Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Location: Easter Island (south-east Pacific Ocean)
Population: 1,500
% of population: 80%
Religion: Indigenous Rapanui beliefs
Language: local Polynesian, Spanish

The inhabitants of Rapa Nui, known more widely as Easter Island, are a Polynesian people who for the past century have lived under Chilean administration. Rapa Nui is a small Pacific island to the west of the South American mainland. In 1982 Rapa Nui’s population was 1,936, of which about 1,500 were classified as “indigenous” by Chile’s Office for Indian Affairs.

Rapa Nui was first occupied by Polynesian and/ or Pre-Incan peoples over one thousand years ago. They produced the moai, or giant stone statues, for which the island is famous, during what is known as the “Golden Era”. The moai continue to play an important role in the religious and political life of the Rapanui. There was only sporadic contact with Europeans until 1862 when Peruvian slavers took 1,500 people to the mainland. Rapanui who escaped and returned to the island carried infectious diseases which by 1877 had reduced the population from several thousand to 110. In 1888 the Rapanui were forced to sign a treaty with an officer of the Chilean navy under which the Government of Chile assumed administrative responsibilities in return for respect of Rapanui lands and culture. Despite this, however, the Rapanui were forced to work on Chilean plantations; in 1933 their lands were taken in the name of the state and by 1977, as a result of Decree Law 2885, they were left in possession of only 7% of the total land, the remainder becoming a National Park or in the ownership of an agricultural corporation.

Rapa Nui is administered as a Chilean province with a Governor, appointed by the Chilean President. The present governor is reported to have assumed a large amount of personal control over the island’s resources, including tourism, the major source of income. The Chilean government does not recognize as a representative body, the Rapanui Council of Elders, whose 35 members represent each of the Rapanui families. The Chilean authorities are reported to have increased their presence on Rapa Nui in response to recent efforts to regain land in accordance with the 1888 treaty. Before the 1988 national plebiscite in Chile the government made new subsidized housing available to islanders; in return the contract of purchase required that the buyers had to agree to vote for Pinochet. When the Chilean Navy visited the islands in September 1988 — the 100th anniversary of annexation — the Chairman of the Council of Elders was detained and islanders reportedly intimidated to prevent a boycott of the visit, which however was poorly attended. Apparently the Rapanui do not seek independence from Chile but a degree of cultural autonomy and control over land and cultural resources.