Easter Island – Saving the Rapanui

REPORTER: NICK LAZAREDES

Just a few hundred years ago, the people of Easter Island were facing certain death – a disaster of their own making.

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By cutting down every tree on the island to move their unique, but heavy statues, they destroyed the ecology of the land. Starvation and warfare decimated the population. Now, despite bouncing back from their brush with extinction, the Rapanui people are under threat once again.

PETERO EDMUNDS, MAYOR, EASTER ISLAND: This is a civilisation that every day is potentially dying and so my question is to the world – Do you really want us to die? Do you really want to kill us?

EDGARD HEREVERI, RAPANUI TOUR OPERATOR (TRANSLATION): The islanders are being manipulated by foreign interests. The pressure is huge. There are all sorts of pressures, not only political, but also economic and social pressures.

At their annual festival, the people of Easter Island celebrate their Polynesian culture. For the indigenous people of Easter Island, survival of their race – the Rapanui – is now their primary concern. Only 4,000 Rapanui remain on Easter Island and, although their roots are exclusively Polynesian, the island is ruled from the South American continent. The Rapanui people call their island The Navel of the World and indeed it’s one of the most remote inhabited islands anywhere, Equidistant from French Polynesia and South America, Chile, which rules the island, is almost 4,000km away.

WOMAN (READING PARLIAMENTARY DECREE): “All the unfair laws that we have been subjected during this nation’s history have enslaved us by encroaching on our way of life and of thinking.”

Now the political struggle of the Rapanui people is being announced to the world. At the self-styled Rapanui Parliament, the island’s elected chiefs listen to their latest decree, blasting Chile over its poor treatment of the islanders. The chiefs don’t want independence from Chile. They simply want autonomy and the right to determine their own affairs. Tired of being ignored by the Chilean authorities, the Rapanui have taken their political struggle to the United Nations. They want Easter Island listed for decolonisation – a crucial first step to end Chile’s colonial rule.

PETERO EDMUNDS: Many things has been done behind of our back, without the knowledge of the people, in a way, very aggressive way, in our point of view.

PETERO EDMUNDS (SPEAKING IN PUBLIC, TRANSLATION): Come together, people of Rapanui! We are all Moai people, let’s not fight amongst ourselves! You who are not with us, I yearn for you…night and day.

Leading the political campaign is the Mayor of Easter Island, Petero Edmunds. He believes that Chile has never accepted that the Rapanui are a distinct culture that should be preserved.

PETERO EDMUNDS: Easter Island is another nation, is a civilisation, but again our system, our law, our Constitution says that we are united, we are one sole country. I find that a very hypocritical way of placing us and, starting from that point, we are discriminated, we are discriminated in many ways.

Unlike other examples of colonialism in the Pacific, Chile has not been generous with services and infrastructure on the island. Although it has a sizeable army and naval presence here, few roads in the island’s town are paved and municipal services are primitive. Until quite recently there was no high school here either. But with a ramshackle hospital, a couple of non-specialist doctors and thousands of miles from help, the greatest concern here is health.

PETERO EDMUNDS: The people of Easter Island, they have a saying, “If you want to die quick, go to the hospital.” So really, were being treated like children, not really like healthy children, like a moron children, that’s the way we were treated on the island by the different governments of Chile.

As bizarre as it seems, Easter Island is considered an extension of the Chilean mainland, no different from any other small town in the country. It’s run from the administrative port city of Valparaiso, where all the key decisions about the island are made. According to Chilean law-makers, that is not about to change.

JORGE BUSCH, CHILEAN SENATOR: (TRANSLATION): The island was not occupied by force, it was not occupied by military force. It was incorporated under the treaty, as we said. It was incorporated voluntarily.

Senator Jorge Busch is a former admiral of the Chilean Navy who believes that the Rapanui people’s campaign to decolonise the island is pointless with no legal basis.

JORGE BUSCH: I think there’s a lot of exaggeration because it suits some people to blow up an unreal situation. There’s no colonising process that could serve as an argument before the Decolonisation Committee of the United Nations. The situation is completely different.

