The stone faces and human problems on Easter Island

Photo of Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati. Photo credit: Easter Island Statue Project

In 1981, archaeology graduate student Jo Anne Van Tilburg first set foot on the island of Rapa Nui, commonly called Easter Island, eager to further her interest in rock art by studying the iconic stone heads that enigmatically survey the landscape.

At the time, Van Tilburg was one of just a few thousand people who would visit Rapa Nui each year. Although the island remains one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a surge in visitors has placed its delicate ecosystem and archaeological treasures in jeopardy.

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” said Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest collaborative artifact inventory ever conducted on the Polynesian island that’s part of Chile. “As of last year the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000.”

Journalist Anderson Cooper interviewed Van Tilburg on the island for a segment that aired Easter Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper spoke with Van Tilburg about efforts to preserve the moai (pronounced MO-eye) — the monolithic stone statues that were carved and placed on the island from around 1100 to 1400 and whose stoic faces have fascinated the world for decades. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Van Tilburg, who is research associate at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive since 1997, was the first archaeologist since the 1950s to obtain permission to excavate the moai, granted from Chile’s National Council of Monuments and the Rapa Nui National Park, with the Rapa Nui community and in collaboration with the National Center of Conservation and Restoration, Santiago de Chile.

She has spent nearly four decades listening, learning, establishing connections, making covenants with the elders of Rapanui society and reporting extensively on her findings. Major funding has been provided by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Fund.

“I think my patience and diligence were rewarded,” she said. “They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work.”

Photo of Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg.

Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg. Photo credit: Keith Sharman.

Bringing together research and teaching

Van Tilburg credits the sustained support of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute as critical to her work on the island. She regularly includes both UCLA undergraduates from a variety of academic disciplines and passionate volunteers in the hands-on work on Rapa Nui.

Van Tilburg, who received her doctorate in archaeology from UCLA in 1989, is working on a book project that will harness her massive archive as an academic atlas of the island. She used the proceeds of a previous book to invest in local businesses, the Mana Gallery and Mana Gallery Press, both of which highlight indigenous artists. She also helped the local community rediscover their canoe-making history through the 1995 creation of the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club.

Her co-director on the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, is Rapanui and a graphic artist by trade. Van Tilburg exclusively employs islanders for her excavation work. She’s traveled the world helping catalog items from the island that are now housed in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London. Van Tilburg does this to assist repatriation efforts.

Culture and environment at risk

Her work is important to the 5,700 residents of the island, who also are coping with increasing waves of tourists into their fragile ecosystem, Van Tilburg said. Only in the last decade or so have they been given governance of the national park where the moai are located.

“But by Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 annual visitors is a mob,” she said.

What’s more disheartening are travelers who ignore the rules and climb on the moai, trample preserved spaces and sit on top of graves, all in service of getting a photo of themselves picking the nose of an ancient artifact, Van Tilburg said.

Hierarchy and inequity in Rapanui society

Van Tilburg’s original impetus behind studying the moai is rooted in her curiosity about migration, marginalized people and how societies rise and fall.

Rapanui society was traditionally hierarchical, led by a class of people who believed themselves God-appointed elites. These leaders dictated where the lower classes could live and how they would work to provide food for the elites and the population at large.

The ruling class also determined how and when the moai – used as the backdrop for exchange and ceremony – would be built.

“This inherently institutionalized religious hierarchy produced an inequitable society,” Van Tilburg said. “They were very successful in the sense that their population grew. But they were unsuccessful at understanding that unless they managed what they had better, and more fairly, that there was no future.”

Population growth and rampant inequity in a fragile environment eventually led to wrenching societal changes, she said. Internal collapse (as outlined in UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s book Collapse), along with colonization and slave-trading in the 1800s, caused the population of Rapa Nui to drop to just 111 in the 1870s.

As an anthropologist, Van Tilburg is concerned with equity.

“I’m interested in asking why we keep replicating societies in which people are not equal, because in doing so, we initiate a crisis,” she said. “Inequity is at the heart of our human problems.”

The new report documents decades of the city’s rent control policy, including the introduction of a rent stabilization ordinance in the 1970s. Pictured: A 1978 rent control march on City Hall.

Los Angeles Housing Crisis Remains Critical with the Defeat of Proposition 10

The new report documents decades of the city’s rent control policy, including the introduction of a rent stabilization ordinance in the 1970s. Pictured: A 1978 rent control march on City Hall.

