Easter Island barely juts out of the ocean over 2,000 miles away from the nearest continent. It’s one of the most remote places on Earth – Antarctica is far more accessible, almost as if the land called Rapa Nui by the locals wasn’t meant to have locals in the first place. Man didn’t make it to the island until nearly 1200 AD. When the first Europeans made it there in 1722, they found a famished population cowering on a completely deforested hunk of rock and dirt, living off rats for lack of canoes and thus the ability to fish. They were a shadow of whatever people first sailed to the island, their only connection to that ancestry being the 887 skeletal Moai that dot the landscape like gravestones. Easter Island is for the ghosts. It always has been.
In 1888, Easter Island became a special territory of Chile, and the relationship has been about as smooth as the island’s landscape. The natives were not even granted citizenship by their own government until 1966. Before that, until 1953, the entire native population (which had already been utterly decimated by various famines and raids) was forced to live in one settlement while the entire rest of the island was leased out as a sheep farm. It’s like Columbus for the modern century.
While relations have improved since then, Easter Island remains somewhat of an afterthought in Chile’s domestic policy. Maintenance of the national park falls to CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal), Chile’s national parks and forests service, which does not even employ a full time archaeologist in a park where archaeology is the sole draw. Instead, it collects a $60 entry fee and puts out fires where necessary.
And just like any population that feels voiceless, eventually a group rose to speak out. Enter: the Rapa Nui Parliament, a group numbering in the hundreds out of a population numbering only in the thousands. The Parliament, though not representing the views of the entire population, seeks to promote the Rapa Nui culture and autonomy, allowing them to take control of a heritage they see as being disrespected through a lack of attention. Furthermore, they seek complete independence from Chile, and to stymie the immigration process (currently, anybody with Chilean citizenship can move to the island, though only Rapa Nui can own land). It’s a radical movement that sprouts from what they see as a radical need.
They’ve been active, too. In March of this year, the Rapa Nui Parliament seized the national park and kicked out CONAF, setting up roadblocks to control the island. In August, they began to take over the original collection of entry fees. It was this action that spurred Chile to move against them, using police to flush the roadblocks and remove the Rapa Nui Parliament from power. CONAF is back in power, but they haven’t begun charging the entry fee again. It’s ultimately a stalemate, with proposals on the future of the national park to be held on October 25th.
But it ultimately doesn’t matter what happens in the next few weeks. Because either the Easter Island Independence Movement is doomed, or Easter Island is.
Easter Island is for the ghosts. The island simply can’t sustain itself, and it’s proven this from moment it was first settled. The Rapa Nui heritage involves a people who cut down all of their trees for agriculture, then ran out of wood for canoes, thus losing their ability to fish. They’re a cautionary tale about abusing your resources and biting the hand that feeds.
That’s not to say that the current independence movement is somehow doomed by the self-same pitfalls that befell the culture that inspired it. We are not the sins of our fathers. But the Rapa Nui Parliament have hardly shown the potential to rise above. When they began collecting the entrance fee instead of CONAF, they sheltered the money through a local hotel owner who had funded the movement. That hotel owner and his daughter were later detained at the airport, attempting to leave Easter Island with excess of 50 million pesos. They are currently being investigated for fraud, and the damage they’ve done to their own credibility can’t be eased anytime soon.
By all accounts, the movement won’t be the success its members want it to be. Already, locals are marching to support their Chilean ties (pictured above). While important changes are sure to be initiated, complete independence seems incredibly unlikely.
But let’s assume that the incredible happens. The Rapa Nui Parliament successfully lobbies its way to independence from Chile, and Rapa Nui is welcomed into the world as one of the smallest self-sustaining nations on the planet. How long could it truly be self-sustaining for?
For all the harm Chile has done to the island throughout history, it still benefits the inhabitants in the long run. According to Marcus Edensky, a local who runs both a travel agency and the local newspaper, “20% of the population has a Government-funded salary. The Government gives more money per capita to the people of Easter Island than it does to the mainland citizens. Chile also gives funds to native Rapa Nui people that have projects that in some way may help the culture, or may help their own economical situation.”
In the theoretical independent state, Easter Island would return to the survival tactics of its heritage, trying to run every aspect of the nation with no outside help. Would independence be possible? With the current population of around 6000, half of the work force would be needed just to maintain the land, without even considering how to make it flourish. According to Edensky, “the only way I feel this island could be run as an independent country is to have the population increase ten or even a hundred times of what it is now while exploiting the tourism to the fullest. In that scenario, I wonder how much would be left of the unique Polynesian culture we have here today though. Every gain comes with the loss of something else.”
The Rapa Nui Parliament wants to preserve the heritage of their ancestors, which is admirable on its own. But it seems to assure that completely, they would have to sacrifice the very thing they are fighting for. There are no guarantees. Like Scotland recently, Easter Island may need to bring itself to the precipice of independence before realizing that it’s ultimately not in it’s best interest. Easter Island has always been for the ghosts. Maybe the key to their survival is depending on the living.
Special thanks to Marcus Edensky of Easter Island Travel for giving information for this article.