The Rapanui have now taken their political campaign into the video age. In producing the island’s first video music clip, the group Matatoa are hoping to use this very modern medium to help preserve a very ancient culture. But the new campaign for international attention is not going down well on the mainland.

PETERO EDMUNDS: Many times we have to silence ourself, because you know, Chile might get mad, or might block some kind of help to us, to the people of the island.

As the Mayor, Petero Edmunds clearly has the highest profile here and he’s not shy about speaking out against the Chilean authorities and their absolute control over island affairs. But his public statements have angered many people in Chile, sometimes resulting in serious threats to his safety.

PETERO EDMUNDS: Sometimes I’ve been threatened, but I don’t care. I believe in God, I’m an eternal being, I don’t care about my flesh and my bones. I know some day if they kill me, well, they kill the bones and the flesh, but they don’t kill my soul.

So when you say you’ve been threatened, you’ve been physically threatened?

PETERO EDMUNDS: Yes, because of speaking about autonomy because Chile doesn’t want the island to be autonomy.

EDGARD HEREVERI (TRANSLATION): We have no cultural links with South America. Our values, our traditions and our customs are linked to Polynesia. It’s not a matter of gaining independence, it’s a matter of cultural values. We’re now facing a serious problem which is causing the island’s collapse, and that is the lack of control of the migrants who come to the island.

The crater of Easter Island’s famous volcano quarry is one of the Rapanui’s most sacred sites. It’s where all of the island’s Moai statues come from. Edgard Hereveri comes here at least one a week to be alone. In this place, he says he can sense the spirits of his ancestors and take strength from the ancient Moai statues. As a Rapanui tour operator, Edgard sees the core issue as persuading the Chileans that something has to change if the Rapanui identity is to be preserved.

EDGARD HEREVERI (TRANSLATION): This is an SOS call. Please, help us! The big problem we’re facing on the island is convincing the Chilean State that we need autonomy. And its very difficult to convince the State because it’s very close-minded. How can these people understand the value of the Rapanui culture?

Chile’s human rights record on Easter Island has had a troubled history. In the 1950s and ’60s, when the Chilean Navy ruled the island, it was made an offence for a native islander to speak rudely to a Chilean. After breaking this law, many Rapanui, including children, were publicly flogged and had their heads shaved. Nowadays Chileans accept the punishments were harsh but they argue that a problem with excessive alcohol consumption by the Rapanui was to blame.

JORGE BUSCH: What happened was that when alcohol arrived or was produced on the island, there was disorderly conduct, and the standard penalties could not be applied because the indigenous code and indigenous law allowed penalties according to local custom.

But by the mid-’60s the Rapanui had had enough of the heavy-handed Chilean authorities. This rare silent footage was shot by a Canadian medical expedition to the island in 1965, when the islanders marched on the offices of the naval-appointed governor. It was a peaceful protest but, sensing a revolt, hundreds of troops were sent to the island to reassert control. Today that sensitivity remains, even extending to the Rapanui’s official relationships with some of their closest Pacific neighbours.

PETERO EDMUNDS: We like to be friends, directly friends, with the people of Australia, with the people of New Zealand, with our brothers in the Pacific. I mean, even that, they prohibit us. We can’t even be friends with our brothers in Tahiti.

Even Polynesian cultural events attract suspicion from the Chilean authorities, especially if foreigners are visiting. Just a couple of years ago, when the Bishop of Tahiti visited the island, the Chilean military sent an investigator to monitor his movements. Angry that such a visit might lead to feelings of Polynesian nationalism, the Chilean government officially rebuked the Catholic Church for sanctioning it. Mayor Edmunds says the Chilean sensitivity makes communication with the outside world extremely difficult.

PETERO EDMUNDS: We have to be hidden and make some kind of special program so they don’t get, you know, suspicious that there’s some kind of independence movement. I mean, how ridiculous – really ridiculous.

But on the mainland there are no apologies for Chile’s strict rules governing official visits to the Rapanui.

JORGE BUSCH: So when someone shows up with ecclesiastical authority, regardless of their rank back in Tahiti, they must comply with established entry requirements to do with policing, customs, immigration, etc. and then they can settle. If a person wants to perform religious ceremonies, the relevant religious authority in Chile must be notified.

