• Indigenous peoples in Chile

    Indigenous peoples in Chile

    There are 10 different indigenous groups in Chile. The largest one is Mapuche, followed by the Aymara, the Diaguita, the Lickanantay, and the Quechua peoples. Chile is the only country in Latin America that does not recognise the indigenous peoples in its constitution.
  • Peoples

    1,565,915 indigenous peoples and 10 different indigenous groups live in Chile
  • Rights

    2007: Chile adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Current state

    The main challenges for the Mapuche include claiming their rights to land and territories.

Indigenous World 2020: Rapa Nui

The Rapa Nui people of Easter Island continued to demand recognition of their rights throughout 2019. This related largely to demanding that the Chilean state recognise and implement the International Annexation Treaty known as the “Agreement of Wills”, signed on 9 September 1888 and which forms the basis of the relationship between Rapa Nui and Chile, given that the Rapa Nui were never a conquered people.

In fact, the 1888 Agreement of Wills has the legal status of an international treaty signed between two autonomous peoples, the Rapa Nui and the state of Chile. This treaty was signed by King Atamu Tekena, accompanied by his Council of Chiefs, on the one hand, and the captain of the corvette Policarpo Toro, representing the Chilean government, on the other. The agreement, drafted in both Spanish and ancient Tahitian, contains four fundamental elements:

  1. Rapa Nui cedes sovereignty of the island to the Chilean
  2. Chile undertakes to respect the investitures enjoyed by the ancestral chiefs of the Rapa Nui people, as reflected in respect for their self-government and autonomy over the
  3. The right to collective ownership of the land remains in the hands of the Rapa Nui
  4. Chile undertakes to protect and provide well-being and development to the inhabitants of Rapa Nui, acting as a “friend of the place” (Repahoa).

Once this agreement (similar to the Waitangi Treaty signed between the Maori and New Zealand) was signed, however, the Chilean state systematically failed to implement it, leasing Rapa Nui island to French and British extractive companies during the first half of the 20th century, and thus submitting its people to constant human rights violations and slavery.

The Rapa Nui people suffered brutal subjection and abandonment by the Chilean state for 80 years, being treated as an inferior species. Only in 1966, just 54 years ago, were its people recognised as citizens and rights-holders by means of Law No. 16,441, known as “Easter Law”, bringing civilisation to Rapa Nui.

The Rapa Nui people faced a number of challenges during 2019, including:

Administration of the Rapa Nui National Park

In November 2017, the Chilean state finally handed management of the Rapa Nui National Park over to the Ma’u Henua Indigenous community, established under Law No. 19,253 laying down rules for the protection, promotion and development of Indigenous Peoples and creating the National Indigenous Development Corporation, albeit as a concession, thus still ignoring the Rapa Nui’s right to collective ownership of their territory (see The Indigenous World 2018).

The Rapa Nui people took over the running of their physical heritage during 2019,  the main challenge being to continue the struggle   to defend their territorial rights, rights that should be reflected in the state’s full and effective recognition of the collective ownership of the Rapa Nui territory.

This resulted in practical terms in a continuation of the process initiated in 2015 through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) aimed at seeking recognition of their rights to their territory, namely the whole area currently occupied by the people and including their sea. In January 2020, on the occasion of an in loco visit of the IACHR to Chile, the Rapa Nui people managed to obtain a special audience aimed at pursuing their demands through the international headquarters.

Environmental crisis

In the context of implementing Law No. 21,070, which governs the right to reside, remain and move to and from the Special Territory of Easter Island, in May 2019 the Chilean state declared Rapa Nui territory to be in a state of “latency”, a legal term meaning on the edge of environmental collapse and demographic saturation.

This crisis has arisen primarily due to the gradual overpopulation of the island over the last decade, resulting in exhaustion of the natural resources and increasing difficulties in processing their waste. These problems are due to the island’s extreme isolation: some 3,700 km from the continent, it is geographically the most isolated inhabited place on the planet. This geographical position has also resulted in serious con-

sequences in terms of climate change. Rising sea levels and marine currents bringing plastics from the Pacific have resulted in a crisis that the Rapa Nui people are having to face alone without any support from the state.

Despite the numerous environmental clean-up projects implemented by the Indigenous Municipality of Rapa Nui, the Chilean state has arbitrarily refused to provide any support, denying them resources and abandoning Rapa Nui to its fate, implementing no concrete mitigation measures that would help the island overcome this crisis.

