Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Napoleon Chagnon Warns about the Plight of the Yanomamo

In the Wake of Devastating Floods in Venezuela's Amazon Region Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, pioneering investigator of South America's primitive Yanomamo tribes people, warns that serious flooding in the Orinoco River basin, in Venezuela's Amazon region, could threaten their survival.

Only some 25,000 Yanomamo are believed to be left in the rain forests of Amazonia - about two-thirds of them in Venezuela, the remainder across the border in Brazil.

Chagnon, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of The Fierce People, the bestselling study of the Yanomamo, has just returned from a visit to Venezuela, where he found the flooding had imperiled clusters of Yanomamo living near the Orinoco River as well as some of its major tributatories, such as the Padamo and Ocamo rivers.

He said the devastation was widespread and had created a "major survival crisis" for the Indians, many of whom are only a generation away from a Stone Age lifestyle. He said that it was important to get out word of the disaster because the Indians will need massive government aid to ensure their survival.

Chagnon will discuss the Yanomamo's plight with colleagues at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, which takes place this week at Northwestern University in Chicago. He can be reached there

Following is an update on the Yanomamo's situation that Chagnon received yesterday from his Venezuelan collaborator, Charles Brewer Carias of Caracas:

Emergency Among the Venezuelan Yanomamo of the Orinoco River

A number of Yanomamo villages located along the banks of the Padamo and Ocamo rivers, in Venezuela's Amazon region, where they settled some years ago at the invitation of missionaries, are facing an emergency situation because of the intensity of rainfall and the unusually high level of the Orinoco River, exacerbated by the extraordinarily large discharges of some of the major tributaries of the Orinoco.

In the region of the lower Padamo, one of the Yanomamo villages has a population in excess of 400 people. Their villages are submerged under 12 feet of flood water and they have lost most of their possessions, including several of their precious outboard motors, which they were able to acquire only after several years of work.

In addition, their large gardens of staple food crops, plantains and yuca, on which this very large and widely scattered population depends, have been completely destroyed by the flooding. Furthermore, the flooding has scattered all the local game animals - their primary source of meat - and drowned all of their domestic animals.

As for fishing, the wet season is always the worst time of the year because the rivers are swollen and the fish are widely scattered and nearly impossible to catch.

The grim food situation, loss of basic implements needed to obtain food, and the associated increased sicknesses are becoming very serious problems and are likely to lead to uncontrollable epidemics.

The Yanomamo here are becoming increasingly debilitated by lack of both cultivated foods and the scarcity of traditionally abundant and edible forest resources. The situation could lead to disastrous health consequences never before faced by the Yanomamo in this area.

In addition to the emergency situation in the Padamo River area, flooding has also devastated the Yanomamo who began moving to the confluence of the Ocamo River with the Orinoco some years ago, as well as those who have recently moved to Las Esmeraldas, a growing mission and government center lower down the Orinoco from the mouths of the Padamo and Ocamo where a new military airport has been built. The landing strip and the houses of the natives are currently under water because of the unprecedented flooding of the Orinoco.

The legislative assembly of the state of Amazonas, the governor's office, the Parima-Culebra medical group, and the Yanomamo Commission, established in 1993 by the president of Venezuela, have all been working to determine the magnitude of the tragedy, but the resources of the governor's office are extremely limited and it will be necessary for the governor to obtain aid from the national government to provide immediate assistance to the groups affected by the flooding, who, due to the long-term policies emphasizing the attractiveness of a market economy and manufactured products, have abandoned their remote ancestral locations and traditional subsistence patterns and have recently migrated to these major rivers in the belief that they will enjoy the alleged opportunities and socioeconomic advantages promised to them by Western Civilization.

Fred Golden
(805) 893-7220