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Culture : Trouble in the South Pacific : Trying to save their culture, Easter Island's people demand control of their lives.

August 02, 1994|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EASTER ISLAND, Chile — The huge altar and its towering stone statues have been meticulously reassembled and now stand silhouetted against a seascape of craggy cliffs and crashing waves, a sight unseen for centuries. With their backs to the South Pacific, the monolithic icons evoke the forsaken gods of a culture that was devastated long ago and remains shrouded in tantalizing mystery. But the people of isolated Easter Island are focused on the present as much as the past.

They call their island Rapa Nui and are demanding increased control over its affairs. Ultimately, they want dominion over the land that was lost by their Polynesian ancestors and annexed by faraway Chile, 2,300 miles of unbroken sea to the east on the South American mainland.

Easter Islanders also fear losing what remains of their culture, including their language, as increased tourism and other contacts with the mainland flood the island with foreign influences. For many, restoring their ancestral monuments goes hand in hand with reclaiming land rights and cultural identity.

Restoration of Tongariki ahu , the greatest monument of prehistoric Polynesian culture, is nearly complete. Thirteen of the massive statues, or moais , have been resurrected on the huge stone altar, the ahu . The last two will be raised by the end of the year. They stand as tall as 27 feet, with elongated heads and shortened torsos, long ears, prominent noses and pursed lips. The work at Tongariki is a landmark in efforts to study and preserve the remains of the civilization that flourished here in a past era of glory, then collapsed in violent upheaval, a milestone in the island's tumultuous history.

In terms of distance, Easter Islanders are the most isolated people on Earth. Their nearest neighbors are on Pitcairn Island, 1,200 miles to the northwest. The isolation was complete until Easter Sunday, 1722, when three Dutch ships under the command of Capt. Jakob Roggeveen arrived at Rapa Nui, putting it on the map with a Christian name.

Before 1965, there were no airline flights, and supply ships came only once or twice a year. Now LAN-Chile flies in twice a week from Santiago, and twice more on return flights from Tahiti. Tourism has become the island's bread and butter.

Last year, more than 7,000 visitors arrived, a presence overwhelming the nearly 3,000 islanders. In 1862, the population was estimated at 6,000 but contact with the mainland, including disastrous slave raids from Peru and imported diseases, cut the count to an almost unsustainable 111 in 1877. Eleven years later, Chile took possession of the island.

Through a series of irregular land deals and rental contracts, a private sheep ranch occupied nearly all of the island's 40,000 acres from 1895 to 1953, when the Chilean navy took over administration. In 1965, the Chileans gave the islanders a civilian administration similar to mainland provinces and development began.

Small hotels and inns, tourist agencies, restaurants and curio shops have proliferated in Hanga Roa, the only town. Mainland business people and television have arrived, adding to outside influences. What is left of the traditional Polynesian culture is fading rapidly.

Subsistence agriculture has declined as food imports increase. Social problems, especially alcoholism, have grown serious.

According to a 1992 study, only 5% of Easter Island's schoolchildren spoke the Rapa Nui language, down from 70% in 1977.

"The language is heading for extinction," said Lilian Gonzalez, an anthropologist with the University of Chile's Institute of Easter Island Studies. If the language dies out, she added, "one of the strongest indicators of cultural identity would be lost."

This year, concerns have focused on a power struggle between two rival groups that claim leadership of the Council of Elders, a community organization based on traditional Rapa Nui social structure. At issue is how the islanders should regain control of government lands and, more broadly, what interests should prevail in the island's development.

Since the 1970s, the president of the Council of Elders had been Alberto Hotus, who also is the current mayor of Hanga Roa. Hotus and his supporters back a Chilean government plan, established under a newly enacted Indigenous Peoples Law, to distribute surplus government lands to the native people. The plan also would give them a greater say in the administration of remaining government lands, including a 16,000-acre cattle ranch and a 16,000-acre national park.

In January, a group led by owners of tourist businesses challenged Hotus' leadership of the Council of Elders. The new group elected a new council, but Hotus and his followers have refused to step down. The challengers reject the plan to share responsibility for government lands under the Indigenous Peoples Act. Instead, they say the lands should be directly ceded to Easter Islanders for administration in coordination with the national government.

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