The Political Mysteries of Easter Island

It goes by many names: "Easter Island" or "Isla de Pascua" both refer to the day the Dutch stumbled upon this mysterious island in 1722.  About 50 years later a Spanish explorer named it after his king but "San Carlos Island" didn't stick.  According to lore this land was named "Te Pito O Te Henua" meaning "The Navel of the World", but today the locals refer to their home with a Polynesian name given in the 1860's: Rapa Nui.

With descendants of the indigenous people also known as Rapa Nui and their ancestral language sharing that name, early explorers concluded that there may not have been a distinct name for this remote island in the Pacific.  Since it is a single landmass and not a chain of islands there is no other landmark to compare it to.  More than 2,175 miles from mainland Chile and a similar distance from Tahiti, it is a mystery in itself how the Polynesian sailors of over a thousand years ago first came to inhabit this land.

Rapa Nui's beautiful weather, deep blue ocean, white sand beaches, gorgeous volcanic peaks and welcoming, hospitable locals would make this island worthy of any tropical vacation - but throw in one thousand 10-70 foot tall ancient statues scattered across the island and you have a must-see "bucket list" destination.  It was these mysterious statues, the moai, which drew me to the island.  The stone giants sit upon monolithic platforms built with ten ton perfectly cut hard basalt rocks that rival the engineering secrets of Egypt.  The largest moai known to have stood upon such a platform weighed over 80 tons.  Upon the moai's heads sat top-knots known as pukao carved from red scoria rock, themselves weighing 20+ tons.

Many different theories exist as to how a few thousand people without large animals could obtain the resources, tools, techniques and willpower to carve these wonders out of volcanic rock and transport them to the farthest points of the island - and every few years new scholars seek to make a name for themselves by proposing a new explanation.  Some say the Rapa Nui walked the statues from the quarry to their platforms using nothing but manpower, team work and ropes.  Others look at evidence that indicates they must have had more advanced engineering techniques, with one curious book claiming that Easter Island is the tip of a lost continent called Mu that was home to an advanced civilization.  While many locals still believe the oral tradition of their ancestors using "magic" to move the moai, the longtime residents of the island agree - there is no consensus.

I went to Easter Island anxious to hear the mysteries of the ancient moai but instead found myself drawn to the modern political problems that confronted the Rapa Nui people.  Talking to tour guides, businessmen and artists I discovered wonderful new and unexpected things: there are no taxes, virtually no crime and in 5 days I never saw a single police officer.  Yet, the same dismal outlook concerning Easter Island's politics reappeared in every conversation, whether from native Rapa Nui that were born and raised on Easter Island, foreigners that had married into a Rapa Nui family or travelers that fell in love with the island and decided to never leave.  The moai may remain a mystery forever, but I'm confident that libertarian answers are exactly what the fiercely independent people of Rapa Nui need to solve their modern problems.

A History of Violence

To understand the present one must understand the past, and the past of the Rapa Nui includes famine, disease, war, slave raids and cannibalism.  Ask when the first Polynesians settled the island, when the moai were created or when their construction ended will bring answers differing by hundreds of years - so all we can reasonably conclude is that there is no consensus for these questions.  What is known with certainty is based on the records of western explorers.  The Dutch and Spanish only wrote of standing statues in 1722 and 1770 respectively, but starting in 1774 and continuing for 60 years thereafter reports of toppled moai were recorded until none were left standing.  Again, what exactly lead an advanced commercial society to collapse into cannibalism and civil war is up for debate, but by the time the missionaries of the 1860s appeared the islanders were already separated into competing tribes that respected clear-cut property lines.  Their legends spoke of the first king that divided up the island among his sons, eventually resulting in these clans.  At some unknown point the class system of the king and the royal family were disposed by military leaders that instituted the cult of the birdman, where a representative from each clan would compete in a yearly ritual that would result in one clan gaining power over the island.  One way or the other, a population that scientists believe peaked at 15,000 came to be estimated at only 3,000 by western explorers in the 18th century.

But by the 1860s cannibalism and inter-clan warfare became the least concern for the Rapa Nui.  Peruvian slave ships captured about half the islands population and sent 1,500 men and women to work in guano deposits and plantations.  A few years later the well-meaning bishop of Tahiti intervened and demanded the Rapa Nui be returned home.  Unfortunately, the survivors brought smallpox and tuberculosis back to Easter Island that wiped out the other half of the population.  By 1877 only 111 people were still living on the island, only 36 of them having children.