The Rapanui have never accepted that Chile has a legitimate claim to sovereignty over the island. A treaty was signed in 1888 but it was written in both Spanish and a version of the local language. While the Spanish version talked about Easter Island as becoming part of the Chilean state, the Rapanui version simply described Chile as a friend of the land, with no mention of sovereignty. Not long after the treaty was signed, Rapanui’s last king was poisoned on a trip to the mainland. For the Rapanui, the experience of colonisation in the 19th century lurched from one disaster to another.

JUAN CHAVEZ: This ship arrived here on 23 October 1862. 192 slaves were put on board to be sold in Peru. The trip took 14 days.

Juan Chavez often paints about Easter Island’s tragic past. This picture reflects the vicious slave raids on the Rapanui in the 19th century. As one of the island’s chiefs, he sees himself as a guardian of the Rapanui history. But Juan says that even when it comes to the island’s most precious archaeological treasures, Chilean authorities show scant regard for their survival. A Japanese-funded UNESCO project gave $7 million to Chile for preservation work on the island, but only $1 million filtered through.

JUAN CHAVEZ (TRANSLATION): But the money is spent on the mainland, although the Rapanui name was used to get it. It was going to be used to repair the Moai, but the money never arrived.

With more than 1,500 major archaeological sites, Easter Island is one of the biggest open-air museums in the world, but the open air is destroying it. Harsh weather conditions and fungus are rotting many of the island’s precious Moai. A German company was found with the expertise and a special polymer to protect the Moai, but the project was blocked.

PETERO EDMUNDS: And when we come to the paperwork, bureaucracy from Chile stopped it. I mean, I’m calling for help because this heritage is destroying, not by the cause of the people, by the cause of the weather.

But the effort made to preserve their unique archaeological heritage is just one of the Rapanui’s struggles. In recent years, there’s been a strong emphasis on preserving the broader culture through a revival of the Rapanui language, but even that is under pressure from the mainland.

NANCY WEBER, LINGUIST: There was a sense, at least a general common sense that the language was being restricted because the Chileans were interested that everybody learnt Spanish.

Few Westerners have witnessed the struggle of the Rapanui first-hand like American couple Ron and Nancy Weber. Both linguists, they’ve lived on the island for almost 20 years, solely dedicated to the task of keeping the Rapanui language alive.

RON WEBER, LINGUIST: It’s true that the Rapanui language is eventually going to probably pass from the scene, as more and more Chileans come in, as there’s more intermarrying. To see fewer languages, that would just make a whole lot of things easier, but of course that’s without thinking about the importance that language is to culture, and language and culture both are to the identity of the Rapanui. And for them maintaining their Polynesian identity, staying connected to the rest of Polynesia, maintaining their own separateness as a people, the language is crucial to the maintenance of their culture.

But preserving the language has many barriers. All official business is in Spanish and unrestricted immigration from the mainland is creating a demographic time-bomb for the Rapanui.

EDGARD HEREVERI (TRANSLATION): We’ve had a cultural shock here. Many have been off the island and can understand and withstand these changes, but many young people have never left the island. They can’t cope with change because they have no reference point.

There’s a widespread feeling amongst the Rapanui that now is the time to act. They recognise that they are too remote and too small to push for full independence, but they are demanding autonomy from Chile with full control over education, immigration and natural resources.

EDGARD HEREVERI (TRANSLATION): We need a huge leap forward, because this is the time to do it. If we don’t do it now and continue to rely on an old bureaucratic system, we could be finished, we could die, we could vanish.

Having survived against the odds in pre-colonial times, the Rapanui of today are determined to follow the lead of their ancestors.

PETERO EDMUNDS: They showed us, with the very little means they had. Today we have cars, we have clothes, we have telephone, we have shovels, we have hammers. We have all the tools that we need. Then, they didn’t have any of those, I mean, with stone, intelligence and they did all this wonder. Why we couldn’t do it today with all the modern tools? So I believe it’s possible but we need a little freedom.