The Indigenous World 2021: Rapa Nui
The world has been suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic since the early months of 2020. This has resulted in catastrophic effects globally, with Indigenous Peoples suffering serious impacts not only on their health and the exercise of their right to health but also in terms of the social inequality they have historically suffered, and which has resulted in major consequences for the exercise of their economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
Against this backdrop, the Rapa Nui people last year set an example of how to address the pandemic, through coordinated work on the part of their leaders and use of their traditional knowledge.
Initially, on 17 March, 14 days after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Chile and in light of the Chilean government's refusal to take measures to protect the Rapa Nui territory, the people acted autonomously and in unity with their administrative and political authorities, such as the HONUI Clan Assembly, the Rapa Nui Parliament and the Municipality of Rapa Nui, to close their borders. The airport was taken over by protestors to prevent commercial flights from continuing to arrive without any kind of checks. Air is the only way to enter Rapa Nui, a small island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,700 kilometres from the coast of continental Chile, and which has neither the health professionals nor the infrastructure necessary for the day-to-day medical needs of the population let alone the capacity to face a pandemic of this nature.
The first case of COVID-19 on the island was confirmed on 23 March 2020. It was brought in by a tourist who had entered the island precisely at the time the Chilean government was being asked to cancel flights to Rapa Nui.
On 27 March, the Government of Chile finally decreed a lockdown on Easter Island due to the presence of five individual cases and the impossibility of tracing the infection’s transmission. Then, on 5 April, the government inexplicably announced an end to the lockdown, despite no change in the health situation, without first consulting the local authorities, and without any consideration for the different and particular features of this Indigenous territory. A constitutional appeal was filed through Chile's higher courts requesting an annulment of this measure, as it left the Indigenous people unprotected. The appeal was rejected by the Chilean courts on the grounds that the country was in a state of constitutional emergency and that this permitted the government to take whatever measures necessary, including limiting the rights of its citizens.
Faced with this abandonment by the government, the Rapa Nui authorities, together with the mayor, decided to invoke the ancestral law of their people through a measure known as Tapu, a concept that forms a sacred order based on coexistence and respect for the rules of nature. They called for a total and voluntary lockdown across the Rapa Nui territory. The entire community responsibly complied with the measure and, through the efforts of the people themselves, they managed to control the disease on their territory.
Once the pressure from the authorities had successfully led to the cancellation of flights to the island, however, this meant that hundreds of Rapa Nui were trapped on the Chilean mainland. A plan for a “Safe Return to Rapa Nui” was therefore conceived locally and autonomously, without any government assistance, in order to bring these people back to the island while avoiding the re-entry of the COVID-19 virus. This plan comprised an autonomous protocol and action team involving the entire community. It proved to be a success and has to date achieved the repatriation of more than 1,000 community members while keeping the territory free from COVID-19.
The socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have, however, been severely felt in Rapa Nui given that the local economy is based solely on the tourism industry, and this has been the sector most affected by the pandemic. Up until March 2020, two commercial flights would arrive daily in Rapa Nui bringing more than 120,000 tourists per year. The cancellation of flights has caused the economy to collapse and resulted in a state of complete unemployment.
In addition, a large proportion of Rapa Nui's food and supplies arrive by air. With no tourist flights (only cargo), the cost of products rose sharply and, added to the lack of income, this has affected much of the island. It should be noted that the Chilean government has refused to send food or donations to the Rapa Nui people, despite several requests from local leaders.
Faced with this bleak outlook, the Rapa Nui people – who have an incredible history of resilience and survival down the ages – turned to producing their own food: growing vegetables and going fishing, and this has enabled them to autonomously and self-sustainably survive all these months of pandemic and total closure of borders, a situation that continues to this day.
In addition, the Municipality of Rapa Nui established an unprecedented job creation programme, allocating its entire budget to providing work for more than 700 inhabitants based around five themes: promoting food security; renovating and maintaining public spaces; safeguarding and promoting cultural values; supporting local entrepreneurs, mentors and contractors; and strengthening the information, security and social protection system. A large number of workers from the Maú Henua Indigenous Community, the body that runs the Rapa Nui National Park, who had lost their jobs, were thus re-employed.
This pandemic has brought into focus the situation of state neglect faced by the Rapa Nui people, whereby basic rights such as access to telecommunications, connection to the outside world, supply and transfer of cargo, are all totally dependent on private and transnational companies. Another major problem has been the lack of autonomy that the people have over their territory. This prevents their traditional authorities from taking decisions in the best interests of the community and forces them to depend on the decisions of government authorities located thousands of kilometres away on the continent, taken in ignorance of the Rapa Nui reality.
Exercise of the Rapa Nui people's rights to self-determination and territorial rights over their own island has become an important necessity and forms the priority demand of their people through national and international bodies today.
Benjamin Ilabaca D., Rapa Nui Lawyer, Legal Director of the Municipality of Rapa Nui, Legal Advisor to the Rapa Nui Parliament and member of the OHCHR’s Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Programme.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 Appeal for Protection, Case No. 11,033-2020, Valparaiso Court of Appeal.