As if things couldn't get any worse, less than a dozen years later Easter Island became a territory of a modern state.  A representative of the Chilean government duped the supposed king into signing the "Treaty of Annexation of the Island".  Like all social contract theories, this act by one "king" is now interpreted as having been signed with the Rapa Nui people as a whole and somehow implicitly transferred onto future generations in perpetuity.  Even postulating that such a contract could be morally or legally justifiable, it is doubtful that the signer of this treaty of no authority realized what relinquishing his people's sovereignty meant.  While the first king of Rapa Nui allegedly foresaw Easter Island in a dream and led his people on a triumphant voyage towards a great civilization, this last king couldn't even anticipate the misery that would immediately follow signing a contract with the State.

With the ink barely dry on the annexation treaty, the Chilean government leased Easter Island to the Williamson-Balfour Company in 1888, which then created a subsidiary company to imprison the islanders in the town of Hanga Roa and turned the rest of the island into a giant sheep farm.  With a name that is unbelievably honest to our modern ears, this company was called "Compania Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua" or "The Easter Island Exploitation Company".  While the company carelessly destroyed sacred Rapa Nui relics to build stone walls for the sheep, the people lived in a veritable concentration camp - and this continued for 70 years!

While the rest of the world partook in an industrial revolution, supposedly rid the world of slavery, mastered the secrets of the atom to harness great energy and raced to land a man on the moon - the Rapa Nui people lived and died without ever leaving the few square miles that comprised the island's only town.  The sheep ruled until 1953 and then the Chilean Navy took over only to run business as usual.  It wasn't until 1966, the same year Californians elected their first movie star as governor and cigarettes were first mandated with warning labels, that the Rapa Nui were allowed to roam outside of their open-air prison.  Needless to say, this experience has given them a healthy mistrust of the State.

Rapa Nui Problems

The good news is that the problems the Rapa Nui face today are not as drastic as those which faced their ancestors.  The flip side is that the issues are more subtle, they exist under the surface of everyday life which makes potential solutions more difficult to discern.  When your town is surrounded by barbed wire and you are denied the freedom to walk on the land of your ancestors because it has been taken over by a foreign army it is very clear where your righteous anger should be directed.  But again and again I heard the same despondent attitude towards the difficulties facing Easter Island, with the best hope being that a future generation could fix things.  This outlook of resignation and acceptance of failure does not mean that potential solutions don't exist - it only indicates that in a world of statism the answers are so unorthodox that they are never seriously considered.

The most obvious, alarming and disturbing issue that is readily acknowledged by the locals should also be one of the most clear cut examples of the tragedy of the commons to any student of economics.  After the islanders' status changed from prisoners of Hanga Roa to citizens of Chile their remorseful government mandated that going forward only native Rapa Nui would be eligible to own property, but of course the State itself was exempted from this agreement.  The entire coast line and the vast majority of Easter Island is owned by the government, with the predictable results being shocking to the conscience.

Priceless moai, platforms, and petroglyphs are constantly degraded by the elements.  While rain and winds are an excusable and inevitable challenge of an "open-air museum", the most insensible and egregious damage comes from the hundreds of roaming cows and horses that find themselves unable to respect the "no touching" signs infrequently posted across the island.  One of my guides could only shake his head when he noticed that a nose section of his family's ancestral moai had broken off since his last visit to the site, the culprit was most likely a wandering horse.

The cows are not used for their milk and the horses are not used for their meat.  There are plenty of cars on the island; some say too many, so no one is using these horses for transportation.  In fact, the largest and virtually only cause of car accidents on the island is from running into rambling horses.  To repeat: the outrageousness of the situation isn't that the horses are causing damage to cars, those can be replaced, it is that these thousand pound animals are doing tremendous damage to the hundreds of unique and irreplaceable artifacts that are totally unprotected.  At first glance it would seem that during the rush to industrialize the island with power generators, combustion engines and the internet someone forgot to introduce the technological wonder known as a fence.

