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For Chile, Colossal Trouble On Easter Island
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For Chile, Colossal Trouble On Easter Island

Latin America

For Chile, Colossal Trouble On Easter Island
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More than 2,000 miles west of Chile lies one of South America's most famous destinations: Easter Island. It's best known for its mysterious, pre-Columbian stone statues, but the descendants of the people who made those statues, the Rapanui, have a modern-day conflict with the Chilean state.

When Chile took over, the Rapanui were pushed off their lands. They say outsiders now control the island, including its lucrative tourism industry. And one family is taking a stand, as Annie Murphy reports.

ANNIE MURPHY: Set on a breathtaking rocky point that juts out into sapphire-blue water, the Hanga Roa Hotel is a luxury eco-resort and spa - at least it was supposed to be, until the Hito clan took it over.

On this day, dozens of men, women and children were camped out on the lobby's couches. Theyve evicted hotel staff and cook traditional Rapanui food on outdoor fires, like this pan of green plantains with milk and sugar.

Santi Hitorangi is part of this Rapanui clan, and he says he started this chain of events by planting a garden next to the hotel, which sits on land that used to belong to his clan.

Decades ago, the property was acquired by the government and then traded between private owners. And when charges were pressed against Hitorangi, he went to the U.S., where he is now based. By law, only Rapanui can own land on Easter Island, but that's not strictly enforced. Hitorangi says the Rapanui want to recover ownership of the entire island.

Mr. SANTI HITORANGI: The first and foremost is title to the land. By extension, you the right to determine local policies to represent the Rapanui people, the Rapanui interests, the Rapanui culture. Bear in mind the colonial presence of the Chilean government in Rapanui, it has one main purpose, which is to assimilate us.

MURPHY: The Rapanui are the original inhabitants of this windswept piece of grass, rock and sand. Geographically, it's part of Polynesia and it's home to nearly 1,000 mysterious statues called moai, positioned across the island like sentries.

I'm on a hillside, and you can see out over the island for miles, just these rolling grasslands with horses grazing, these sheer, dark, volcanic stone cliffs that drop into the ocean. It's very dramatic, very foreboding, and these statues are just incredibly solemn, not giving anything away. They're pretty intimidating.

The Rapanui are descended from the people who made those statues. When Chile laid claim to the island just over a century ago, it simply corralled the Rapanui into the island's one town, the village of Hanga Roa, and leased the rest to a sheep farm. And it wasn't until the 1960s that the Rapanui became Chilean citizens.

Today, Hanga Roa is in decent shape. A steady stream of tourists means it has regular light and water. Many Rapanui work in tourism and live in small cement or wood houses topped by metal roofs. Some still use horses to get around and do work.

Unidentified People: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: A French couple wanders the eastern shore of the island with their two young kids, snapping photos and admiring the statues. For a tourist, Easter Island can feel like paradise: beautiful scenery, warm climate and world-class archaeological sites.

Unidentified People: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: And the Rapanui are fine with tourists coming to their island. Its the unchecked flow of Chileans they are upset about. Angela Tuki is part of the clan that has taken over the Hanga Roa Hotel.

Ms. ANGELA TUKI (Through translator) We're tired of explaining everything to the state. Everything they do here goes badly, especially immigration. It's not immigration, it's an invasion. Since there's no border between the island and the mainland, the state doesn't listen to us as a distinct ethnic group.

MURPHY: The Hito clan is just one group taking over one hotel, but there are dozens of other properties all over town being occupied by other clans with ancestral claims. In fact, the island's governor resigned because of the situation.

Interim Governor Jorge Miranda, who is from mainland Chile, says that the Rapanui can't just expect the current government to solve century-old problems.

Interim Governor JORGE MIRANDA (Easter Island): (Through translator) Unfortunately, it's true that there were abuses and human rights violations. But it happened in another context, under another administration. We have good intentions to dialogue and resolve this problem peacefully.

MURPHY: But many Rapanui have lost faith in the Chilean government and don't even identify as Chilean. Tihi Tuki is another member of the clan occupying the Hanga Roa Hotel. He's wearing fatigues, as if in combat, and has a topknot of rust-colored hair. As he tuned his guitar, I noticed some homemade tattoos on his knuckles.

(Soundbite of music)

MURPHY: Tuki spent years collecting garbage in town and says he quit because he felt like a servant to Chile. He tattooed the word trash on his right hand in Rapanui so he wouldn't forget the experience. Now he plays music, does woodworking and finds odd jobs.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TIHI TUKI: (Singing in foreign language).

MURPHY: Tuki lives in a shelter made of salvaged metal near Anakena Beach, an isolated cove on the north end of the island that's also popular with tourists.

Mr. TUKI: (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: Tuki says: I'm the heir to this place; this has nothing to do with the Chilean government. And I'm going to occupy the land that rightfully belongs to me.

But the Rapanui face big challenges and constant setbacks. Police recently evicted the Hito clan from the Hanga Roa Hotel. The clan went right back and reoccupied it.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in the town of Hanga Roa, Easter Island.

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