Recent unrest on Rapa Nui: a commentary

Sign calling for independence. In background, a camp set up by protesters on the lawn of the municipal government building (August 2010). Credit C. Mondragon

At the start of the 21st century there are just over 3,000 Rapa Nui people living on the island…a majority of them do not feel they are Chilean. […] They also do not consider themselves to be “indigenous people”, because they do not accept comparisons with [Amerindian minorities such as] the Mapuche or Aymara. They identify themselves as Polynesians: another race, another culture, other customs. […] They are and consider themselves to be unique.

Translated excerpt from the book Rapa Nui: Náufragos del Planeta, Malú Sierra

(2003, p. 118)


Mano dura con estos delincuentes!!!  Isla de Pascua es Chilena!!!  no de un par de indios flojos que quieren todo Gratis y se niegan a trabajar.

What these delinquents require is an iron fist! Easter Island is Chilean! [It doesn’t belong] to a couple of lazy indians who refuse to work and want everything for Free.

(Online comment by a Chilean reader regarding the unrest on Rapa Nui)


“Yes, they want their ancestral lands back. So that they can then turn around and sell them!”

From a conversation I had with a Chilean public servant on Hanga Roa in August 2010.


I am writing this as a rapid first impression of recent events on Rapa Nui, which touch on issues that I hope to address in a research project that I intend pursue next year on the subject of contemporary Rapa Nui* struggles and identity issues.

In brief, a few days ago several international news outlets (e.g. the beeb) reported that there had been clashes on Easter Island between “Chilean police” and local protesters in the context of an ongoing land dispute over what the Chilean government defines as “fiscal” or federal property – meaning both plots of land and the government infrastructure on it. Local Chilean newspapers offered a few additional details (see here and here for online articles from the national daily La Tercera which offer some additional context in terms of specific sites and a very brief summary of local demands.) In the main, the impression that these news will have offered to the average

Wounded Rapa Nui protester. Image taken from La Tercera newspaper.

international audience will have been that there is some sort of land dispute on Easter Island that was dealt with through the use of force; the interpretation of this use of force was cast in slightly negative terms in the international media, but in generally positive terms by national Chilean media. In both cases, however, the context in which these events developed has been left in relative ambiguity.

I am therefore motivated to offer some commentary regarding these events, with a view to unpacking some of the very local, hence largely unreported, complexities behind them. This seems pertinent, among other things, because, as is usually the case in tensions arising from processes of recognition or indigenous struggles among minority groups, much of what passes for public opinion (in this case in Chile) seems to repeat a simplified set of prejudices and misunderstandings relating to the intentions and ulterior motives of the protesters in question, and, by extension, of Rapa Nui people in general.

Follwoing are a few summary points that are worth considering:

  • The current dispute is not simply a “land disupte”. It encompasses a number of key demands in respect of the way in which a majority of Rapa Nui (i.e. not just the protesters who occupied government buildings and plots of land) want their island to be administered. These demands include,
  • The introduction of a legal migratory procedure, internal to Chile, which would place specific controls over the numbers of outsiders – mostly mainland Chilean citizens – who would be allowed to come to Easter Island with the intention of settling down for long periods or even permanently. This demand is not new, it has been around since the late 1980s, and is motivated by ongoing anxiety over three principal problems, first, large numbers of continental Chileans who have moved to Rapa Nui over the past thirty years, second, the limited local resources available for infrastructural and population growth on Easter Island, especially in relation to clean water, and third, on the fact that immigrant outsiders tend to possess greater educational and labour skills, as well as financial means, and are therefore generally better placed to establish themselves as economically successful residents – to the detriment of locals, who often end up leasing their lands to outsiders but see little benefit in other sectors of the island economy.
  • There is a wide and diverse range of Rapa Nui opinion regarding the local administration of the island. In general, there appear to be a significant majority of locals who are unhappy with current arrangements, which consist of Isla de Pascua being treated as simply another municipality of the Vth Chilean region, which has its provincial capital in Valparaíso. On the moderate, even pro-Chilean government side of Rapa Nui opinion (mostly espoused by locals who have benefited from being civil servants), there is a desire for Easter Island to be given a greater degree of autonomy. This demand was formally addressed in 2007, when the Chilean parliament passed a bill that redefined Isla de Pascua as a “special administrative territory”. However, there has been no concrete follow up or consequence to this measure. Hence the demand is still on the table. On the more extreme side of local opinion, there is a vocal minority who advocate full independence. From what I gathered during my visit, as well as from various written sources, it appears that most Rapa Nui would like to see concrete steps toward greater autonomy, but not full-on independence. Many seem to fear that independence would relegate them to the status of a completely isolated, economic backwater.
  • And, finally, the issue of land, which is by far the most contentious and therefore the most obvious of the various demands. This issue is also mired in some controversy, and does not easily fall within any simple category of “land dispute.” So the rest of this post is directed at the history and context of the current claims and tensions.

As best as I have so far been able to determine, there were three key moments in the history of Easter Island that set the stage for the current unrest over land.

Satellite image of Rapa Nui.

The first was the official act of inscription (Federal registry) of what the Chilean government defined as “fiscal” (Federally owned) land on the island. This took place in 1933 and was carried out under Article 590 of the Código Civil (Chilean legal system), which declared that “all lands within the national territory that have no owner are considered “fiscal” land.” At the time, the Rapa Nui had been confined to a tiny reserve of land on what is now Hanga Roa and were not considered citizens of the Chilean Republic. In truth, they weren’t considered anything, and had no legal rights or entitlements. Hence the Chilean government effectively expropriated the entire 18,000 hectares of land on Rapa Nui.

