WELL I'M BACK. Back in Chile from Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua after ten days of paradise in a subtropical climate.
As well as seeing most of the moais and exploring some caves I ate raw fish with an interesting traditional island doctor; met a woman who had 16 children and joined a sit down protest on the airport runway demanding island independence from the tyranny of Chilean occupation.
A little background first. The island is part of Chile’s national territory belonging to the Valparaiso region which is over 3,500km away.
Chile annexed the Polenesian island in 1888 by way of some treaty at a time when a newly independent Chile joined the fashion of having its own overseas colony.
At this stage there were very few Rapa Nui natives left, only a little over 100 as between 1862 and 1871 some 97 per cent were either killed through smallpox, TB and slavery or were moved off the island by Christian missionaries.
Just as well because that meant more room for sheep and so the remaining survivors were herded into Hanga Roa, the only town on the island while the Williamson-Balfour sheep company ran the show until 1953. (The Chileans graciously allowed the natives walk their own island in the 1960s.)
According to Pamela Hucke, a native doctor, as late as the 1950s the Chilean authorities actively discouraged contact with the outside world by claiming the island was a leper colony, making this claim credible by injecting some natives with the disease.
This has never been reported in the Chilean press as far as she knows.
Locals also point out that the airport was built by the US government while it was a Japanese firm which resurrected the moais on the island which had been toppled.
While I was there things had reached a boiling point. Perhaps as a result of the general economic downturn or some other reasons, more Chileans are coming to live on the island which is now only 60 percent native.
Islanders point to the increase in crime such as burglaries which never happened before and the increase in hard drugs being smuggled on to the island.
Locals place full blame on the Chilean immigrants and they want this regulated.
Of course they stress that they have nothing against tourists, Chilean or otherwise, who are welcome to stay temporarily and enjoy the “open air museum” that the island is.
Tired of not being listened to, they occupied the airport runway to grab the attention of Santiago, causing all flights between the mainland and Tahiti to be postponed for two days.
During the protest there were many red and white Rapa Nui flags visible, symbolising their desire of independence for the island.
Whether the island could actually survive full independence with a population of under 4,000 is open to debate.
Listening to the locals’ concerns but also seeing the standard of life on the island I was, however, reminded of the Monty Python satirical comedy Life of Brian where the character Reg, urging resistance against the Roman occupation, admits: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
For a start the Rapa Nuis don’t pay tax – so don’t expect a receipt for anything you buy. They also get generous grants to study on the mainland at any university of their choosing.
The island also does not know poverty and the gap between rich and poor is minimal. In part this is because almost all of them own land (Chileans are not allowed buy land here), while the state provides a large number of administrative jobs and wages are high.
For example a Chilean teacher I met told me that she could make almost three times as much on the island as in Santiago.
But on the cultural front, they probably do have to worry a little more. From what I could hear their own language Rapa Nui is spoken about 50 50 alongside Spanish and while most can speak the native tongue there are some younger people who can not. Many of these people too prefer the sights and sound of the mainland and prefer the new to the old.
The island is also not immune to the effect of globalisation which may be more of a threat than the Chilean State in the long run. Plastered all along the main street is Coca Cola's image of the moais as part of its marketing strategy for the island or the sight of Jennifer Tuku, a cultural ambassador for the island sporting two mobile phones around her neck.
Agriculture and fishing remain strong on the island, although tourism provides some 80 percent of the local economy and the sheer numbers of tourists arriving every day has ensured that the modern world is firmly entrenched in Rapa Nui.