Easter Island Fights Prosperity

Mayor Pedro Edmunds wants "his people" to be lovable. They're more interested in getting rich.


"My people are changing due to development," explains Pedro Edmunds, the democratically elected mayor of Chile's Easter Island. "The people are getting more and more individual-thinking'"and it's not good."

Edmunds has presided over the Island, known locally as Rapa Nui, for 15 years, and his proclamations about 'his people' have the air of a tin-pot dictator growing increasingly detached. The Island, totaling just 63 square miles, lies 2,200 miles west of Chile in the middle of Pacific Ocean, but modern technology has dispensed with its former isolation, and Edmunds is concerned. "There's something we need to keep, to protect'"that is, the magic of this island… the people being lovable and friendly," he told me, leaning back under a painting of a mighty Rapa Nui tribesman. "I grew up on an island where selfishness didn't exist."

This would-be kinglet boasts that he can trace his own ancestry back to one of the centuries-old stone heads, or moai, on the island, and he's determined that any changes to come will happen only under the auspices of "a master plan." Asked if he thinks such a plan can possibly please everyone, he laughs: "My dear, we can never satisfy people."

Yet change, unplanned and unregulated, has come to Easter Island. Tourism has skyrocketed over the last decade, and an island of 3,800 inhabitants now hosts 50,000 visitors a year. Souvenir shops, tour companies, and guesthouses have popped up, and where there were two taxis ten years ago, there are now 150. The Island's only town, Hanga Roa, has been transformed.

Edmunds is not alone in his nostalgia for economic isolation. Francisco Hochstetter, Director of the local Archeological Museum, feels that tourism and an influx of Chilean immigrants have left Rapa Nui's culture less "authentic" than it was decades back. "They are confusing [the culture]," he says of Rapa Nui's younger inhabitants.

Outsiders too are troubled by development on Rapa Nui. Last year, when local businessman Petero Riraroko announced a plan to build a casino on the Island, The New York Times called the plan the "latest in a long series of calamities"'"thus equating the casino with the slave trade and various epidemics that cut the Island's population down to only 111 people in 1877. Longwinded travelogues, like one published in The Condé Nast Traveler, exoticize the Island and its inhabitants as an "archaeological trove, object lesson in eco-disaster, remoteness incarnate." The Boston Globe worries that Rapa Nui's language is being lost as the Island modernizes.

But all this hand-wringing mistakes culture for some kind of communal public good to be molded and preserved for later use. The people of Rapa Nui seem to have chosen a different future: Every day, contra to Edmunds' apparent desires, they select engagement and profit over tradition. Young people I spoke to on the Island grow restless with its isolation, welcome tourist cash and relish their growing communication with different societies.

As outsiders fret about their cultural heritage, Easter Islanders are opening guest houses and tourism centers. Hanga Roa now offers visitors horse-riding, scuba diving, jeep and bike rentals, souvenirs and a range of restaurants and guesthouses. And with the expansion of The Explora luxury hotel chain onto the Island, and substantial refurbishments in the Hanga Roa Hotel, businesses are looking to attract guests with more spending power than the cheapskate backpacking crowd. Hucke Gerardo Radolfo, who mans a fruit stall in the local market, puts it simply: "Tourists are good for the Island because they bring cash."

More than New York Times editorializing stands between Rapa Nui's people and economic success. Riraroko, the businessman who tried to bring a casino to the island, was thwarted by Chilean gambling regulation. Yet even before the plan was rejected, a counter-casino movement was being roused by globalization skeptics, who didn't want to hear about its potential benefits for islanders. Riraroko says the project would have created 500 jobs and $2 million in tax revenue for Chile, which already allocates that amount to the Island annually. "So the Island lost $2 million," he concludes, with a shrug.

Paradoxically, the island needs this kind of money to protect its culture and invest in its future. Rapa Nui's tourism industry relies entirely on the allure of the hundreds of maoi that dot the Island, relics of an ancient tribal culture. The moai are currently owned by Chile, and administrated by the Chilean National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), but CONAF's local Acting Provincial Chief, Ignacio Espina, claims that he simply does not have enough government money or manpower to look after the sites. The very heritage sites some say are threatened by development need upkeep, and upkeep costs money.

As Rapa Nui develops, Mayor Edmunds is likely to grow even more dissatisfied with the island's forward tilt. But if Rapa Nui's entrepreneurs are permitted to trade and engage, they're sure to reject his "master plan"'"and they may even find the cash to save a bit of the culture Edmunds is nostalgic for.

Juliet Samuel is the 2007 Burton Gray memorial intern for reason.

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