Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Easter Island, located approximately 2,200 miles off the west coast of Chile, is famous for its massive Moai statues, erected by the native Rapanui people of the island some seven centuries ago.

The first European explorers landed on Easter Island throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and recorded seeing the impressive stone carvings, but native islanders were not friendly to foreign contact. After a more forceful invasion by slave traders and missionaries in the mid-19th century, Easter Island was annexed by Chile, its closest continental neighbor, in 1888.

In recent years, overbearing tourism on the island and an influx of non-Rapanui Chileans (who now outnumber the islanders) have deeply strained the relations between Chile and this indigenous Polynesian group.

Much of the indigenous opposition to the Chilean government has focused on ancestral land claims. In 2010, a group of natives clashed violently with security forces as they were forcibly removed from sit-in protests at a new hotel and several other buildings. The Rapanui protestors claimed that the buildings were constructed over land that rightfully belonged to them.

Yet, the Rapanui have other causes for concern, especially with what they see as neglect from the Chilean government. Many islanders are frustrated with how the Chilean government has managed the island’s affairs, going all the way back to annexation. Many policy and infrastructure decisions concerning the island are currently made by regional authorities in Valparaiso. There is a recent push, however, by government officials in Chile to grant Easter Island more autonomy.

For some, even autonomy would not suffice. The parliament of the Rapanui peoples has begun formally seeking independence, claiming that the 1888 annexation treaty ought to be nullified due to mistreatment of the island on the part of the Chilean government.

The Rapanui parliament even crowned a new king in 2011, in an attempt to legitimize its claim to independence. The new king, Valentino Riroroko Tuki, is a direct descendant of the island’s last monarch, who died in 1898.

Riroroko Tuki fled the island to the Cook Islands in the 1950s, during a period of especially brutal oppression by the Chilean military. “This island was operated like a concentration camp,” he said.

The desire for independence on the part of some prominent Rapanui leaders is certainly not universally shared by all natives on the island. Some hold a more pragmatic view of the situation, as Chile currently supplies much of the modern resources that connect the island to the rest of the world.

Though their population is much smaller than many other native groups around the world vying for autonomy, recognition and independence, the prominence of tourism on the island has put a spotlight on the plight of the Rapanui.

Not only are the Chileans closely watching the tides of popular sentiment on the island, so are other members of the international community. France is facing similar problems in New Caledonia, their own Pacific overseas territory. Even the United Nations weighed in on the Easter Island conflict after the 2010 protests over land claims that ended in violence, as that body denounced “the use of force to resolve the island’s problems.”

These recent developments in such remote parts of the world are a lingering reminder that the ghosts of colonialism are still very much alive, even in the 21st century.