Last Updated: Friday, 22 September 2017, 11:21 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile : Rapanui

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile : Rapanui, 2008, available at: [accessed 23 September 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is the easternmost island of Polynesia; it is over 3,000 kilometres from mainland Chile. Food supplies are shipped/flown in from the mainland. Most people agree that the Rapanui are a Polynesian people, despite Norwegian scholar and explorer Thor Heyerdahl's controversial claims that the moais - the giant stone monoliths - were built by the Incas.

In 1992 over 20,000 people identified themselves as Rapanui; by 2002 the number had fallen to 4,650 (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Censo Nacional 2002). This does not indicate a high death rate, but rather shows the changing and flexible nature of ethnic categorisation. (Some indigenous organisations complained of statistical genocide but local leaders seemed to concur that the 2002 figure was more realistic.) The majority of the 4650 Rapanui live on Easter Island. A few hundred live on mainland Chile and in Tahiti.

The Rapanui are represented on mainland bodies such as the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI). They also have their own political authorities, such as the Consejo de Ancianos [Council of Elders], which was formally instituted in the early 1990s, but dates back to the Allende period.

Historical context

Easter Island was first occupied over 1,000 years ago but this was followed by only sporadic contact with outsiders. Europeans first 'discovered' the island in 1722. Between 1859-1862 almost 1,500 Rapanui were captured and taken to Peru as slaves. Only fifteen returned, and they carried diseases such as smallpox, which decimated the island population (by 1877 this had been reduced from several thousand to 110).

Under a treaty of 1888, Chile assumed administrative responsibility for the island in return for respecting Rapanui lands and culture. This guarantee was not honoured: the Rapanui virtually became prisoner in their own lands, confined to the Hanga Roa area (of approximately 1,000 hectares), and they were frequently forced to work for little or no pay. Eduardo Frei Montalva's government (1964-1970) sought to improve the situation: in 1966 it passed the Ley Pascua, making the Rapanui full citizens of Chile (with the same rights as other Chileans). At the same time, though, the law also acknowledged the distinctiveness of Rapanui culture by changing the sentences for certain crimes committed on the island. It ruled that theft should receive a lighter sentence than it did on the mainland, on the basis that the Rapanui had little concept of private property.

The military government of Pinochet poured in a large amount of public funds into Rapa Nui, building and maintaining public infrastructure. In 1985 Rapanui opposition to the extension of the island's airstrip for use by the North American space agency NASA was ignored by the Pinochet government - the extension was opened in 1987.

In 1992 Rapanui elder Mr Hotu became the first elected mayor of Easter Island. In 1993 Chile's new Indigenous Law recognised the cultural and territorial rights of the Rapanui, and foresaw the creation of a Commission for the Development of Easter Island. (It was finally installed in 1999). In 2001 the Council of Elders No. 2 (as opposed to the original Council of Elders, which agreed to participate in the Commission), set up the Rapa Nui Parliament. This self- appointed Parliament aimed to recuperate all Rapanui lands. It demanded a limitation on the development of economic and commercial activities by state employees on the island. It also demanded labour norms that favoured the native population. The Comisión de Verdad Histórica y Nuevo Trato (2003) recommended that Rapa Nui be granted special autonomous status.

Current issues

Rapanui people do not seek complete independence from Chile but, as shown by the demands of the Rapa Nui Parliament, aspire to a degree of cultural autonomy and control over land and cultural resources. The Council of Elders is divided as to how far to negotiate with Chilean state entities. The recommendations of the Truth Commission regarding the island's autonomous status are still being debated.

Rapanui are now being given grants to study in mainland Chile; many students, including women, study engineering and plan to return to the island on graduation. The government has provided student residences for Rapanui in Santiago.

Local organisations have been working together with the Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales (National Monuments Council) for the restoration and conservation of Rapa Nui's archaeological and cultural heritage. Several cultural groups such as Ballet Cultural Kari Kari have been set up. 'Tapati', the island's annual festival of culture and arts, is a very popular event.

Major problems on Rapa Nui today include unregulated fishing, scarce health care facilities, substandard schooling, and unemployment. Most Rapanui who do work are employed in tourism. There is an ongoing debate about the way in which the revenues from the tourist industry are distributed: many people complain that the major share of revenue goes to the Chilean state and that it is not greatly benefiting the local economy, hence the demand for 'tourism with development'. In this context, indigenous rights issues are closely linked to questions of sustainability and responsible resource use.

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