POSTED: 07:52 a.m. HST, Feb 07, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 07:56 a.m. HST, Feb 07, 2011
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Police on Easter Island raided the grounds of a luxury hotel Sunday to evict the last of dozens of indigenous protesters battling for ancestral lands and a larger share of profits from the tourists who come to see the Pacific Island's mysterious statues of giant heads.
A Rapa Nui clan's claims to the land under the new, $800-a-night Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa has won support from international human rights agencies, and it poses legal and political dilemmas for a Chilean government already criticized for its treatment of indigenous people on the mainland.
The Hito clan's attorney, Rodrigo Gomez, said the last handful of about 50 squatters were hauled off and jailed by police Sunday after they had tied themselves down in the lobby.
Police Maj. Fernando Lobos said all the Hitos were processed and freed pending a court hearing. He said officers were following an order to empty the property so that federal investigators could survey its condition.
Members and supporters of the Hito clan had been squatting on the grounds of the $50 million development since August, claiming the land was swindled from their illiterate grandmother and then illegally sold into private hands by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
They initially demanded recognition of property rights from the conglomerate that now owns the land so they could earn rent from the new hotel, insisting that Chile adhere to the international indigenous peoples treaty it signed in 2008, which requires governments to pay compensation for usurped land.
Their protest inspired nearly two dozen other native families to claim ownership of government properties on ancestral land. Police moved in with pellet guns and clubs in December to remove them in violent confrontations that injured more than a dozen islanders and several officers. Pictures of native women and men with bloodied heads were published internationally, shattering the tranquil image that attracts many tourists.
While dueling civil claims wind through Chile's court system, prosecutors have sought to persuade judges to charge 17 of the Hitos with trespassing at a hearing scheduled for Tuesday on the island.
Standing against the clan is the Schiess family, which runs one of Chile's most powerful private holding companies, Empresas Transoceanica.
The Hitos have opened a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington and won support from the United Nations. A Chilean appellate court, rather than approve the evictions, recognized that the two families have dueling claims that must be resolved by Chile's Supreme Court.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii on Friday urged Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to order the removal of police surrounding the hotel, and to provide food, water and medicine to the Hitos inside. James Anaya, the U.N. special investigator on indigenous rights, warned Chile that forcible evictions won't help resolve the situation peacefully.
Instead, Chilean police finally moved in Sunday morning.
"They knew we were going to win in court on Tuesday. This is a desperate move by the Schiess," Gomez said.
Jeanette Schiess, who runs the hotel project and is married to Empresas Transoceanica's chief executive, Christoph Schiess, said she couldn't immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday from The Associated Press. She has said in the past that the Chilean government should be responsible for any compensation, and while her family plans to make the resort a cultural center to benefit the entire Rapa Nui community, she won't negotiate with lawbreakers.
The Hitos' great-great-grandfather was among the Rapa Nui elders whose names appear on the 1888 annexation treaty, along with Chilean sailors whose ships were built by a company that is now part of the Schiess conglomerate.
The Rapa Nui civilization once numbered up to 20,000, with a written language, a royal family and an ancient culture centered on the awe-inspiring statues, which were carved from volcanic rock and moved around the island despite weighing tons apiece.
But internal strife, European conquests and Peruvian slave ships ravaged the population, and only 111 remained before Chile annexed the island, 2,300 miles off its coast.
The Rapa Nui population has recovered under Chilean rule, to about 3,500 natives and nearly 2,000 non-native residents. But the islanders were long treated as slaves or servants, herded into the island's small town of Hanga Roa by the Easter Island Exploitation Co., which claimed the rest of the land as a sheep ranch and kept the natives isolated from the outside world.
The native people were denied citizenship until 1966, and kept on small plots in town as the rest of the island became national property — and now a World Heritage site.
Chile's government, which also struggles to cope with land protests by the Mapuche Indians in Patagonia, insists it wants to honor indigenous rights and encourage the Rapa Nui to enjoy the fruits of booming tourism, which has grown to some 50,000 visits a year.
"The government of Chile has a debt with the Rapa Nui people. And we are prepared to take responsibility for this debt," said Raul Celis, who governs the island from Valparaiso, to The Associated Press.
He said that when Chile took over, "They were clearly in the process of extinction, at the point of disappearing. And it's possible that in the 122 years since the island has formed part of Chile's territory, that there have been moments when the state hasn't paid enough attention. That's why there's a debt. But we're trying to resolve it."
Celis said the Hitos never complained until the Schiess family invested millions developing a small, government-built hotel into a first-class resort. The Schiesses have said their title to the land is clear, but the Hitos say they the developers had to know islanders had tried for years to assert property claims despite unequal access to Chile's legal system. They argue that a 1979 law says only natives can own property on the island.
Celis also blames a few islanders for refusing to accept negotiations between the government and natives on four key issues: land rights, limits on residency by non-natives, economic development and a proposed law that would give the Rapa Nui more local control over their affairs, if not outright autonomy.
But Lorena Fries, who directs the government's Human Rights Institute and has an official watchdog role in such conflicts, says Pinera's administration could have avoided force by broadening the dialogue. Instead, she said, it picked compliant locals to make deals with and found ways of jailing the most outspoken.
"In response to any social conflict, this government shows a tendency of going to the extreme and criminalizing the citizens," Fries told the AP from the island after investigating the conflict.
Attorney Leonard Crippa of the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, which is building a case at the Inter American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States, also says outspoken islanders are deliberately left out.
"I'm representing more than 30 clans. Most were not participating in that dialogue," Crippa said. "They don't know what's being agreed to. The Chilean government promotes this peaceful dialogue, says it's working with the Rapa Nui people and will get results. But that's not true in reality."