Indigenous peoples’ rights to autonomy and self-government: the case of Rapa Nui, Chile
An International Seminar to assess the global status and trends with regards to indigenous autonomies is taking place in Mexico City in March 2019.
This meeting follows the work developed by indigenous organizations and the organizing institutions over the last few years. In January 2018, at its annual Expert Meeting, the UN Permanent Forum was requested to compile information on indigenous autonomies and government systems in order to provide an overview of good practices, following a series of workshops held in Latin America on indigenous governments.
17 cases from the whole world have been collected and described in this publication: Indigenous peoples’ rights to autonomy and self-government >>
One of the described cases is the Rapa Nui from the Easter Islands in Chile;
The Rapa Nui people are the original inhabitants of Rapa Nui/Te Pito o Te Henua, also known as Easter Island. Some 6,000 people live on this island, of which around 60% belong to the Rapa Nui people.
Background to the creation of autonomy
The origins of the Rapa Nui people date back to the 5th century CE when Polynesians from Asia arrived at Anakena Bay. According to oral tradition, King Hotu Matu’a, accompanied by his sister, Ava Reipua, and his court, took possession of the island and distributed the land among his entourage, forming clans that generated a line that was to become the Rapa Nui people.
In 1722, the Dutch sailor, Jacob Roggeveen, named the place Easter Island. Throughout the 18th century, the European powers travelled to the island to obtain natural resources and slaves, encouraging the spread of sexually-transmitted infections. In 1860, Peruvian boats arrived to sell the island’s inhabitants as slaves. The few Rapa Nui that managed to make it back brought with them leprosy and smallpox, resulting in the virtual extinction of their people (a mere 111 inhabitants remained), and in the loss of the last Rapa Nui that could decipher rongorongo, their system of wood-carved writing. During the 1860s and 70s, there was strong interest in evangelising and colonising the island and cattle rearing companies were established.
Faced with the imminent opening of the Panama Canal, in 1888 Captain Policarpo Toro, representing the State of Chile, and the ariki or king, Atamu Tekena, supported by the Council of Rapa Nui Chiefs (tangata honui or kainga), signed the so-called “Voluntary Agreement”. Written in Spanish and Ancient Tahitian or Rapanui, the agreement stipulated the indefinite and unreserved cession of the island’s sovereignty to Chile, recognition of the investiture of the Rapa Nui chiefs by express reservation, recognition of the Rapa Nui’s property rights over the entire island territory and a commitment from the Chilean state to guarantee the welfare, education and development of the Rapa Nui people.
The Chilean state never kept its obligations under this agreement and, in 1933, all of the Rapa Nui lands were registered as property of the state. Chile thus took sovereign possession and confined the Rapa Nui people to the capital, Hanga Toa, with the aim of occupying the rest of the island for cattle rearing activities. The island was leased to companies who enslaved the population and subjected them to forced labour. In 1953, the island’s administration passed to the Chilean Navy, which created the so-called “lunes fiscal”, a system by which the Rapa Nui were obliged to provide unpaid labour and were punished severely if they failed to do so. In 1935, by means of various decrees, the Rapa Nui National Park was formed and the island declared a National Historical Monument.
Political aspects of the Rapa Nui autonomy
Rapa Nui is a non-self-governing territory whose colonial government is located in the regional capital of Valparaíso, 4,000 km away. It thus forms the Province of Easter Island and the municipality of Easter Island, the authorities of which are the provincial governor, reporting to the central administration, and the mayor who, together with the municipal council, are elected by popular vote.
Due to this overlapping of authorities, and because of the Rapa Nui people’s constant demand for political participation and effective control of their political institutions, not to mention other factors such as their geographical isolation and the archaeological and natural wealth of their heritage, a special status was approved for Rapa Nui by constitutional reform. This status does not guarantee their self-determination but does establish a model of government known as the Special Territorial Government. Nor does it guarantee their territorial rights as it does not envisage any mechanism by which to recognise their rightful ownership of the island territory.
The whole of Rapa Nui is claimed as ancestral territory by virtue of the people’s customs and laws. Situated on an underwater ridge 3,000 km long, a migratory route for large cetaceans and species of great commercial interest, its economic area is regularly violated by fishing boats illegally fishing its territorial waters.
To this day, only 13% of the island’s lands are under the control of the Rapa Nui; the rest are shared between a private commercial company aimed at exploiting the land and the Rapa Nui National Park, the 7,000 hectares of which are administered through a co-management agreement which, in practice, prevents the Rapa Nui from freely accessing their territory.
Through the Council of Elders and the Rapa Nui Parliament, the people have submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to obtain recognition of their rights to the lands and waters of Rapa Nui. In this, they specifically demand their ancestral property rights to their sacred places, which have been declared protected areas by the Chilean state and now form part of the Rapa Nui National Park. The IACHR has yet to assess the request as admissible.
Another demand of the Rapa Nui people is to be able to control migration through a special status aimed at preserving the island’s fragile ecosystem. If the population is not regulated, the island could suffer irreversible environmental damage. It is worrying that the island’s population has grown by 86% in 20 years (1996-2012) when, nationally, the population has grown by only 63%.
In terms of their full realisation of the right to self-determination, in accordance with international law governing the decolonisation process, the Rapa Nui people are claiming their right to their ancestral territory of Te Pito o Te Henua. They therefore aspire to be included on the list of non-self-governing territories recognised by the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, without this affecting the territorial integrity of continental Chile.
The Rapa Nui people are also exploring other institutional agreements that could govern their relationship with the Chilean state and which might enable them to gain recognition of their right to self-determination. This comparative experience has raised the desirability of signing a modern free association treaty between sovereign states, which could meet the current demands of the Rapa Nui people, recognise their ancestral property, compensate for material and immaterial damages and establish their right to self-government.
Whatever the formula, the Rapa Nui people must establish the basis for exercising their autonomy with a view to building a special statute of self-determination. This sovereign process requires defining the institutions of autonomous government, building a community development project and assessing the changes required to the current systems of territorial management.
Tags: Land rights