Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago

I was struck by the absences in the texts that have come out so far from the Task Force. One of the glaring absences is related to a topic that is specifically mentioned in the list of priorities of the Task Force, namely, "(2) Representations and portrayals of the Yanomami that may have had a negative impact. Yet I could not find so far a serious consideration of the issue, the very same issue that was raised by the Brazilian Anthropological Association in 1988 and reiterated by it in 2000. Without disputing the soundness and productivity of one’s theoretical inclinations–something that is to be debated in academic journals–the question is the following: is the anthropologist in any way responsible for the use or misuse to which her or his work is put?

The answer is, of course, that what is published, as the word itself reveals, is in the public domain and can therefore be used or misused by anyone. But if the author is still alive and conscious, I maintain it is his or her duty to protest against misuse, as soon as he or she is made aware of that, whenever it involves consequences to the people this person worked with. As Sartre said, just after World War II, speaking of the responsibility of the literary writer, “silence is also a word, for when one is inserted in the universe of language, silence is defined in relation to words. Silence is a form of linkage between words, and it means something. To be silent still amounts to speak; no one will say of a mute that he is silent.” (J.P. Sartre, La Responsabilité de l’Ecrivain 1998 [1946]. Editions Verdier, pp.20-21, my translation).

I need not go back to the evidence that was assembled since 1987 on the use made by sectors of the media of Chagnon’s depiction of the Yanomami and how the image they conveyed was used in the context of the invasion by miners and balkanization of Yanomami territory. Useful compilations can be found in Albert and Ramos 1989, Albert 1989, Carneiro da Cunha 1989, Turner 1994, Martins 2001, 2002 and many other documents cited in the papers posted on the Public Anthropology site. May I add that I think more use should have been made of such site, as well as of the materials in the available in the CCPY site, which touched precisely on the issue I felt was under-addressed so far by the Task Force as such.

I was also struck by how little, with few notable exceptions, the debate looks into Yanomami concerns. The views expressed by the Yanomami that have been interviewed are either ignored, dismissed or, alternatively, treated at face value and somehow decontextualized. Respect for Yanomami concerns seems to entail something else: to engage in serious dialogue, unpacking what it is that they are saying and trying to reach the best possible outcome by negotiation. Is a public mea culpa what Yanomami want or is it a way of purging us of a sense of collective or individual guilt? In general, I find the discussion too much centered around US (and the U.S.), and too little around them. This is where I think real paternalism lies: it is to dismiss Yanomami as political interlocutors. I am in total agreement, in that respect, with Janet Chernela who insists that informed consent is a continuous and on-going process. What this situation is telling us is that we have to view the informed consent process as a real negotiation, in which mutual trust is built but also in turn built on mutual trust. It is a practice of recognition, of respect. Real negotiation means positions can be revisited. In the several Yanomami interviews that are circulating on the web, recorded by Janet Chernela and Bruce Albert, people are saying different things at once. They want their blood back, they want in particular their dead relatives’ blood back to be destroyed as is suitable for the dead, they want medical attention for the living, they want to share in potential commercial benefits. And they want respect. They feel they have been deceived, in that they expected the blood to be used (as it is in diagnosing malaria) for their direct health benefit.

As it stands now, in relation to the blood issue, there is no doubt in my mind that research cannot simply continue as if nothing had happened. Among many other reasons, the initial informed consent process is under suspicion and even if it were flawless, the samples were collected for a Biological Program quite different from the current Human Diversity Genome Project (Ricardo Ventura Santos. "Indigenous Peoples, Postcolonial Contexts and Genomic Research in the Late 20th Century: A View from Amazonia (1960-2000)." Critique of Anthropology , vol 22(1), 81-104, 2002). Leaving aside other controversies surrounding the HGDP, there is no way an informed consent for the current scientific use could have been obtained prior to the launching of the project itself.

In a letter 14 Oct 2001, D. Andrew Merriwhether, whose research implies studying DNA extracts from the Yanomami, writes, “I am, and always have been willing and eager to discuss my research and my field of research with the native peoples I study, and if this commission allows a dialogue to open up between the two groups, then this is likely to be a good thing” [reported in Chernela ("Bodily samples," p.13)]. The Yanomami have also made overtures: that is how I understand the Shakita meeting and previous meetings on health issues in Venezuela last year. This seems to signal the possibility of respectful negotiations. I would argue that the Task Force could have a very positive role in that respect.