Difficult Times For Chile’s Easter Island – Analysis


By Joss Douglas and Samantha Nadler

The Rapa Nui Strike Back

Famous for its monolithic Moai head stones that were mysteriously erected at the dawn of history, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Easter Island is today making headlines of a different sort. The pristine and storied image used to market Easter Island as a tourist mecca began to unravel as unrest surfaced there last August, when the native islanders confronted Santiago’s representatives of Chilean state (who annexed the island in 1888) in the latest bid for self-rule. While the issue is not on the agenda for President Obama’s March 21 trip to the Chilean capital, many feel that it should be.

Since August 2010, the Rapa Nui islanders have been carrying out demonstrations at various important tourist sites on the island that they claim as their ancestral lands. At the Hotel Hanga Roa, the site of a USD 50 million redevelopment project supported by Chile’s Piñera government, the Hito family—a powerful Rapa Nui clan—had been staging a six-month long “sit-in” protest. Across the Americas and beyond, onlookers have witnessed comparable struggles as indigenous groups have fought private corporations and contemptuous governments in their battle for the restoration of their land and sovereignty. Unfortunately, all too often these attempts have ended in bloody brawls and, on occasion, the loss of innocent life.

Rapa Nui National Park
Rapa Nui National Park

To keep the struggles peaceful, the Rapa Nui approached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which responded by issuing precautionary measures aimed at immediately stopping the heavy-handed use of armed Chilean security forces against the Rapa Nui clans. Other international observers, including U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya; U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii; American Samoa’s delegate to U.S. Congress, Eni Faleomavaega; and members of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IAHCR) have urged President Sebastián Piñera to take preventative measures to avoid further violence. By December, the Chilean forces became sufficiently unnerved by the protests and turned to force, violently evicting the islanders from hotel grounds. The Hito clan resisted until the Carabineros (the ill reputed Chilean national police force) aggressively dislodged the clan members from the site on February 7, 2011.

In international forums, debates have widely circulated over the Rapa Nui’s land rights claims. Some observers argue that the original peoples were illegally squatting on private territory, while others claim that the islanders were peacefully protesting past human rights violations on land that originally had been theirs. Despite the increased international interest in the affair, the Chilean government has remained surprisingly silent as events unfold. The IACHR ordered Chile’s Interior Ministry to deliver a full report on the situation by Thursday, February 17, 2011. On Friday, February 18, 2011, Chilean Secretary of the Interior Rodrigo Hinzpeter announced that an agreement had been reached to return disputed land to the Rapa Nui people. At this point an extraordinary development occurred; the German Schiess family, who had acquired the land and who had ordered the construction of the Hanga Roa Hotel development, agreed to donate their development property rights to a private Rapa Nui foundation. Hinzpeter called this the government’s “final solution” for resolving the problem, referring to the plan as a “historic moment” that came in part due to a “great generosity” on the part of the Schiess family, although such optimism eventually turned out to be unwarranted.

Before proclaiming victory, this agreement has to be closely examined. The Schiess family will continue to use the Hito clan’s land for the next thirty years. Subsequently, the property rights will be passed over to a private foundation called Rapa Nui – comprised of the Schiess family’s Rapa Nui business associates, not the land’s residual owners, the Hito clan. The latter has vocalized that this decision was the result of a scheme by the Chilean government and a media complot to try to repair the country’s damaged image in the eyes of world public opinion. Meanwhile, the clan is outraged that they were completely barred from roles in the relevant decision making processes. While clan members were undoubtedly angry that they were (yet again) excluded from working out a solution with the authorities, anyone familiar with Easter Island’s tainted colonial heritage and hegemonic relationship with Santiago should be wary of the Schiess family’s supposed generous solution.

The Island’s Discovery

On Easter Sunday 1722, Dutch sea captain Jakob Roggeveen landed on the island’s shore. Located more than 1,200 miles east of the Pitcairn Island (its nearest inhabited neighbour), and 2,000 miles west of Chile, Easter Island marks the south-eastern point of the Polynesian “triangle,” with Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the west. Archaeologists and historians debate the date of Easter Island’s initial habitation by Polynesians who navigated in canoes from either the Gambier Islands (some 1,600 miles away) or the Marquesas Islands (some 2,000 miles away), but the date is thought to be some time between 300 and 1100 AD. Given its geographic seclusion in the South Pacific, the island’s first natives called the island Te pito o te henua, meaning “the ends of the Earth.” The name could not be more fitting. For most of its existence as an inhabited island, the islanders have lived and developed in total isolation. This came to an end with the arrival of the Dutch, marking the beginning of a fateful new chapter in the island’s history.

