13 May 2011

Unfold Rapanui: Reporting the Underreported



Their words are difficult to make out but their message is clear – Give us back our land. Give us back our Rapanui.

The rising sun shoots a golden glow over Rapanui. The moai, huge stone human figures for which Rapanui is world-famous, throw long shadows down the ancient hillsides, towards the foaming Pacific. This is the image of Rapanui, of Easter Island, depicted in the tourist brochures; a tiny, peaceful, archeology-rich island at the far eastern tip of the Polynesian triangle.

Amateur video footage shows another Rapanui; a Rapanui that’s not in any promotional material. T-shirted or bare breasted men stand face-to-face with flak-jacketed Chilean paratroopers. Their sticks are no match for troopers’ pellet guns. Their traditional feathered headdresses offer none of the protection afforded by the Carabineros’ helmets. Their words are difficult to make out but their message is clear – give us back our land. Give us back our Rapanui.

Annexed by Chile in 1888, during its contact with Europeans this island’s slender population endured slave raiding, disease, deforestation, and colonization. The Rapanui people also endured having their sustainability stripped when the Chilean government leased the entire island to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm in the late 19th Century. Following that, the agrarian Rapanui were herded into Hangaroa, the only town, forbidden from venturing out without permission.

The Chilean navy took over the island’s management in 1953, but the people were forced to remain in Hangaroa until 1966 – a mere 45 years ago.

When I saw a small story pop up on the Internet about the Hitorangi family’s occupation – or repossession – of their land, I knew we had to go.

This is the story Annabelle Lee-Harris, from New Zealand’s Māori Television, traveled more than 7,000 kilometers to cover. In November 2010, she and cameraman Ethan Smith flew to Rapanui to report on the Indigenous people’s fight for the return of their land. In particular she focused on the Hitorangi family’s ongoing dispute over its ancestral land that the Chilean government took from them. Following its appropriation, in breach of its own laws, the government sold their land to a third party—that land now boasts a multi-million dollar, German-owned hotel – but the land’s original owners are not welcome there.

To force their claim, the family peacefully occupied the hotel on Aug. 1, 2010. Over the six months they were in the hotel, the family endured on-going confrontations with armed Chilean forces, who were transported to the remote island to quell rising tensions. The clan was eventually removed from the hotel by armed Carabineros on Feb. 6, 2011.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Rapanui,” Lee-Harris said. “We’re so close culturally, and I’ve always been intrigued by the island. Rapanui doesn’t get a lot of international media attention, but when I saw a small story pop up on the Internet about the Hitorangi family’s occupation – or repossession – of their land, I knew we had to go. Going all that way was a big financial commitment to make, and there was always a chance we would have our cameras confiscated at the airport, but this story was too important to ignore. It’s such an intrinsically Māori story – for Māori across the Pacific – and Rapanui’s story deserved to be told.”

Lee-Harris says she was struck by how similar New Zealand Māori are to the Rapanui, and loved how she could have a conversation in the Māori language with the locals. She was also struck, and saddened, by how similar their two situations were.

“When I was writing the script for Rapanui, I felt it was a cut and paste job from what land issues Māori had experienced and are still experiencing,” she says. “They are facing exactly the same problems Māori in New Zealand are facing. For example, there as here, the government has stepped in to try to sort out land issues, but in many cases it’s created more problems than they solved, with the land being given to the wrong families.

“But one thing that stood out for me was how the Rapanui stand together so staunchly. Even if privately they disagree on how an issue should be handled, in public they are 100 percent united. There is no ‘divide and conquer’ on Rapanui. Whatever issues there are between families, they stand united in the face of the Chilean government and are a force to be reckoned with. I think Māori in New Zealand could learn something from that.”

And it’s not only land that’s the Rapanui are denied of. Indigenous Rapanui now represent only 50 percent of the island’s population of 5,000. The rest are made up primarily of Chileans who immigrated to the island, taking most of the jobs at either end of the pay scale, cutting opportunities for the Rapanui.

But it’s the latest Chilean influx that has the Rapanui most fearful – the armed police who now patrol the streets.

“As New Zealanders, it was freaky for us to see armed police on the streets, so for the Rapanui it is really terrifying,” Lee-Harris said. “The Chilean police had shipped and flown in literally hundreds of Carabineros and paramilitary troops, so they create a very sinister and scary presence on the streets. We knew we had to get shots of them, but we had to be pretty subtle about it. To do that, we’d lock the camera off, press record, and then pretend to be chatting away to each other and not recording. It worked very well.”

Luckily for Lee-Harris, Santi Hitorangi – who spearheads his clan’s claim – is a filmmaker, and had left cameras for his family to record any disputes with the police. It’s this video, which he generously allowed Lee-Harris to use, that so dramatically shows how heated the situation has become.

“After we got back to New Zealand, and only two days before my story went to air in November, there was a significant standoff between the military and the Rapanui,” Lee-Harris said. “Several Rapanui were shot by pellet guns at close range, and many people were hurt. I was so thankful we’d already gone there, and had the exclusive inside view of what was really going on.”

The Hitorangi’s story is also being fought in the courts. They have a case before the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and have a lawyer from the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington DC to help them right the wrong. In fact, on Feb. 7, 2011, the day after the Hitorangi clan was evicted from the hotel, IACHR granted precautionary measures to immediately stop the violent use of armed forces against the Rapanui clans, and began an investigation into recent events on the island.

Lee-Harris’ finished story ran for 17 minutes – almost twice as long as stories usually run on Māori Television’s Native Affairs.

“I knew it was really important to make the story also as visually beautiful as possible,” she says. “Despite – or perhaps because of – its history, Rapanui is such a gorgeous place. Ethan Smith did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the land and its people, and that meant some very early starts and late nights. We came back with eight hours of footage, which our editor Todd Mohi had to rifle through for the best images and craft them into this beautiful piece.”

Lee-Harris says Rapanui is such a special place because it has survived so much; slave raiding and disease reduced the population to only just over a hundred in the late 1870s. The Rapanui has had to fight their way back while retaining their culture.

“It was hard to leave Rapanui, and I was incredibly sad to go,” Lee Harris said. “I desperately want to go back, and I would love my children to come to Rapanui. It’s so exhilarating to see a tiny island band together and stand up to a huge country and strong government like Chile, all in the face of troops and guns and terror. They are an inspiration.”

“Māori across the Pacific might be separated by ocean and time, but for us the ocean doesn’t keep us apart, it connects us.”

It was hard to leave Rapanui, and I was incredibly sad to go. I desperately want to go back, and I would love my children to come to Rapanui … They are an inspiration.


Lee-Anne Duncan is a freelance writer based in Wellington. She has worked as a broadcast journalist, and a public relations and media consultant in both New Zealand and the UK.

Annabelle Lee-Harris (Poutini Ngai Tahu/Ngati Kahungunu) has been a journalist for 10 years. She started her career as a radio reporter for the Ruia Mai News Service. Lee-Harris is the longest serving member of Māori Television’s news and current affairs department, having been with Māori Television for seven years. She has worked on Te Kāea, Te Hēteri, and is now a reporter and associate producer for Native Affairs.