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Locals Say too Many Tourists Risk Ruining Easter Island's Iconic Head Statues

Members of the Rapa Nui indigenous group who are pushing for tougher immigration rules say neither the island, nor its mysterious Moai heads, can sustain the number of settlers and visitors it attracts.
Foto di Ian Salas/EPA

Easter Island's Moai heads, volcanoes, beaches, and isolation, give it a special place in global tourism — but an increasing number of residents and officials from the Rapa Nui indigenous group say they want to stop people from coming.

"This is not phobia," said the island's mayor, Pedro Edmunds Paoa. "This is a practical way of looking at things."

Easter Island is six times smaller than Hawaii, and can't sustain its economy or infrastructure without the two commercial airplanes that arrive each day from mainland Chile, 2,200 miles away. The island also relies on three cargo ships that deliver monthly supplies to a population that has been swelled by outsiders attracted by the weather, jobs in tourism, and low crime.


Census data revealed the island's population jumped from just under 3,000 residents to nearly 4,000 between 1992 and 2002, and has already surpassed the 6,000 mark that it was projected to reach in 2020.

Easter Island also receives 100,000 annual visitors. Officials last year said this was the absolute maximum the island can sustain, though it is expected to triple in the next four years, according to a study done by the National Indigenous Development Corporation.

A law to control the flow of visitors and residents to the island has been in discussion in Chile's congress since 2000, but has never come close to passing — in part because the Rapa Nui did not believe certain versions of it were strict enough.

Also, an article in Chile's constitution, which previously granted all citizens the right to live, stay, and travel within the country as they pleased, was altered in 2012 so as to treat Easter Island as an exception.

Then, in 2014, President Bachelet suggested the Rapa Nui Commission for the Development of Easter Island (CODEIPA) design its own immigration project proposal. This was approved by the Rapa Nui community in January and may be considered by a Chilean congress later this month.

An immigration law structured under the current project proposal would decrease the amount of time a visitor can stay from three months to 30 days, which can be cut to 15 if the island is struggling to accommodate the population. LAN Airlines — the only carrier that flies to Easter Island — would have to adjust the quantity of tickets sold in accordance with the island's varying carrying capacity, a CODEIPA attorney said. An official for LAN did not respond to requests for comment.


Though existing law already states that only Rapa Nui can legally own land or property on the island, the proposed changes would mean that "continentals" looking to rent and work would have to undergo a far more stringent approval process that for the first time would place a limit on the duration of their stay — most likely three years.

Related: Violence Between Landowners and Chile's Indigenous Is Only Getting Worse

Paula Vega, who moved to the island with her husband ten years ago and works in the tourism industry, said she doesn't know what she will do if the stricter regulations are approved.

Mayor Paoa — who said people would in fact be forced to leave in some situations — justifies the proposals by insisting that if measures are not taken now it will soon be too late to accommodate overpopulation in a way that doesn't involve relocating sacred sites. He argues that there are over 20,000 sites spread across the island but, because only the best-known receive protection from the Chilean authorities, most are exposed to mistreatment.

"Chile is a vast and great territory and you have lots of places to build," Paoa said, "and in this place, you don't."

Julio Haoa, 41, who works as a guard, said visitors don't usually damage the sites, but do often display a general lack of respect for them.

"I say, 'please sir, get off this site because it's sacred', and they say 'no, I came all the way over here and paid a lot of money to see them,'" Haoa said. "They think that gives them the right to do what they want."


(Photo by Max Radwin/VICE News)

As well as accusing the Chilean authorities of pursuing policies that have led to unsustainable population growth on the island, some also complain they are not being permitted to express their concerns. They cite the violent repression of an anti-immigration march in 2011.

Such incidents — as well as resentment over inter-marrying and the use of Spanish in place of the indigenous language — has led some residents to more extreme positions.

The Rapa Nui Parliament, an activist group that isn't a parliament at all, shut down the national park for two months from March last year, arguing that the Chilean authorities were doing a poor job. "This is the protection of culture," said Mario Tuki, a member of the group who was arrested during those protests. "Chile is a rich multicultural country, but it is full of thieves and liars, and we don't want that for our island."

The Rapa Nui Parliament is also taking legal action within the Chilean court system with the aim of obtaining increased autonomy and the restoration of ancestral territories. Tuki said he expect them to lose this, and then take their case to international fora.

Related: More Than Half the Men on This Tiny Pacific Island Have Been Convicted of Child Sex Crimes

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