Social outcry in Chile and the new constitutional process

In October 2019, Chile faced its greatest social crisis since the country’s return to democracy in 1990. Abandonment by the state, inequality and constant abuse resulted in social unrest among the Chilean people, and this situation has continued unabated. One of the main consequences has been the state’s opening the door to a new Constitution for the country, drafted by an egalitarian, diverse and inclusive constituent assembly. The will of the Chilean people will be made clear in a national referendum to be held on 26 April 2020.

Rapa Nui has made sure that its voice has been included in this process, raising its historic demands.

The island has suffered constant militarisation since the start of 2019, involving the transfer of dozens of members of the Special Police Force to the island, illegally removing people from their community spaces and causing provocation by sending heavily armed officers to any social or cultural meeting with the aim of repressing it.

Members of the Rapa Nui people living on the mainland also came out to protest in the streets, waving their flag and demanding recognition of the rights of their people throughout the whole country.

This social outcry resulted, in November 2019, in a constitutional discussion being held for the first time in the island’s history. This lasted three days and enabled the whole Rapa Nui people to participate, expressly recognising their most representative institutions, through their Indigenous Municipality structure. This included the following: the Rapa Nui Council of Elders (most important traditional political/administrative body of the people, descendants of the group of counsellors who accompanied the King to the signing of the 1888 Agreement of Wills), HONUI (assembly of political/supervisory clans composed of the leader or spokesperson of each of the 36 families that make up the Rapa Nui people), and the Rapa Nui Parliament (important body demanding and defending the autonomous and territorial rights of its people, composed of different Rapa Nui leaders).

These reflections of the Rapa Nui people and its leaders concluded that there was a profound need for the Chilean state to recognise and immediately fulfil the commitments made through the Agreement of Wills, that the state should act in good faith and satisfy the historic demands of the Rapa Nui people.

A popular consultation took place on 15 December 2019, in which more people than ever before participated in Rapa Nui. The final vote was 89% in favour of the Chilean State complying with the 1888 Agreement of Wills. The second question on recognising Indigenous Peoples in the new Constitution gained 96% approval, showing the clear will of the people.

Along the same line of thought, a discussion has now commenced with the Chilean National Congress (Chamber of Deputies and Senate) regarding the state’s duty to recognise its Indigenous Peoples via their inclusion in the new Constitution, and to ensure their effective political participation via reserved seats in the country’s new constitutional body.

The Rapa Nui thus presented their proposals to the Chilean Parliament, namely proportional Indigenous representation according to their demographic size as noted in the last Chilean census (2017). In this census, 12.8% of the population self-identified as a member of an Indigenous people, and so the state has been called on to ensure at least one reserved seat for each of Chile’s Indigenous Peoples.

This position, which has been broadly supported by all the country’s Indigenous Peoples, is currently under discussion within Parliament.

It should be noted that, in terms of political representation, the Rapa Nui people have historically been marginalised by different governments on the justification that, in terms of state formation, the Constitution establishes that Chile is a unitary state. Together with the state’s abandonment of and lack of interest in the Rapa Nui, this means that all national legislation is created purely in line with a mainland vision, without any consideration for the reality, traditions, customs, culture or world vision of the Rapa Nui people, who are caught in a constant conflict between implementation of international human rights treaties signed and ratified by Chile and implementation of national legislation. This conflict has become so stark that, for more than a decade  now, the Rapa Nui people have been waiting for the state to demonstrate the political will to create a Special Statute of Autonomy for their island, something that was promised through a 2007 constitutional amendment in 2007 and which established the territory of Rapa Nui as a special territory within Chile.

Benjamin Ilabaca De La Puente is a Rapa Nui lawyer. He is Legal Director of the Municipality of Easter Island and legal advisor both to the Ma’u Henua Indigenous Community (Indigenous body running the Rapa Nui National Park) and to the Rapa Nui Council of Elders (main political and social body comprising clan chiefs of the Rapa Nui people). He is the Representative of Easter Island’s Mayor on the Easter Island Development Commission (CODEIPA) and on the Demographic Load Management Committee. He is a member of the committee responsible for drafting Law No. 21,070. He is a representative of the Rapa Nui people at the United Nations, in the Indigenous Rights Programme of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here




IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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