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Easter Island: even more difficult to get to?

Indigenous population considers limiting visitors and immigrants to one of Chile's top tourist destinations.

In August, in protest against the encroachment, islanders blocked the landing strip at the Mataveri airport. For 48 hours, the Rapanui proved they could halt their economy, which is almost completely pegged to the tourism industry.

The government sent in a delegation to negotiate their demands, and on Oct. 24, more than 96 percent of the native islanders voted in favor of a referendum for a constitutional amendment that would restrict residence on the island. Now, Congress must approve the change.

“People come here to make a fortune with tourism and compete under unequal conditions with the Rapanui," said Jose Letelier, a long-time resident on the island, who, like 80 percent of the islanders, makes his living in tourism.

He said government and military employees receive higher salaries than local workers. Because the mainlanders are working in a far-away zone, they get tax exemptions, free housing and free freight to bring their cars and goods. The Rapanui get none of these advantages and have to spend significant capital to ship any goods to the island, said Letelier, who is a Chilean from the mainland married to a Rapanui.

An architect, Letelier arrived in the early 1990s to participate in public works projects and witnessed the paving of the first street in Hanga Roa, the main settlement. Back then, he said, there were about 40 vehicles and 2,500 residents who all knew each other or were related in some way. By now, the population has nearly doubled and there are 50 times more vehicles.

The October referendum was the first time the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on indigenous peoples, in effect in Chile since September, has been applied here to consult a native population about decisions that affect them, as called for by the treaty.

Under the proposed amendment, the local government would be allowed to restrict residence or travel to the island if necessary to protect the environment. The wording of the bill doesn't specify whether restrictions apply to tourism or immigration, or both.

The 26 of the 706 islanders who voted against the reform claim the bill is too ambiguous.

“I voted against it out of fear, because the proposal is unclear. It doesn’t specify if it refers to immigrants or the native population. It just says that the government can decide how many people can live here and how many would have to leave, and that includes even us, the Rapanui,” Rapu said.

At stake, they say, are no less than their natural habitat and historical patrimony.

“So many tourists trampling around, touching the moais, stepping on them," said Raul Domenech, and anthropologist and research director of a recent documentary on Easter Island. "Companies come and film commercials with the moais. The island attracts archaeological tourism, not the sun-and-beach type of tourism.

"The day the first graffiti appears on a moai will be the beginning of the end.”