Hanga Roa. Credit C. Mondragon

Much later, in the mid-1970s, the Pinochet regime attempted to reinstate a semblance of public order in what had clearly been a messy process in order to bring Easter Island into the national municipal system and carried out a limited form of land reform. Under this scheme, some Rapa Nui (who had finally been declared citizens with full rights and entitlements in 1967) were given land title to small plots, mostly corresponding to the land in which they had been residing in and around Hanga Roa. At the same time, 40% of the 18,000 hectares on Rapa Nui were declared a National Park and placed under the direct administration of the Conaf (National Park Service).

In principle, then (and this is one of the issues that are repeated over and over in the Chilean media and pointed to by Chileans as “proof” of the lazy “handout” mentality of the islanders), the Rapa Nui have already been given land title and there should be no more controversy surrounding this issue.

The problem, though, seems to lie in the fact that land title was allocated to individual owners, many of whom subsequently sold, subdivided, leased or otherwise alienated what, from a local perspective, are clan-owned lands. This, at least, is part of what I perceive is behind the current unrest, because most of the protesters who took over government buildings over the past few months are generally Rapa Nui in their 30s and 40s, therefore sons and daughters of those who received land title in the 1970s, and who are now effectively officially dispossessed indigenous residents on their own island.

This partly explains why they chose to occupy government buildings and infrastructure

Rapa Nui child outside his home; the size and overall appearance of the house is the norm on the island. Credit C. Mondragon

belonging to various nationally salient institutions, such as the Rotary Club or the banks. The basic claim they are making is that these buildings are sitting on top of land that was leased or otherwise alienated by a generation of Rapa Nui who did not think of the broader clan interest or in future generations. Moreover, the 1970s land reform process only benefited some of the 36 Rapa Nui clans on the island. In other words, it appears for several reasons to have been incomplete.

To a certain extent, it seems that the local provincial government in Valparaíso has understood this issue more or less as I have laid it out here. This is whey they, in turn, have sent successive negotiating parties to Rapa Nui to try to sort out what they refer to as a “second” land reform process, or also as the “proper completion” of the original land reform.

However, the problem goes beyond simply compensating or distributing land title to those who are protesting. To my mind, the protests have served as a sort of lightning rod around which all of the above claims, and several others, coalesce. It would take a further review of recent Rapa Nui history, especially in terms of how successive post-Pinochet administrations have dealt with Easter Island, to thoroughly explain the divisions within and among Rapa Nui, and the overall mistrust of government agents. In general, this mistrusts emanates from the sluggish, almost uninterested way in which previous provincial and national government agents have dealt with local grievances.

But more generally, it is my contention that these grievances are less to do with specific reforms to specific laws – be they migratory, economic, educational or territorial – and more to do with the fact that with the economic growth and international prominence achieved by Rapa Nui over the past three decades has come a growing sense of belonging and cultural identity among the islanders, which bears little relation to their condition of privileged Chilean citizens and much

Image credit C. Mondragon

more to do with their Oceanic roots.

In this respect, I believe that the current unrest will not easily be resolved by a few government concessions; currently, the sort of land reform that the provincial representatives have been talking about appears to be Byzantine, insofar as it is designed to not leave the government looking like it is caving in to the demands of a few greedy “Indians”. More likely, the unrest will continue to the extent that it is related to all of the previously explained demands and historical processes, but especially to the fact that Rapa Nui consider themselves, first and foremost, to be Polynesians, not Chileans or and Indigenous American minority.

To this extent, the Chilean government is unlikely to have gained anything by forcefully following the letter of the law and expelling “illegal occupants” through the actions of the National police (Carabineros).

More likely, to judge by the most recent reactions from even moderate Rapa Nui to the latest events, they have lost legitimacy at the same time as they generated a sense of communal solidarity among most islanders, who perceive the government as having been unnecessarily aggressive and heavy-handed in respect of an issue which has consistently been ignored, shelved or subjected to extremely sluggish provincial procedures and which could and should have been dealt with in a more efficient, dignified and respectful manner.

In sum, it is clear that the Rapa Nui are a far more united community when it comes to confronting aggressive actions from “outsiders” (usually government agents), and have reacted rather negatively to recent events. No surprise there…to anyone who considers matters of identity to be relevant. But then, the Chilean government has not precisely had a very successful history of sensitivity to the various Indigenous peoples who happen to fall under its territorial and political jurisdiction.

A map of Oceanic peoples, including Rapa Nui (Te Pito o te Henua), placed by Rapa Nui protesters in front of the municipal government house, Hanga Roa (Aug. 2010). Credit C. Mondragon

*Note the use of the ethnonym rapa nui, which is the official and widespread term by which indigenous islanders refer to themselves; note also that it differs from pascuense, which is generic for a person from the island, but but most often refers to non-indigenous residents of Easter Island, many of whom are simply called “contis”, for continentales, but can also be referred to pejoratively, in the Rapa Nui (Polynesian) language, as tire, “intruder” or “invader”, and mauku, “thief”. It is relevant to point out that tire may well relate to an ancestral form of the term for “stranger”, which was previously not an insult but a common form of referring to other Polynesians in the context of inter-island processes of conquest and ritualised domination. See Greg Dening’s masterful analysis of the role of Stranger (People of the Sea) and Local (People of the Land) in relation to how this opposition played out in Eastern Polynesia and especially Hawai’i, in pre-European times.

One Response to “Recent unrest on Rapa Nui: a commentary”

  1. Kenwyn Kawananakoa Says:

    I’d like to know what the United Nations is doing about the Chilean federal government’s dehumanizing treatment of the Rapa Nui people. These actions are tantamount to genocide and imperialism, much like the United States’ treatment of my native Hawaiian people and the theft of their democratic constitutional monarchy in 1893.

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