- At the start of 2018, the Chilean government transferred the management of Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island to the Ma’u Henua Polynesian Indigenous Community.
- By then, however, there was already conclusive evidence of serious financial inconsistencies in the park’s provisional management by Ma’u Henua’s board.
- During a 20-month period, about $566,000 in payments for services and supplies wound up in accounts belonging to the board chairman’s close relatives.
- The conflict has divided residents of Rapa Nui, resulted in a mob beating and a courtroom set on fire, and sparked ongoing investigations by Chile’s public prosecutor’s office.
SANTIAGO, Chile — In late January 2019, as Juan Nahoe Hereveri awaited questioning in the Easter Island courthouse, people gathered outside, shouting, swearing revenge, and calling for his death.
The crowd broke through the courtroom doors, and an avalanche of enraged men piled onto Nahoe, known locally as El Paki (“The Pakistani”). The police rescued him from the attack, whisked him out of the courtroom, and hid him in another room. The mob, increasingly infuriated, climbed onto the courthouse roof, removed the zinc sheets, and entered the building to hunt him down.
It’s not clear whether Nahoe ever imagined, in the early hours of that morning when he killed Luis Araki Paoa, the anger it would trigger among the inhabitants of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. (Nahoe admitted to killing Araki in self-defense.)
Outside the courtroom, Araki’s avengers set grass alight, and inside the police threw teargas. The gas exploded in contact with the smoke, and fire overtook the courtroom. With the building evacuated and “El Paki” out on the street, the police couldn’t protect him from the mob, who punched him, threw stones at him and tore off his clothes. Nahoe was left lying naked on the street, unconscious and bloodstained. He had to be airlifted 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) to a hospital in Santiago, on the Chilean mainland, for treatment and security.
Those who witnessed the attack said that, as the hours passed, it was no longer about avenging Araki. According to the islanders, Nahoe was merely the scapegoat for the board of the Ma’u Henua Polynesian Indigenous Community, the group in charge of managing Rapa Nui National Park, and for which Nahoe had provided services. Tensions were flaring on the island over rumors that Ma’u Henua leaders were mismanaging park funds and doling money out to their friends and family members. The rumors appeared to be true, a Mongabay Latam investigation indicates.
Mongabay Latam obtained access to Ma’u Henua’s accounts and assessments by state auditing bodies. During a 20-month period, 360 million pesos (about $566,000 at the exchange rate in June 2018) wound up in the hands of the Ma’u Henua chairman’s immediate family and their companies. The multimillion-dollar revenues generated by the national park, a protected forest that is one of Chile’s main tourist destinations, became embroiled in financial chaos, with unjustified expenses and management accused of monopolizing power.
The co-administration agreement
In 2015, the islanders had blocked access to the park, and a pro-independence atmosphere inspired protests against the Chilean government. A particular target was the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), the public body in charge of administering protected natural areas. The Rapa Nui, as the indigenous inhabitants of the island are called, demanded self-management of their natural and cultural heritage, which they believed was being destroyed by a state administration that funneled revenues to the Chilean mainland rather than reinvesting them back into the park.
The islanders’ anger and ambitions of independence were calmed by a promise from then-president Michelle Bachelet: before her presidential term ended, she said, she would transfer the park entirely to the Rapa Nui. For this to happen, a legally recognized indigenous community had to be created. So on Aug. 2, 2016, Ma’u Henua, meaning “manage, guide the land” in Rapa Nui, was officially launched. A board, chaired by Camilo Rapu, a then 38-year-old commercial engineer, governed the community.
A co-administration agreement was signed between CONAF and Ma’u Henua. Later, if the conditions were fulfilled, the park would be transferred to Ma’u Henua in concession for 50 years.
The terms involved the community collecting park entrance fees and depositing the money in a CONAF bank account weekly. CONAF would return the money to Ma’u Henua monthly, and the community would report the previous month’s revenues and expenses. The agreement stipulated that an administrative audit would be conducted annually.
According to Ma’u Henua’s rules, the board’s management of the park would be audited by the Honui. This is a traditional governing body comprised of representatives of Rapa Nui families, and was revived during the early park-handover process.
Carlos Edmunds Paoa, a Honui member and president of the Council of Elders, another of the most important indigenous institutions in Rapa Nui culture, was among those who celebrated the creation of Ma’u Henua. Since then, however, he says he has come to regret the course of events, and says he never imagined the dream would end in fighting.
The Rapu family
Mongabay Latam obtained access to some of the accounts completed by Ma’u Henua for CONAF, bank deposit records, accounting spreadsheets, and results of the first audit performed on Ma’u Henua’s finances.
Between October 2016 and mid-June 2018, at least $566,000 was transferred from Ma’u Henua’s bank accounts to close relatives of board chairman Camilo Rapu.
This money was designated for renting offices belonging to Rapu family members and other services. In some cases, the payments were never made; in others, it is not even known what they were for.
