HANGA ROA, Easter Island — A rebellion in simmering, and it’s far from any geopolitical hotspot. Very far.
Not long ago, as some elders of the Rapanui people wistfully recall, a sense of profound isolation pervaded this windswept speck of land in the Pacific. Horses were the dominant mode of transportation, flights to the outside world were few and far between, and Easter Island’s Polynesian language enjoyed dominance in most spheres of life.
Now, so many cars roam the roads of this fragile island (it is smaller than Martha’s Vineyard) that Rapanui grimly joke how they may outnumber the moai — those prized towering statues their ancestors carved from volcanic tuff, beguiling archaeologists.
Spanish, the language of Chile, which annexed Easter Island in 1888, now prevails across much of the island.
New luxury hotels catering to rich Chileans and moneyed foreign visitors charge $1,100 a night, accentuating a festering income gap.
And there is yet another feature of life in Chile, a nation grappling with fierce anti-government protests by students and indigenous groups, which has made it here: violent clashes with security forces.
Inspired by other parts of Polynesia that have obtained a considerable degree of political autonomy or are in the process of seeking independence, leaders of the Rapanui people are mounting a slow-burning rebellion against Chile. Their movement on the island — which they call Rapa Nui, not Easter Island — presents a unique test for a Latin American country: quelling a challenge to its rule in the middle of the South Pacific.
“Our nearest border is with the Pitcairn Islands, not Chile,” said Leviante Araki, 54, president of the Rapa Nui Parliament, a pro-independence organization, referring to the British overseas territory more than 1,200 miles to the west.
Newcomers from mainland Chile, which is almost twice that distance in the other direction, are fueling a sharp increase in Easter Island’s population, increasing it by 54 percent to 5,800 over the last decade. Continentals, as mainland Chileans are called here, now slightly outnumber Rapanui on the island, at about 3,000 to 2,800, according to the mayor, Luz Zasso Paoa.
Protests here have crystallized around the thwarted efforts by one prominent Rapanui clan, the Hitorangi, to reclaim land on which a luxury hotel was recently completed. But other sources of ire among the Rapanui have also emerged, including bitterness over privileges like subsidized housing that have been extended to some mainland Chileans, competition for jobs in the lucrative tourism trade and the mainland’s control over the island’s affairs. Security forces violently evicted Rapanui protesters in 2010 who had occupied buildings and other sites. Images captured on cellphone cameras showed bloodstained Rapanui, drawing admonition from the United Nations last year over the use of force to resolve the island’s problems. Though the situation has calmed somewhat since then, nonviolent protests by the Rapanui have continued well into this year.
Despite the agitation, Easter Island still awes. Nearly a thousand monolithic moai remain strewed around volcanic craters and sandy shorelines, guarding the secrets of an island settled more than nine centuries ago by Polynesian explorers. Clusters of horses wildly roam the hills, as if Easter Island belonged to them.
‘Like a concentration camp’
But unresolved disputes over land and sovereignty, between the Rapanui and continentals — and even among some of the Rapanui themselves — are clouding this superficially easygoing outpost. Rather than subjugating the autonomy movement, the crackdowns seem to have added to the resentment here, with the Rapa Nui Parliament now taking its fight to the courts by filing a lawsuit on the mainland this year seeking independence.
The group says the island’s annexation, under an 1888 treaty, was made illegitimate by Chile’s inequitable administration of it, including the removal of Rapanui from ancestral lands, their forced confinement to the town of Hanga Roa and the leasing of almost the entire island for decades to the Williamson-Balfour Co., a Scottish sheep-ranching concern.
Some Rapanui contend that their last king, Simeon Riro Kainga, was poisoned in 1898 during a visit to Chile’s coast. The Rapa Nui Parliament last year unilaterally declared Valentino Riroroko Tuki, the 81-year-old grandson of the last monarch, as the new king, a step in its legal battle to void the annexation treaty. Still, other Rapanui groups have their own aspirants to the throne, reflecting the island’s fractious internal politics.
“This island was operated like a concentration camp,” said Riroroko Tuki, a mild-mannered farmer who gained fame for resisting oppressive rule in the 1950s, when Chile’s navy prohibited Rapanui from leaving the island and publicly flogged islanders as punishment. He escaped on a fishing boat to the Cook Islands, more than 3,200 miles away.
Leaders of the Rapa Nui Parliament said they fully expect to lose the independence lawsuit on the mainland, viewing it as a step to pursue the claims in venues like the International Court of Justice. They are drawing inspiration from similar movements elsewhere in Polynesia, which may seem far-fetched in mainland Chile but not in the shifting political winds of the Pacific.
One model under study here is the Cook Islands, a self-governing parliamentary democracy in a “free association” with New Zealand. Another is New Caledonia, a French overseas territory where France is grappling with an independence movement.
Still, pro-independence sentiment, while supported by sizable factions of Rapanui, is by no means unanimous. Alberto Hotus, head of the Council of Elders, from which the Rapa Nui Parliament splintered off, pointed out that the island still depends on Chile for its health care, food, telecommunications and flights to the mainland.
“If we cut ties to Chile,” he said, “we will return to eating pasture.”
The authorities on the mainland are cautiously following the talk of independence. Carlos Llancaqueo, President Sebastian Pinera’s commissioner to Easter Island, said new legislation governing migration and residency is under preparation, but Chile’s Constitution requires the Rapanui people to be consulted before the law is enacted, a process just getting under way. He said another proposal would give Easter Island greater control over its own finances, though the idea has languished for years; as it stands, the island is a province of the Region of Valparaiso, so decisions regarding funds for everything from education to infrastructure are made on the mainland, a five-hour flight away.
While such divisions persist, the Rapanui have endured bigger problems in the past. They grappled in the 1870s with the megalomaniacal rule of a French mariner, Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier, a tyrant to rival Conrad’s Kurtz. Devastated by Peruvian slaving raids and a smallpox epidemic, their population dwindled as low as 111 before Chile annexed the island in 1888, imposing austere military rule for decades.
The movement here is unfolding at a time when a major rethinking of Easter Island’s history is emerging, with scholars rejecting theories that the ancient Rapanui overexploited resources like trees, suggesting instead that they pioneered sustainable fertilization techniques in an island with poor soils.
“Before the arrival of Europeans, the Rapanui succeeded in total isolation in a highly challenging environment,” said Terry Hunt, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii. “Now, they are vulnerable because the island is not solving its problems locally.”
Making matters more complex, disputes fester over squatting on ancestral land, and intermarriage is increasingly common.
“The Chileans treated us like dogs, and now we want what is ours,” said Lorenzo Tepano, 58, a fisherman who lives with his wife as squatters in a wooden shack in the Rapa Nui National Park, just steps away from some of the monolithic stone figures lined up near the shore. As Tepano denounced Chile, his son-in-law, a continental, sat next to him, gazing at the waves and quietly sipping a beer.