BUENOS AIRES, Argentina » A military plane carrying riot police reinforcements landed on Easter Island Saturday, and Chile’s Interior Minister said they will continue evicting Rapa Nui islanders who have been squatting in government buildings built on their ancestral properties.
Dozens of people were wounded by police buckshot and batons after violently resisting the first such eviction on Friday on the usually tranquil South Pacific island, where as many as 50,000 tourists come each year to see the Moai – huge stone heads carved by the Rapa Nui’s ancestors.
Documentary filmmaker Santi Hitorangi, who dug 14 pellets from his backside after police shot him while he videotaped the clash, said the atmosphere remained tense on Saturday, with families squatting in a dozen other properties refusing to back down despite the police pressure.
"The arrival of the C-130 cargo plane with more police and armed swat teams adds to the psychological duress that’s happening here," Hitorangi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "What happened yesterday is their way of trying to stop any attempt of the Rapa Nui people to reassert their right to the land. All we’re asking for is title to the land. It’s a rightful claim. We are not asking the government for anything else."
About 2,200 of the tiny island’s 5,000 residents are Rapa Nui, and many of them feel squeezed out by the tourism boom, fearing the Chilean government, which annexed the island in 1888, now wants to turn the land into something like a theme park for the benefit of outsider companies whose profits flow offshore.
With decades-long disputes over property ownership seemingly going nowhere, some Rapa Nui have taken matters into their own hands, seizing properties they said were illegally taken from their families generations ago.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter traveled to the island Saturday to oversee matters, saying that the threat that land seizures pose to law and order cannot be allowed to continue.
"There is a limit to these things and it was reached when there are illegal takeovers that cause damage to the island," Hinzpeter told the daily La Tercera newspaper. "The police forces acted in compliance with a court order. That’s how institutions function, and we all must follow them."
Hinzpeter added that the government "has acted with patience and prudence; we’ve put forth a plan to invest $250 million in Easter Island – 20 times more than what was invested in the last 20 years." He also said a government effort to negotiate the land dispute has suggested solutions.
But Rapa Nui activists fear the investments will benefit outsiders, not islanders, and said the negotiators have refused to meet with them.