The new report documents decades of the city’s rent control policy, including the introduction of a rent stabilization ordinance in the 1970s. Pictured: A 1978 rent control march on City Hall.

By Jessica Wolf

California voters rejected Proposition 10, which would have repealed the Costa-Hawkins act of 1995 and allowed cities across the state to implement broader rent control policies as a response to California’s current affordable housing crisis.

It’s an issue that the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy tackled in its first major publication since the center’s founding in 2017. The paper, titled People Simply Cannot Pay the Rent, was released well before Election Day in an effort to inspire dialogue around and contextualize the history of rent control in Los Angeles. It also presented several options (including the repeal of Costa-Hawkins) that could help ameliorate the economic vulnerability and anxiety of the growing number of people who cannot afford rent in Los Angeles.

The center’s mission is to bring historical perspective to contemporary policy issues, and UCLA researchers will continue to push for meaningful policy decisions when it comes to this crisis.
“The defeat of Prop. 10 does not solve the problem of affordable housing,” said David Myers, a professor of history and the center’s director. “The logic of rent control as a valuable policy tool remains as valid as ever. This is what our working paper showed – that rent control can be an effective instrument to protect the most vulnerable residents of a city. We hope that it is read with growing interest as politicians and policy leaders continue to grapple with the acute housing crisis in California.”

Offering a historical perspective
Aimed at city and state officials, as well as concerned citizens, the report documents the history of rent control policy in Los Angeles from World War II through the present day, focusing on three important milestones: the implementation of federal rent controls during World War II; the introduction of the city’s current rent stabilization ordinance in response to high inflation in the 1970s; and today’s crisis.

Recent data indicate that Los Angeles residents face the nation’s largest rent burden, with median renters spending 47 percent of their income on rent. According to 2011 data, 57 percent of Los Angeles renters were considered “rent burdened,” up from 37 percent in 1980, when rent control was first established. The trend has also contributed to the region’s homelessness epidemic – approximately 53,000 people in Los Angeles County are homeless.

“Los Angeles is experiencing a perfect storm of affordable housing shortfalls, rising rents and dropping incomes,” Myers said. “It is crushing the poorest citizens of the city, particularly Latinos and blacks, with disproportionate force, and this interplay has exacerbated homelessness – the great social and moral scourge of our time, and an epidemic that threatens the life and soul of our city.”

The report also suggests that public engagement is critical. Options proposed include requiring landlords and tenants to sign property registration forms so that tenants are aware of their rights, and a public relations campaign that would cast the crisis as a serious social and public health problem. Both of those actions were undertaken by the federal government during World War II, the paper notes.

A contentious issue
“Nearly $100 million was spent to defeat Prop. 10, four or five times what the proponents spent,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles County supervisor, current senior fellow at the
center and author of the study’s introduction. “Money does make a difference. The legislature would be well-advised to pass legislation that removes some, if not all, of the shackles
that the Costa-Hawkins law places on local governments to address the affordable housing crisis. If they don’t, there will be another Initiative in 2020 to repeal the whole thing.”

The report’s author is Alisa Belinkoff Katz, fellow with the center and associate director of the LA Initiative, housed in UCLA’s Luskin School. Historical information was contributed by doctoral candidates Peter Chesney, Lindsay Alissa King and Marques Vestal.

During a campus panel conversation the center hosted leading up to the election, Ph.D. candidate Vestal said he thinks taking the historical long view can help depressurize the contentious issue.

Rent control policies date back to 1600s Rome when the Catholic Church imposed restrictions on Christian landlords who owned buildings in Jewish ghettos. Most countries in Europe immediately implemented rent control policies after World War II to benefit recovering economies, he pointed out.

“To an extent, housing crises are just a part of urban life,” he said. There is widespread agreement that more development is crucial to address Los Angeles’ current crisis, but even the most optimistic projections say it could take a decade to make a dent in that need, said state Assemblyman Richard Bloom.

“The issue is how to help those people who are suffering now and in this moment and over the next 10 years,” he said. “We can’t simply write them off and say this is a lost generation who will not have housing or who will have a lower quality of life. That’s the main reason I took on the Costa-Hawkins debate in the first place.”

Bloom was the first lawmaker to introduce legislation that would revise or repeal Costa-Hawkins. It died in committee. He thinks legislation is a more elegant solution than a ballot measure, and said he is certain there will be “folks banging on my door.”