The offices belonged to Valeria Hey, Camilo Rapu’s maternal grandmother, and Karen Rapu, his sister, who received monthly rents of about $5,900 and $2,800 respectively. Valeria Hey and Karen Rapu earned a total of $122,245 in rent over that period of one year and eight months.
Camilo Rapu’s maternal grandfather, Matías Riroroko, owns Naviera Iorana, a maritime transport company that brings supplies to Easter Island from Valparaíso. Camilo Rapu serves as its chief executive. Between October 2016 and June 2018, Ma’u Henua paid the company about $118,000.
María Eugenia Riroroko, Camilo Rapu’s mother, also profited from Ma’u Henua’s spending. Her company, Hare Toa Ltda, sold construction material, office supplies, various merchandise, cleaning products and even ornamental plants to her son’s administration valued at about $74,000 over the period analyzed. Hare Toa also issued receipts for the sales despite not being registered with the Chilean tax authority. When asked about this, the tax authority said receipts may not be issued by an unregistered company, and that such documents would necessarily be false, constituting a crime.
Mongabay Latam tried to contact María Riroroko prior to the original publication of this article in Spanish in February 2019, but did not receive a response.
Hare Toa was not the only company doing this. According to the audit of Ma’u Henua, 51 of 110 suppliers issued receipts to the community without registering with the tax authority.
Mongabay Latam also discovered that Ma’u Henua paid $918 per month in rent to Juan Camilo Rapu, Camilo’s father, for a bathroom. That’s the equivalent of the rent for a 70-square-meter (750-square-foot) house in Hanga Roa, the island’s main town. Roberto Araki Peña, a close friend of Camilo Rapu, received about $71,000 through the companies Oceanic Rent a Car and Ferretería Haka Piri. Benjamín Rapu Haoa, Camilo’s paternal uncle, who is involved in construction and transport, received about $45,000.
Questioned by Mongabay Latam, Camilo Rapu said Ma’u Henua had hired Naviera Iorana for political reasons because it provides the only boats belonging to Rapa Nui people. He said the decision on renting the office space was based on location and price, and that he had not participated in voting because it involved his immediate family.
He also said Ma’u Henua needed to turn to his close relatives’ businesses for purchases to get the project going. “When we began, the state gave us no funds,” Rapu said. “We had to request loans to buy what we needed, but this was at the beginning. Now we buy from all businesses.”
Karen Rapu, who earned rent from Ma’u Henua, said it was sad that the nature of the transactions had been misinterpreted. “Obviously Camilo came to his family and his family helped him,” she said of her brother. “The rest of the board’s families supported the cause because they had no money.”
The first deposit by CONAF to Ma’u Henua, for nearly $493,000, was made on Oct. 16, 2016, two months after the co-administration agreement was signed. Even so, according to Rapu, it was necessary to buy vehicles and rent offices, and to do so he had to use his own money and family businesses.
The audit performed on Ma’u Henua’s accounts revealed a financial quagmire. In just one year, from October 2016 to October 2017, Ma’u Henua spent nearly $1.34 million more than the amount declared to CONAF.
The audit also found 51 false expenditure claims where the supporting documentation and declared amounts did not match. It also identified differences in wage payments: Ma’u Henua told CONAF it paid about $196,000, more than the amount on its books.
And according to an internal financial analysis performed by PKF Chile Auditores Consultores Ltda, between October 2016 and August 2017, 198 checks were lost, of which only 72 were blocked by the bank. The report noted that money orders were recorded for a total of about $200,000, “corresponding to checks for which it has not been possible to identify the provenance of the service or purchase, nor the supporting documentation for the expenditure.”
Camilo Rapu told Mongabay Latam that these findings dated to a period when Ma’u Henua was inexperienced and just beginning to operate. “Obviously we had issues and we resolved them. These issues no longer exist,” he said.
A park changes hands
In addition to the financial mess and the payments made to Camilo Rapu’s relatives, there were months during which Ma’u Henua did not send CONAF any money from park entrance fees, according to banking data CONAF submitted to Mongabay Latam.
Ninoska Cuadros, the Rapa Nui regional head of CONAF for Easter Island, said that due to the haphazard accounts, CONAF stopped the repayments and from then on Ma’u Henua did not make any deposits. “They said they distrusted us because we were late in transferring the money. But the accounts were bad, the work was badly done and we had to audit,” Cuadros said.
According to Cuadros, around $3.3 million in park fees collected between July and November 2017 had not been deposited with CONAF. “The executive director [of CONAF] at the time said: ‘There are revenues reported but not deposited. I am not getting involved in a crime that means public wealth not being paid to the tax authorities. This is a condition not to deliver the park,’” Cuadros said.
Despite the financial irregularities in Ma’u Henua’s accounts and criticism from the Rapa Nui community itself over the group’s poor administration, in December 2017 the provisional occupancy permit was signed. This was the next-to-last step, just prior to the concession contract, in the process of transferring the park’s management to the Rapa Nui people. The agreement was that Ma’u Henua would deposit to CONAF the outstanding $3.3 million, which CONAF would pay back in two installments. The group transferred the money and CONAF deposited the first installment of the repayment into Ma’u Henua’s account in January 2018.
