It was supposed to be a first step in controlling the throngs of tourists and migrants that threaten the fragile ecology and cultural heritage of Easter Island.
Since last month every visitor to the tiny speck in the Pacific, the remote island and home to famous giant stone statues has been obliged to fill in a card detailing their movements. That way indigenous leaders and Chilean authorities, who administer the island, could in theory monitor and curb the influx before it becomes too damaging.
Chile’s supreme court, however, has now ruled that the Special Visitor’s Card, known by its Spanish initials TEV, violates the constitutional right to freedom of movement. Obliging people to fill in the document was “arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional”, it said.
The ruling has dismayed the 2,500 Rapa Nui people who feel overrun by the 70,000 visitors to the island every year, a fivefold increase from just a decade ago.
“The court’s ruling is a mistake,” Mario Tuki, spokesman of a group called the Rapa Nui Parliament, told the BBC. “They have no idea of what is happening here.”
The isolated island, 2,300 miles west of Chile and 1,200 miles east of Pitcairn, survives on tourist revenue but local authorities say there are now too many arrivals. The boom is straining a basic infrastructure short of water, electricity and sanitation services. Mounting waste is putting underground water sources at risk.
The irony is that Easter Island is a symbol of ecological and civilisational collapse: the ancient, sophisticated society which built the statues all but vanished, it is thought, because of environmental degradation.
Some tourists damage the monolithic statues, know as Moais, by climbing on them and engraving their names. A Finnish tourist was fined for hacking off an earlobe as a memento. There is also resentment against the estimated 2,500 Chilean migrants from the mainland – equal to the Rapa Nui – who take jobs.
Indigenous activists blocked the airport’s runway for two days in August. Some have called for independence and the expulsion of Chileans. “In recent months people have simply reacted to the influx and the numbers who come from the continent to settle here,” said Tuki.
Chile’s government promised to cede more power to the Rapa Nui and to control immigration. A first step, based partly on Ecuador’s system to protect the Galapagos Islands, was a visitor card.
Every Chilean and foreigner boarding a flight from Santiago for Easter Island was obliged to fill in a card stating the purpose of visit and where and for how long they would be staying. Last week the supreme court unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling that the document’s mandatory nature violated the constitution.
The government said the cards would now be voluntary. A consultation process with islanders is due later this month.