But this is where the complications of the island politics and family history come to bear.  When the Rapa Nui population was decimated to 111 people the 36 of them that had children had very large families - with 20 children being common and the largest family containing 28.  These families all knew which ancestral clan they descended from and that knowledge has been passed on such that today the entire population of more than 3,000 Rapa Nui operates within their various familial networks.  All of them can trace their lineage back to one of the original clans that communally owned a certain piece of the island, each with their own sacred burial sites, platforms and moai to represent their ancestors - so in that sense they have a very legitimate claim to let their horses roam where they damn well please.  The tragedy of it all is that the government formally owns the land but knows that it can't get away with fencing it up or otherwise excluding the people (and their livestock) from their sacred sites - so we arrive at this quasi-ownership scenario where no one can enforce decisions that would protect the very artifacts that everyone is interested in preserving.

Occasionally the various Rapa Nui families are able to join together against the Chilean government and demand that their ancestral land is returned to its rightful heirs.  Whenever the protests and civil disobedience are threatening enough the Chilean government brilliantly cuts off a random piece of land in the middle of the island and sits back to let the families fight over it.  The majority of them don't want *that* particular territory, not only does it not belong to their tribe but it's probably the ancestral site of a rival clan.  Yet this technique to redirect their anger against each other and away from their government works every time.

You find this same misplacement of anger when it comes to the perfect example of what Hans-Hermann Hoppe calls "forced integration".  With Easter Island labeled a territory of Chile and the Rapa Nui becoming Chilean citizens, this opened the flood gates for Chileans to come from the mainland and set up shop in this tax-free paradise.  Just as Americans can move to Hawaii and live or work without any special permission, Chilean mainlanders are notoriously threatening the jobs and cultural identity of the Rapa Nui, with over 50% of the population of Easter Island now consisting of foreigners.  Their answer to this problem is to plead with the government to enact some kind of immigration quota.  Not only is this an example of addressing the symptom instead of the disease, it is far worse because the doctor prescribing the medicine is in fact the villain that dispensed the originating poison.

Libertarian Solutions

A tragedy of the commons, dubious property titles and forced integration, all originating from the acts of violence committed over 100 years ago against the Rapa Nui people that included fraud, theft, kidnapping and murder.  Before exploring the practical aspects of righting these wrongs, let's review what libertarian justice would demand.

The first crime to analyze is the signing of the "Treaty of Annexation of the Island".  Assuming for the sake of argument that the existing king was the rightful property owner of the entire island and had the capacity to sign it over to the government of Chile, it is seriously doubtful that there was a "meeting of the minds".  In other words, a reasonable person would not sign a contract that would immediately make himself, his people and his lineage slaves and prisoners on the land his fathers colonized.  The treaty should be considered fraudulent and granting no validity to the subsequent crimes of transferring the island to an "exploitation company" to imprison the people and steal their land.

With the current occupier and defacto owner of Easter Island having no legitimate title to it, we ask the question of who has the moral right of ownership.  The libertarian Lockean / homesteading principle of just property tells us that "everyone has absolute property right over previously unowned natural resources which he first occupies and brings into use".  This absolute property right includes the right to give it away or bequeath it to one's heirs, so common sense tells us that the clans that lived, worked, and "mixed their labor" with the island were the natural owners.  Furthermore, the property boundaries that they themselves established and respected should be seen as the legitimate borders for today.  For the vast majority of the island that is currently in the unjust possession of a criminal government, that land should be immediately returned to the families that can trace their lineage back to those clans.

What is the moral thing to do with the property that is in private hands?  There are two scenarios.  First, assume we are discussing land still under the control of the Williamson-Balfour Company.  As their possession of the land was directly facilitated by the criminal state, not to mention the horrendous crimes that they directly committed, any land held by them on Easter Island should also be returned.  They have no rightful claim to ask others to respect their "private property" that was seized through violent aggression.  In an essay entitled "Confiscation and the Homestead Principle" in the June 15th, 1969 issue of the Libertarian Forum, Murray Rothbard wrote,
"What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not “private” property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property.  It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus."
In a case that's not so obvious is the occupation of the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa.  A German family bought the land from the Chilean government and spent millions of dollars building a hotel on it.  Only after the construction was complete and the business was preparing to open did members of the indigenous Hitorangi clan occupy the hotel rooms claiming that the land was illegally taken from their ancestors.  The occupation lasted for several months until the police forcibly removed them. In this scenario a different passage from Rothbard's essay may be more applicable:
"Often, the most practical method of de-statizing is simply to grant the moral right of ownership on the person or group who seizes the property from the State.  Of this group, the most morally deserving are the ones who are already using the property but who have no moral complicity in the State’s act of aggression.  These people then become the “homesteaders” of the stolen property and hence the rightful owners."
While the Williamson-Balfour Company was certainly complicit in the State's offenses, it is harder to convict the owners of the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa of the same involvement.  Lacking the taint of criminality and considering the millions worth of labor and capital they invested, an argument can be made that they have a greater claim to that particular piece of land than anyone else.  Accepting that some cases of confiscation and restoration will not be as evident as others but that justice will be served when the State-occupied land is returned to the rightful and identifiable heirs, we can now review the likely benefits that will result.

