EASTER ISLAND

This week is a holiday season, a time when Jews celebrate liberation from bondage at Passover and Christians commemorate the resurrection of their savior and redemption from sin at Easter. The word for the holiday of Easter in Spanish is Pascua, from the Hebrew name for Passover, Pesach, the name for the festival of freedom.

I am on a sabbatical trip from Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, traveling around the world writing a book, “The Holiest Places on Earth.”

This year there is a special resonance to this festival period here in the southeast Pacific Ocean, where Easter Island, Isla de Pascua in Spanish, is roiled by an active movement that is working for autonomy, and eventual independence, from Chile. In this season of liberation and redemption, the Easter Islanders seek both.

Easter Island is a beautiful place in the middle of the Pacific, “discovered” by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, and named for its day of discovery. Its religious-cultural heritage is what makes it unique.

Easter Island is world-famous for the giant stone statues, the Moai, that were erected in the 13th-17th centuries as a form of religious protection for its communities, and as a form of religious competition. They average 20 feet in height and weigh many tons each, and are the most advanced religious or monumental works ever created by Polynesians, striking and dramatic.

Today the National Park on Easter Island, which includes most of the best examples of Moai, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a famous and prominent, but very remote, tourist destination more than 2,000 miles from the South American mainland and 1,200 miles from the nearest “neighboring” island. You can reach Easter Island only by a 4½-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, or Papeete, Tahiti, or by the occasional ship from South America.

To visitors, the archaeology here is amazing and incredibly picturesque, but to the 4,000 residents descended from the creators of those statues, these are an eternal part of their patrimony. The Moai are symbolic of a cultural heritage that has been maintained in the face of 150 years of exploitation, brutal oppression and colonial neglect by Chile. The local people firmly feel that their heritage is currently endangered, and they have taken action.

Last Wednesday, the local Parliament of Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for Easter Island, voted to close access to the National Park to all tourists or non-Rapanui people. Thursday morning, members of Parliament and other local residents began to enforce the closure.

Visitors, like myself, suddenly encountered roadblocks of brush, logs and ropes at every point of access to the greatest of the remarkable sites on the small island, and were asked politely but very firmly to turn their cars or tour buses around.

The issue that has catalyzed this closure is immigration, which should sound familiar to residents of the American Southwest. Rapa Nui/Easter Island is very remote, and in modern times it has never had a large population. As recently as 1960, the total population of the island was about 600 people. Five years ago, that total had risen only to about 5,000 people: 4,000 Rapanui and perhaps 1,000 Chileans and other foreign residents.

But in the last five years, spurred by tax breaks and the investment of the Chilean government in improving schools, hospitals, and other services for Rapa Nui, plus the beauty and climate and relaxed pace of life here, a flow of immigrants from mainland Chile has more than doubled the population on this picturesque subtropical island.

By some accounts, 10,000 Chileans have come here to live in just the last five years. The local Rapanui have asked Chile to stop immigration to Rapa Nui before the flood of immigration overwhelms the local culture, not to mention the groundwater supply, nonexistent sewage system, minimal road network and small infrastructure.

But this week, after months of discussion, the Chilean government refused to stop immigration on the grounds that Easter Island is part of Chile and it cannot restrict internal migration. The Rapa Nui Parliament, which is made up of representatives from the 36 clans of families descended from the last Rapanui alive in the 19th century, finally decided it had enough and closed the National Park, hitting the Chilean government where it hurts — in its tourism pocketbook.

Apparently, negotiations are now underway to come up with a policy that precludes further immigration to Rapa Nui, where only ethnic Rapanui can own land. But there have been clever attempts to subvert this with lease agreements and other legal stratagems, and the local people are upset about this as well. The Parliament wants immigration stopped now, but ultimately it seeks independence.

I met the president of the Rapa Nui Parliament, Leviant Araki, and then Erity Teave Hey, the president of the Council of Chiefs of the Tribes. She is chief of the Hau Moana and Ure a Hei clans, through her mother and father, and a leader of the movement.

“This is a historical moment, the Council of Chiefs decided after so many decades, reclaiming our inalienable rights to our territory and land, which were our ancestral lands stolen officially by the Chileans in 1933,” she said. “The council of 36 voted yesterday to retake Rapa Nui.”

I spoke with a number of Rapanui, and they are determined to protect their heritage. They are pleasant, agreeable, smart people, and with a long history of being treated horribly by the Chilean government and its proxies, including slave traders, industrial sheep-farming companies and the Chilean Navy, they know better than to trust the authorities. They are sorry that tourists are inconvenienced, but they clearly understand that they are protecting their own heritage and way of life.

The barricades here on Rapa Nui are not manned by armed people, and so far this has been a peaceful and mostly amiable revolt. There are many frustrated tourists who spent a great deal of time and money to reach Easter Island for a once-in-lifetime visit. But in the grand scheme of things, protecting the native culture from inundation seems like a much higher goal, particularly in this season of Passover and Easter.

Rabbi Sam Cohon, the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson and host of the weekly radio show “Too Jewish with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends,” is on a sabbatical, traveling around the world writing a book on “The Holiest Places on Earth.” His blog can be found at travelopod.com, “The Holiest Places on Earth.”