The recent violence on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui among its native people, is the latest chapter in a long story of systemic abuse perpetrated by the Chilean government against the indigenous people of Rapa Nui.
On Feb. 6, 50 Chilean armed police forcefully evicted the island’s Hito clan from the Hotel Hanga Roa, which they had peacefully occupied since August 2010 in protest of plans to develop tourist facilities throughout the island, claiming that said facilities would be built on ancestral lands. Five other evictions have occurred since last September, resulting in significant injuries to dozens of people and multiple arrests.
The genesis of this conflict dates back to 1888 when Chile signed a disputed treaty with the Rapa Nui people. Chile effectively took control of the island and confined the Rapa Nui people to a small area of land, approximately one square mile. In 1933, Chile unilaterally leased the remaining land to private sheep-herding enterprises while taking ownership of all untitled lands. Natives’ homes were burned, their livestock stolen and slaughtered, their women and children raped.
In 1966, Chile passed a law that authorized the president to grant land titles to the Rapa Nui people and prohibited the transfer of lands to non-indigenous individuals. However, land was illegally privatized and sold to mainland Chileans during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Today non-indigenous individuals and corporations possess most of the land. The Chilean government continues to favor private companies interested in exploiting the Rapa Nui culture for private gain instead of restoring the land to the Rapa Nui people.
In addition to the serious land right disputes, several other issues threaten the livelihood of the people of Rapa Nui. For example, roughly 50,000 tourists each year flock to Easter Island to view its 887 monumental statues called moai. Yet Chilean policies ignore the harmful effects of too much tourism. Most archeological sites, for example, have no visible fencing or barriers to protect the ruins from negligent tourists and vandalism.
Uncontrolled migration to the island has also caused widespread unemployment among the native people, exploitation of natural resources and increased pollution. Jobs related to tourism often go to continental Chileans. Fish and animal species are being depleted. Mountains of garbage are thrown into open pits or burned. There is sewage contamination and excessive energy consumption.
Since December, various international observers have expressed concern regarding the safety of the Rapa Nui people. The U.N. Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and myself have urged President Sebastián Piñera to avoid any preventative action of a violent nature. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights also ordered the Chilean government to "immediately discontinue the use of violent collective evictions, arrests and criminal prosecutions against the Rapa Nui clan members."
Although the violence has since abated, the atmosphere on Easter Island remains incredibly tense. Excessive police reinforcements from mainland Chile have been sent to the island to avoid public riots and a new occupation of the hotel. Chile continues to refuse to negotiate with the legitimate representatives of the Rapa Nui clans.
The Chilean authorities’ recent treatment of the Rapa Nui people violates international law and every standard of common decency. It is imperative that Chile works to promote a peaceful solution to the land claim issues that are central to this conflict. Chile must comply with its international human rights obligations as mandated by the United Nations Charter and the UN’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
I sincerely hope that President Barack Obama will support the indigenous rights of the Rapa Nui people during his planned visit to Chile this month.
The United States must be a leader in promoting democracy and human rights and must take a stand against the Chilean government’s abuse and mistreatment of the indigenous Rapa Nui people.