With all of Easter Island being privately owned by the people that care the most about its preservation we can expect that the current practice of having horses and cows trample over their sacred artifacts will immediately cease.  Not only do good fences make good neighbors but with private ownership comes the incentive to be the best possible steward of a given natural resource- whether the land contains a white sand beach or sacred archaeological relics.  The motivation to provide proper short-term maintenance and ensure preservation for future generations may purely come from the love of one's ancestral land but it could also be enhanced by the desire to profit from the appetites of the nearly 100,000 tourists per year that travel from all over the world and are ready to spend thousands of dollars to marvel at the ancient moai.

Similarly, in the case of the forced integration of unwanted Chileans, in an island of private property everyone will either be a welcome guest or will not be admitted.  Perhaps some clans will choose to only employ native Rapa Nui while others will be eager to hire outside help and specialized talent from around the world - the market will ultimately reward those that best please the desires of the consumers.  While this scenario supposes that the Rapa Nui will choose not to sell their land, with full property rights free from the current state-mandated restriction they would have the choice to sell part or all of their land to anyone they wanted, regardless of nationality.  Perhaps not everyone will be optimally pleased with what the people of Rapa Nui decide to do with their rightful land, but two things are certain: justice will be done and the moai will be better preserved than they are today - it couldn't possibly be worse.


It would be dishonest to ignore an objection that will surely come to any mind that has been indoctrinated in government schools: with privately owned land Easter Island would be ruined!  Greedy capitalists would fill it with 5 star hotels, casinos and other monstrosities, utterly destroying the majesty, mystery and miracles that have come to characterize Rapa Nui and bring tourists flocking in larger and larger numbers every year.

Stated in this way, the objection answers itself.  Tourists that want that kind of vacation go to Tahiti, Maldives or Bora Bora while an entirely different type of tourist spends the time and money to travel to Easter Island.  Any successful entrepreneur will need to cater to what the tourists of Rapa Nui demand, and any that refuse to answer their wishes will be replaced with those that will.  Furthermore, a benefit of living on an isolated island with such a small and intimate population is that everyone knows everyone, such that libertarian techniques like social ostracism would work very well in discouraging someone from committing a serious taboo like building a McDonalds on Rano Raraku.

Another objection that is always brought up in any discussion of the stateless society is… you guessed it, who will build the roads?  The answer is that the same people that currently build them may continue to do so, only they will be paid by private individuals instead of the state.  Currently every tourist to Easter Island pays a $60 fee to the Chilean National Park Service.  Instead of that money going directly back into the island which drew the tourists in the first place, the money is first sent back to mainland Chile and then divided equally among all the national parks - whether they draw any visitors or not.  Tourists pay thousands of dollars in flights, hotels, and higher prices for just about everything in order to cross Easter Island off their bucket list - surely they would continue to pay $60 or more to the new non-governmental owners of Rapa Nui.  The art of building roads will not be lost like the art of building moai.

Finally, for those that are concerned that private ownership of the moai could mean the end of tourism or archaeological research on Easter Island, rest assured that this is highly unlikely.  I found the Rapa Nui people to be incredibly warm and welcoming, cognizant of how tourism is central to their entire economy.  This symbiotic relationship would likely continue with an even greater financial interest in keeping tourists happy.  If you are shocked at the idea of putting a dollar sign on "priceless" artifacts like the moai, remember that something is only "priceless" when it is not allowed to be privately owned.  In the realm of archaeology, one can imagine wealthy benefactors or immensely lucrative crowdfunding campaigns that would be very successful in persuading the Rapa Nui to sell or lease some of their land to a serious team of researchers that could potentially break new ground.  Ironically, only through solving the political mysteries of today may we have a chance at solving the ancient mysteries of the moai.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...