Violence flared on the tiny South Pacific Easter Island on December 3 after police forcefully evicted indigenous Rapa Nui protesters occupying properties they say were built on their ancestral land. Our Observer tells us about this usually tranquil island’s little known darker side.
The Rapa Nui are the indigenous inhabitants of the Chilean island, a Unesco World Heritage site best know for its Moai – rows of huge stone heads carved by the Rapa Nui’s ancestors. Rapa Nui activists say they have been wrongfully deprived of their ancestral lands by the Chilean government, and on July 27 occupied 14 locations around the island to draw attention to their cause and bring authorities to the negotiating table.
At least 25 Rapa Nui protesters were wounded by police rubber bullets, buckshot and batons after attempting to resist Friday’s eviction. Although police said they fired after Molotov cocktails were thrown at them, activists say only a handful of protesters threw sticks and rocks, and most were unarmed.
On Wednesday Chilean President Sebastian Pinera defended the evictions, saying it was the state’s duty to maintain public order. He added that he hoped the land claims will be settled through dialogue.
Although most Rapa Nui simply want to recover their ancestors’ land and do not dispute Chilean rule of the island, an activist group called the Rapa Nui Parliament is calling for the Island’s secession and transfer of allegiance to Polynesia.
Rapa Nui protesters brandishing a the Rapa Nui flag on a in front of a parcel of property they say belonged to their ancestors. Photo sent by our Observer.
The Rapa Nui people are the native, Polynesian population of Easter Island, which was annexed by Chile in 1888. They are fighting to recover their ancestral lands, which they lost when the Chilean state leased 90% of the island’s territory to the British-owned Williamson-Balfour Company to use as a sheep farm. The Rapa Nui were confined to a tiny reserve in the Southwest corner of the island and lived in near slave-like conditions until the 1960s, when Chile terminated the contract with Williamson-Balfour. In 1966, the Chilean government granted the islanders citizenship and promised clan elders that they would recover at least part of their ancestral land. More than four decades later, the Rapa Nui are still waiting.
After years of fruitless protests and petitions to the Chilean government, members of various Rapa Nui clans decided to peacefully occupy parcels of land that they knew to be once owned by their ancestors. On July 27, protesters set up camps and planted the Rapa Nui flags in 14 locations around the island, including in front of various ministerial offices and the Hanga Roa luxury hotel. Since then, the activists have taken turns living on the occupied lands day and night, despite a first attempted eviction in September.
In November, the Valparaiso Court of Appeals [Easter Island is part of Chile’s Valparaiso’s district] rejected an appeal by the owners of Hotel Hanga Roa, occupied by the Hito clan, to evict the protesters from their premises, ruling that there was legitimacy to the Hito’s claim of ancestral ownership. But on December 2, an island court issued an order giving the activists 24 hours to vacate occupied lands. At 6 a.m. on December 3 (that is to say less than 24 hours later), a group of about 30 policemen armed with batons, pellet guns and real guns entered the compound occupied by seven members of the Tuko Tuki clan roused them from their sleep, and forcefully evicted them, sparking protests that were brutally repressed by police.
“This is the first time the simmering conflict between Rapa Nui activists and local authorities ends in bloodshed”
This is the first time the simmering conflict between Rapa Nui activists and local authorities ends in bloodshed, and on the Island have now reached a high point. I spoke to several Rapa Nui leaders: they are frustrated, and afraid of what will happen next. After all, what can activists armed with sticks do against riot police armed with guns? The Governor of Valparaiso, Raul Celis, arrived on the island Sunday following the violence, but he didn’t speak to any representatives of the Rapa Nui people. There is absolutely no effort on part of the authorities to enter in a dialogue to resolve the problem peacefully. Private investors and local authorities are intent on keeping control of the island because of its strategic position in the Pacific Ocean (Chile has plans to build new commercial ports and a second airport) and tourist appeal, but natives are concerned this so-called development will not benefit local populations.
For now the Rapa Nui are still occupying 12 sites across the Island, but on Sunday a military plane carrying police reinforcements was dispatched from mainland Chile, and governor Celis has warned that all other occupied sites will be evacuated.”