Easter Island candidate puts self-rule on ballot in Chile election

Easter Island candidate puts self-rule on ballot in Chile election

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On the tiny Pacific outpost of Easter Island, the giant stone heads representing ancient ancestors face inland towards the island’s rolling green hills and volcanoes.

And ahead of general elections in Chile – which has ruled the island since 1888 – this unique place is once again looking inwards as it tries to wrest back power from the mainland.

In the market of the main town of Hanga Roa, the local Polynesian dialect mixes with Spanish as local candidate Annette Rapu Zamora greets voterswith a simple promise: to fight for greater self-rule for Rapa Nui, the local name for the island.

Annette Rapu Zamora, the first Easter Island woman to run for Chile’s house of representatives.



Annette Rapu Zamora, the first Easter Island woman to run for Chile’s house of representatives. Photograph: Handout

Sunday’s general election is unlikely to throw up major shocks, with centre-right candidate Sebastián Piñera expected to return to the presidency he held from 2010 to 2014, but Rapu will make history as the first Easter Island woman to run for a seat in the house of representative. And whether or not she wins, her campaign has already focused attention on Chile’s history of neglect and broken promises towards its most distant community.

“Rapa Nui needs administrative autonomy,” says Rapu, back on the island following three weeks of campaigning on the Chilean mainland. She argues that Chile needs to change its constitution to allow for autonomous rule in its regions – and that Easter Island should be recognized as a self-ruling region.

Rapu has focused her professional career on teaching Rapa Nui language and culture, both of which she says are threatened by the growing number of tourists and Chilean nationals looking to relocate to Polynesian climes.

“Today the Rapa Nui are a minority in their own land,” she says. “We don’t want to become a mini-Chile, we need laws that protect our unique culture and heritage.”

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If elected, Rapu promises to push for tighter restrictions on tourism and immigration from the mainland, greater local control of the education syllabus to protect Rapa Nui language and culture and a set of environmental policies designed to make the island more sustainable.

But she faces an uphill battle to reach parliament. Only 4,000 votes are up for grabs on the island, while she needs a minimum of 45,000 for a seat in the Valparaíso voting district, 3,600km away on the Chilean mainland.

In the face of such odds, other local figures are sceptical that Easter Island can achieve reforms via the ballot box.

“It’s almost impossible that a Rapa Nui will be elected to parliament,” says Pedro Edmunds Paoa, the combative mayor of Hanga Roa. “For 130 years we have been trying to dialogue with the Chilean state for the return of our lands and waters. I’ve worked with four presidents and they’ve all cheated the Rapa Nui people one way or another.”

In his office hangs a framed copy of the 1888 treaty signed by the Chilean government and Atamu te Kena, the tribal king of Rapa Nui. Under the terms of the treaty, Chile assumed sovereignty of Easter Island and committed to protect the island, respect local land rights and enhance the development of the island.

Pedro Edmunds Paoa, the mayor of Hanga Roa.



Pedro Edmunds Paoa, the mayor of Hanga Roa. Photograph: Handout

Edmunds Paoa says that the latter two terms of the treaty have been blatantly disregarded. First, Rapa Nui was rented to a private company for 80 years and, in more recent times, the Rapa Nui national park – home to the famous Moai stone heads – has been administered from Santiago and its revenues siphoned to the national treasury.

Outgoing president Michelle Bachelet will visit the island in late November to hand over joint administration rights to the park for a concession period of 50 years. But the negotiation of this agreement was made with a government body in which Chileans outnumber Rapa Nui – rather than the honui, the traditional local government made up of elders from the island’s 36 clans.

“This is another trick by Chile’s agents,” says Edmunds Paoa. “We want the definitive return of our sacred sites – which they call a park – these are our tombs, there lie our bones!”

Edmunds Paoa favors a different approach and in 2014 his team began two legal processes in the United Nations.

The first seeks compensation for the historical human rights abuses suffered by the Rapa Nui people, the second – and more complex case – calls for the decolonization of the island under resolution 1541 of the United Nations general assembly.

Chile, Easter Island, Hanga Roa, Hanga Roa fishing harbour



Chile, Easter Island, Hanga Roa, Hanga Roa fishing harbour Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

“I don’t advocate independence for Rapa Nui, but if we go down the path of decolonization I would welcome a referendum that allows the people of the island to choose their own path,” he said.

During Piñera’s previous administration Hanga Roa witnessed violent conflicts between Rapa Nui and the Chilean armed forces.

But Rapu believes a political solution is still possible. “The Rapa Nui people need a voice in the Chilean parliament, to be part of the lawmaking process and to expose the problems our community faces,” says Rapu. “Even if I don’t win the seat, my candidacy is historic and opens the door to a new generation of islanders to follow the cause.”



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