On Jan. 25 that year, the audit arrived, confirming in detail what was already known. Even so, in March the concession contract was signed between the Ministry of National Assets and Ma’u Henua, granting the latter sole administration of Rapa Nui National Park.
As agreed in the provisional occupancy permit, Camilo Rapu reported the expenses, but again the accounts did not tally, and CONAF withheld the second installment of the $3.3 million. The ministry set a deadline of Dec. 5, 2018, for Ma’u Henua’s board to submit revised accounts, and in the meantime approved sending the second installment. This was transferred to Ma’u Henua in November 2018.
When the Dec. 5 deadline came around, the revised accounts raised concerns. The ministry’s observations noted “significant discrepancies between revenues, expenditures and final balance in the declared current account … expenses that require a better explanation due to their high amount and nature … [and] large differences in personal expenses in the months of April, May and June.”
But both the money and management of the park had already been transferred to Ma’u Henua. Cuadros of CONAF said Ma’u Henua’s board knew that whatever happened, “the park was going to be transferred, because it was a political obligation of the president.”
Mongabay Latam contacted the Ministry of National Assets to ask why it had continued sending money despite the payments not adding up, and why management of the park was transferred despite the requirements not being fulfilled. Ministry officials responded that because the process of signing the concession contract began on Dec. 1, 2017, “we could not take a position regarding the preceding period corresponding to the Associativity Agreement with the National Forestry Corporation.”
But the chronology of events shows there were transfers of money after the concession was handed over and there was evidence of financial problems at the time of the handover.
A rift in the community
It was not long after Ma’u Henua was established that Honui, the governance body consisting of Rapa Nui family representatives, started complaining. “They denied us information, did not consult on anything with anybody, and hoarded power,” Honui members told Mongabay.
The Council of Elders agreed. “We trusted, sacrificed, worked hard with the government to make everything happen, but once it happened the chairman no longer needs us. He manages the park and feels like the island’s boss now. It feels like a family company,” said Paoa, the council president.
Camilo Rapu said this was an unfortunate misinterpretation of the facts, involving “a minority trying to manipulate information.”
Two extraordinary meetings of Ma’u Henua’s roughly 2,000 members were called in May and December of 2018 to vote on the criticism of the board. On both occasions, the majority decision was to relieve the board members of their duties. But each time the vote was annulled for not having fulfilled all formal requirements.
Days before the second vote in December 2018, Andrés Celis, a deputy in Chile’s lower house of congress, wrote to the National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI by its Spanish acronym), the state body in charge of indigenous affairs, asking it to intervene. In his letter, he said he was worried about the division in Rapa Nui society. “We could have a terrible outcome not only with respect to heritage, environment and the economy, but also socially and politically,” he wrote.
Sergio Tepano, the head of CONADI on Easter Island, said his office was prohibited by law from intervening in indigenous peoples’ electoral processes.
In March 2019, Camilo Rapu was removed from office by a popular vote of the Ma’u Henua members, a decision that CONADI ratified. But in August the country’s Qualifying Court of Elections, the body that oversees elections, overturned that vote, declaring it invalid because of a lack of quorum. It reinstated Rapu as head of Ma’u Henua and Rapa Nui National Park, securing his position until the next election, scheduled for later this year. For his part, Rapu sued the Chilean government for intervening inappropriately in Rapa Nui affairs.
Amid the political turmoil, various parties mounted legal challenges to Ma’u Henua’s management of the park. In April 2019, two months after Mongabay Latam published its findings into Ma’u Henua’s accounts, Honui members filed a complaint against Camilo Rapu with the public prosecutor’s office for fraud against the treasury, using information contained in the Mongabay report. The office’s regional anticorruption unit, based in the city of Valparaíso, is investigating the case. It said any penalty imposed would depend on “the amount of money stolen and could range, in the abstract, from 541 days to five years in prison.”
Celis, the congressman, also filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office about the probable theft of around $1.5 million from Rapa Nui National Park and asked the Ministry of National Assets to take strong and urgent measures to address the irregularities found in the park’s administration. Both investigations are ongoing.
“It is a dispute between clans,” the Chilean media reported on the day Juan Nahoe Hereveri was attacked in court. But thousands of miles away from the mainland, the Rapa Nui hope the conflict they face will be met with a better explanation. Since then, tensions have calmed on one of the most important islands for Chile’s natural and cultural heritage. Whether the investigations, or even the upcoming election, will result in any change in how Rapa Nui National Park is managed remains to be seen. In time, perhaps the park will come to benefit the entire island community and help bring it back together.
Banner image of a fire at the Easter Island courthouse on Jan. 29, 2019, by Tamaru Huke.
This story is a combination of two articles originally published in Spanish on Mongabay Latam on Feb. 27, 2019, and on June 13, 2019. Additional reporting by Rebecca Kessler and María Salazar to provide updates.