Conquest and Colonization

Despite bearing food and some treats as a sign of friendliness, the Dutch were soon raiding and pillaging the island while spreading infectious and venereal diseases in their wake. When Peru was experiencing labor shortages in the 1860s, it too began raiding the ‘free labor sources’ on Easter Island. In December of 1862, eight Peruvian fleets arrived and apprehended some 1,000 Rapa Nui, including the king, his son, and the ritual priests. Over the following years, a thousand more were shanghaied to Peru as forced labor where they were overworked, poorly treated, and exposed to fatal foreign diseases. This resulted in the decimation of the Rapa Nui people with estimates that 90 percent of the population vanished in just two years. The remaining ten percent was almost entirely wiped out by a resulting smallpox epidemic. After facing international criticism for their slave raiding, Peru permitted slaves to be repatriated while also encouraging missionaries to set up conversion facilities on the island.

In 1868, one of the ship’s captains that transported some of missionaries, Jean-Baptiste Onexime Dutrou-Bornier, purchased most of the land and immediately began to cleanse the island of the Rapa Nui, then turned the island into a sheep ranch. By 1877, only 110 Rapa Nui inhabitants remained. In 1876, Dutrou-Bornier was killed in a popular uprising, and the island’s population of native people slowly began to recover its numbers. Unfortunately, the damage that had already been wrought on them was irreparable. The enslavement of ritual priests, the forced conversion to Catholicism, and the decimation of over 97 percent of the island’s native inhabitants (all in less than a decade) helps explain why, today, there are gaps in adequately comprehending Rapa Nui culture as well as fully fathoming ancient islander rituals and beliefs.

1888: A Turning Point?

In 1888, a Chilean naval officer formally annexed Easter Island, turning it into a province of the Chilean state. Chile’s ostensible even-handedness in the process of annexing the island led the Rapa Nui to believe that the end of colonial oppression was in sight. However, the islanders could not have been further misled. Immediately following the application of the treaty, Easter Island came to be ruled as a police state and once again the islanders were banished from their various locales on the island into the Hanga Roa settlement. The rest of the island was leased to a Scottish ranching company, the Williamson-Balfour Company.

Considerable controversy surrounds the legitimacy of the Rapa Nui’s adherence to the 1888 Treaty of Cessation and Proclamation, and even more debate regarding the actual contents of the document’s key provisions. According to Leonardo Crippa of the Indian Law Resource Center, a non-profit law and advocacy organization based in Washington D.C.,the Rapa Nui king had virtually no idea what he was agreeing to when he signed the Spanish documents. In the Spanish language version, the chiefs ceded the sovereignty over the island in favor of the Republic of Chile, whilst in the Rapa Nui version; Chile offered to be a “friend of the island.” The treaty of 1888 made a declaration that the Chilean State would protect the Rapa Nui, and that all land on the island would remain owned by the indigenous people. It also stated that while Chile would technically exercise jurisdiction over the island, it would have to respect the rights, autonomy, and leadership of the Rapa Nui. By the 20th century, Chile’s attitude towards the island and its inhabitants took a drastic turn, and its interpretation of the pact became notably harsher.

Decades of Dishonest Documentation

By 1933, lawmakers in Santiago had shifted their classification of Easter Island, from that of an autonomous territory under the jurisdiction of Chile, to terra nullius, meaning “land belonging to no one.” This classification gave Chile total hegemony over the indigenous people and the island territory. Until 1966, Chile continued to lease Easter Island to the Williamson-Balfour Company, and later the Chilean Navy took effective control of it. During this time, Chile allowed nightmarish conditions to develop inside the walls of Hanga Roa. De facto slavery persisted on the island (and Mapuche areas of Southern Chile) until eventually, in 1966, the Rapa Nui were granted formal Chilean citizenship and the island was opened to the public for the first time.

As a result of Santiago’s historic 1966 Easter Island Law, public institutions such as a court, a police barracks, and several banks were built and staffed. But these developments did not address the fundamental claims by the Rapa Nui against what they considered the unfair takeover of their land. As a result, a number of land rights disputes between the Rapa Nui and Chile began surfacing in the 1970s. These disputes garnered little if any international attention. In 1979, Chile passed the Ley de Pascua in response to the increasing body of land rights claims on the island. The law established a system of land tenure and rights that would enable the Rapa Nui to challenge any publicly owned land. Moreover, the law expressly prohibited the sale of any Rapa Nui owned land to non-Rapa Nui people. The problem with the Ley de Pascua is that it failed to take into account the modern realities of Easter Island. First, government buildings and other developments associated with the tourism industry have been erected on many of the sites that the Rapa Nui claim to be of ancestral significance. Second, proving that there has been no severance in the cultural significance of the disputed land is virtually impossible owing to the Rapa Nui’s tribal history of decimation in the nineteenth century and the destruction of their cultural records. Third, Chile’s declaration of terra nullius in the treaty of 1933 extends residual territorial sovereignty over Easter Island.

