Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Statement delivered at the Open Discussion, "Ethical Issues in Field Research among the Yanomami: Part II," American Anthropological Association annual meeting, San Francisco, 11/17/00.

My name is Linda Rabben. I am a member of the AAA's Committee for Human Rights, Brazil Specialist for Amnesty International USA and the author of Unnatural Selection: The Yanomami, the Kayapó and the Onslaught of Civilization. I am not speaking here on behalf of the Human Rights Committee.

Doña Noeli Pocatera said last night: "Are you anthropologists our friends or our enemies?" Some anthropologists might deny the relevance of this question and say their allegiance is to "science," but science does not exist independent of real world concerns and consequences.

I was going to discuss Napoleon Chagnon's 1988 Science article and its consequences for the Yanomami, but the statement of the Brazilian Anthropological Association has already described how Brazilian politicians, journalists and others used the article to justify genocide, and how Prof. Chagnon didn't publicly repudiate those uses. Instead, he compounded the offense by attacking people in Brazil who were trying to put a stop to the genocide, which resulted in the deaths of 10 to 20 percent of Brazil's Yanomami population in about four years. That was wrong.

In the 1992 edition of his book, Prof. Chagnon said he would dedicate the rest of his career to the Yanomami and their children. I'd like to know what exactly he did to help them.

Anthropologists don't have only scientific responsibilities but also ethical ones. Therefore, I am calling for an investigation of the charges in Tierney's book, not to defend anthropology from attacks by outsiders, but to reaffirm our ethical commitments and responsibilities as scientists, anthropologists and human beings to other human beings.

As our code of ethics says, these ethical obligations "can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities. . . ."

Anthropologists and other scientists aren't somehow exempt from or above ethical codes and international law. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says people shall not be subjected to scientific experimentation to which they have not freely consented. Perhaps scientists weren't aware of that protocol in the late 1960s, but there is no excuse for scientists in the late 1980s and 1990s to try to defend ethically dubious actions or lack of action by pleading ignorance of international human rights standards and the ethical codes of our discipline.

The first responsibility of anthropologists is to protect the interests of the people we study. That may not be easy to determine, but it is absolutely imperative.