government buildings and land that was used for tourism, for example hotels and the land they are built on are largely owned by the Chilean government or international investors. This led to a number of incidents in recent years. In 2011, for example, Easter Island inhabitants occupied a hotel that they claimed to be built on their ancestor’s land which was illegally taken from them. In 2010 and 2011, a number of Rapa Nui were protesting against the building of luxury hotels on their land, demanding the rights to their ancestral properties. On one occasion, about 20 Rapa Nui, amongst which there were women and children, were hit and partially injured by heavily armed Chilean policemen.
As can be seen, Easter Island’s history has been troublesome up until now. Restricting the numbers of visitors and immigrants from the mainland could solve several problems at a time: it would decrease tourism and therefore benefit the island’s ecosystem. It would also help the Rapa Nui to preserve their cultural heritage. Some Rapa Nui would rather become part of Polynesia, instead of being Chilean, since they feel that the Chilean government has not fulfilled its obligations. For instance, the Parlamento Rapa Nui is a private organization that has formed to demand more autonomous rights for the island; some even want to declare independence. This would be an economic disaster for the island. Nevertheless, in order for the Easter islanders to lead a happier life, some of the issues mentioned previously need to be addressed – be it independence or a bigger investment by the Chilean government into health care and education on the island.