A tiny speck in the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is the remotest inhabited place on earth. Its nearest populated neighbourhood, with 50 residents, is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 km away. The closest continental point on South America’s west coast is 3,512 km away. Annexed by Chile in 1888, the island has a population of 5,800 — of which about 3,500 consider themselves as indigenous — remnants of Polynesian ancestors who had incredibly drifted to this island around 900 AD. The rest are Chileans who have settled on the island to take advantage of its growing tourism industry and tax-free incentives. Though racially mixed beyond recognition, many of the natives, Rapa Nui, accuse Chile of illegally occupying their ancestral land and are resisting Chile’s “colonial” rule and exploitation. A minority group has formed the unrecognised Rapa Nui parliament with the objective of obtaining independence from Chile. In March this year, the “parliament” passed a resolution closing all archaeological sites in a bid to prevent the Chilean government from collecting the $60 from every foreign tourist that craves to see the mysterious Moai statues. Daily flights from Santiago and weekly flights from Tahiti fly in about 50,000 foreign tourists a year. Even before you land, politics takes the romance out of this isolated island.
Our beautiful guide, Tiare Edmunds, a mix of Rapa Nui, English, French and American blood, drove us along the shore of the only township, HangaRoa, no bigger than an Indian village, pointing out the Rapa Nui flags fluttering all over. A loaded cargo ship lay sleepily anchored off the coast. “The protesters have taken control of the port and are not allowing the ship to unload. They are demanding release of their arrested leaders,” said Tiare.
Matias Riroroko, the 72-year-old leader of the movement, and his daughter, Elisa, had been arrested for fraud at the Santiago airport a few days ago. They had in their possession 50 million pesos (about $ 71,500) that had allegedly been collected by activists from tourists entering the archaeological sites. We passed the wealthy leader’s sprawling resort and opulent residence located on a bluff commanding a noble view of the ocean. The local jail is conveniently located right behind his property.
On a trail festooned with flaming red flowers of the coral tree (Erythrina sp), we drove towards Puna Pau, a volcanic crater that provided the material for carving the topknots of the giant Moai statues. “Our fight is for control of our own resources,” said Tiare. “The Chileans take away the money earned from our assets instead of spending it on the island’s development. Unfortunately, we do not have good leadership to fight for our cause. Even the Rapa Nui, with inter-clan rivalry, are divided”.
On our way to Ahu Akivi, the seven sea-facing Moais that memorialise the seven navigators, the first Polynesian settlers, we pass billowing clouds of smoke rising from crackling fires. The Rapa Nui activists were scorching the land under management of CONAF, Chile’s National Forest Corporation.
That evening, at an ocean-front restaurant, while watching angry waves lash the rocky shore, we devoured bowlfuls of cold ceviche and platters of hot tuna. Dressed in a florid Hawaiian shirt and garlands of hibiscus around his neck and wrists, our waiter complained about the port blockade and shortage of supplies: “There is no diet cola on the island!” The hotel receptionist had been slowly building his house for the last three years and completion is still far away. “Everything is so expensive here. A bag of cement that costs $ 6 in Santiago costs $ 35 here! Freight adds $ 5,000 to the cost of every car sold on the island,” he said.
Next morning, Tiare brought the alarming news that the activists were planning to seize the airport to put further pressure on the government to release the arrested leaders. “Two years ago, on another issue, we had taken over the runway. I was also one of the protestors. We took chairs from home and squatted on the runway for two days. Then the Chilean interior minister came from the mainland, made some promises, and we lifted the blockade. Of course, those promises were never kept.”
Chile has poured oceans of money into Easter Island, but not all of it has yielded the best results. We drove past the swanky, newly-built government hospital. “The government has built this five-star facility, but there aren’t enough doctors. Chilean doctors don’t want to leave the mainland to work here,” said Tiare. “Two years ago, my sister nearly died during her delivery. In the doctor’s absence, a medical assistant badly botched up the caesarean procedure. She is to deliver another baby in two weeks. This time, she is not taking a chance. She’s flying to Santiago.”
The high slopes of RanoRaraku, the stone quarry and megalithic workshop where the prodigious Moai were carved and sculpted before their perplexing journey to various parts of the 25 km-long island, are set with statues. These sentinels have weathered centuries of storms. Today, they gaze in anxious dismay at their ancient land being torched by the burning fires.
Lunching on empanadas at Anakena beach, where the first Polynesians had landed, I got talking to a restaurant owner. He lamented that Chilean immigrants had also brought immoral values that were corrupting the Rapa Nui youth. “Besides drugs and drunkenness, there is theft. A few days ago, two kids stole an ATM machine! How they thought they could possibly get away with it on this small island, blows my mind. Yet, it took the inefficient Chilean police two whole days to catch them. Of course, the stupid kids could not figure out how to remove the cash from the machine,” he said.
Returning to HangaRoa, we saw hectic activity around a naval ship anchored in the restless sea. Helicopters, speedboats were ferrying men and material from the ship to land. Were these soldiers and military supplies meant to quell an impending riot, insurrection or revolution? My vagrant mind painted all kinds of hopeless scenarios.
Our third day was spent at Orongo, a ceremonial village located on the rim of a crater. Tiare was worried that the activists may have blocked the road and we would have to make a long, steep trek to the top of the volcano. When we made our approach at 10 in the morning, the unshaven activists manning the barricade were all drunk and sat wilted under the trees. They had no energy to enforce the blockade. “Nothing but a bunch of goons masquerading as freedom fighters,” observed Sharmila, my wife.
On August 28, it was decided that CONAF will take over the temporary management of the national park until a referendum, to be undertaken on September 25, would decide who will take over the archaeological sites and how the funds collected are to be spent. The unrecognised Rapa Nui “parliament” put a spoke in the wheel by declaring that it has to be a party in any decision. The voting has now been postponed to October 25. Meanwhile, Chile, jolted by earthquakes and tumbling copper prices, has bigger problems to address than the insignificant political storm in the middle of nowhere.
An author and adventurer, Akhil Bakshi is fellow, Explorers Clubs USA, fellow, Royal Geographical Society and editor, Indian Mountaineer