Since the passing of the Ley de Pascua, the Rapa Nui have struggled to win ancestral property rights. Furthermore, the law’s stipulation that land on Easter Island can only be owned by Rapa Nui has only been loosely observed by the Chilean government, as the Hito clan’s case demonstrates. At some point after the passing of the 1979 legislation, the land on which the Hotel Hanga Roa today sits passed to the Schiess family—a wealthy German family whose holding company, Empresas Transoceánica, today owns and runs the hotel. It is not known how or exactly when this was allowed to happen, but the verdict, according to Leonardo Crippa, the clan’s lawyer at the Indian Law Resource Center, is clear: “in one way or another, the transaction was carried out illegally.” The Hito clan’s grievance, in other words, is that the Schiess family acquired the Hotel Hanga Roa by virtue of a land sale that was void ab initio.

Legacies of Colonialism

Today, Easter Island offers a cautionary tale of the disastrous consequences that colonization can visit on a society and culture in the space of just a few generations. Since being ‘discovered’ by the Dutch in the eighteenth century, the Rapa Nui have been subject to two centuries of oppression and foreign domination. While today the Hito clan is the most vocal about its grievances and the abuses it has had to experience, this historical recount illustrates how its rights have always been trampled. Land ownership has been a fervently disputed issue on Easter Island ever since the arrival of outsiders at the turn of the eighteenth century. The protests by the Hito clan and others simply represent the latest battle in the bicentennial war that has raged between the Rapa Nui and the Chilean state.

Historical Struggles in a Globalized World

With the island’s population today being less than 3,000, located 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, the indigenous people’s demands have been ignored by Santiago for decades. However, thanks to new global developments facilitating greater communication possibilities and growing self-awareness on the part of isolated indigenous islanders, the inhabitants now have the opportunity to broadcast their plight to an international audience via mass media and the worldwide web. While indigenous communities across the Americas have been mobilising to demand greater autonomy and self-determination, the Rapa Nui are making similar claims and organizing themselves in new and innovative ways. Since last August, the Rapa Nui have been represented by the Indian Law Resource Center, and have also received aid from sympathetic lawyers in Santiago.

The islanders have clear and concise demands. Firstly, they want greater controls over immigration to the island and other restrictions. They also are calling for greater protection of the sacred Moai head statues. Erected during the island’s Ancestor Cult epoch, which continued through until the late 17th century, the Moai symbolised religious offerings for deceased islanders. Having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (without consulting the locals), tourists now flock to the island to see the Moai. Islanders are concerned about the exposure of their largely unprotected and sacred sites. Thirdly, as explained in the tragic historical recap, the Rapa Nui are re-claiming ancestral lands that they charge were stolen from their illiterate ancestors. Fourth, the islanders want a stake in the island’s tourist economy. Tourists come to see their heritage and culture, and they are largely excluded from the tourism industry (employment is instead given to mainland Chileans). With these demands in mind, the Rapa Nui overall want the opportunity to govern themselves, and are asking for greater autonomy and self-determination.

After the Rapa Nui successfully garnered attention from international bodies to their plight, the Chilean government has been forced to respond. On February 18, 2011, Santiago declared that, on top of the Schiess family’s decision to “return the land to the people,” they will also appoint a Presidential Commissioner to the island, in charge of reporting and advising the president on Easter Island policies in an attempt to coordinate efforts to address the inhabitants’ demands. For example, in response to the islanders’ concern about cultural encroachment, the government has announced plans to immerse Rapa Nui’s schoolchildren in the island’s indigenous language. The government wants all students from first to fourth grade to be mainly taught in Rapa Nui, rather than Spanish.

Is the Conflict Resolved?

As far as the Hito clan is concerned, the government proposals are not addressing the primary demands of the islanders, which is the return of land ownership to the people. Hito clan members have little to do with the recently created Rapa Nui Foundation, to whom the land in question is being ‘returned.’ Many islanders believe that the Chilean government’s recent proposals will ultimately only serve the interests of Chilean officials and the Schiess family. Having left the Hito out of land discussions, the final decisions made by the Chilean executive and the Schiess family hold little legitimacy with the islanders. Though the Hito represent only one out of thirty-six clans on the island, they hold the support of the majority. On Saturday, February 26, 2011, around 200 people marched through the streets in support of the Hito Clan and their rejection of the government’s ‘solutions.’ With the dispute over land ownership now in the civil courts, neither the government nor the Schiess family can transfer ownership to the foundation. To move forward and work through this complicated land issue, the state and private corporations should actually consider meeting and working with the Hito clan to address historic injustices.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associates Joss Douglas and Samantha Nadler


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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