Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Statement by the Office of Indigenous Affairs of Venezuela (DAI) Concerning the Allegations of the Book Darkness in El Dorado

AAA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, November 17, 2000

Session: Ethical Issues in Field Research among the Yanomami

The Dirección de Asuntos Indígenas (DAI) or Office of Indigenous Affairs of Venezuela is aware of the allegations made in the book Darkness in El Dorado concerning the most serious violation of human rights and ethics in the course of research and other activities carried out by professionals of various disciplines and nationalities among the Yanomami Indians of Amazonas. The DAI has named a commission to investigate these allegations and to determine their veracity. This commission is made up of professionals from different fields and perspectives and may be enlarged to include other relevant institutional and professional representation. The DAI is committed to a fair and impartial analysis and assessment of the allegations and of the evidence presented and will also examine the roles played by Venezuelan researchers and institutions in the alleged wrongdoings. Other government and non-government agencies may implement similar initiatives in the next few weeks.

The DAI has also declared a moratorium on new permits for research in all Venezuelan indigenous territories and communities by local as well as foreign personnel. This moratorium will be in effect until new regulations are drafted in the near future. The new regulations will include requirements regarding ethical criteria and explicit informed consent by the indigenous communities involved in future research.

For the purpose of fostering the work of the investigative commission, the Office of Indigenous Affairs would like to establish channels of communication and cooperation with whatever investigative body is designated by the American Anthropological Association to look into the allegations. Such cooperation would facilitate the sharing of relevant information between the autonomous commissions of inquiry. It is our conviction that allegations regarding such serious violations of ethics and the human rights of indigenous peoples should not go by unheeded but rather should be investigated to their fullest extent. We believe the appointment of investigative commissions should be understood as the institutional will and commitment to establish the facts and never as a comment on the veracity of the allegations nor as an a priori statement regarding the possible outcome of the investigations.

At the Office of Indigenous Affairs of Venezuela we feel that, in the controversy surrounding the contents of the book, the rights of the Yanomami should be of principal concern. We understand that differing theoretical and methodological approaches may be involved in the opposing views, but for our own present purposes they are relevant only insofar as they impinge on breaches of ethics and on failures to respect the rights of the Yanomami people concerning their lives and integrity, social and cultural customs, dignity, representation and general wellbeing. We also believe that the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples of Venezuela and elsewhere have the right to be informed in the best possible sense regarding the research carried out among them, the methods and the intended uses to which any collected data, images and or biological samples are put.

The allegations made in the book Darkness in El Dorado are many and of very serious nature. If all or some of the charges are proven true they may involve responsibilities of institutions, researchers, journalists and others of several nationalities, including Venezuela. The investigations should be characterized by a high regard for impartiality, fairness and professionalism and by the very same standards of ethics whose breach the commissions will try to determine. The DAI welcomes any relevant information that may be provided by anthropologists and other scientists from the US and other countries for helping to determine the facts in the alleged events. Any such information may be submitted to the electronic addresses placed at the end of this statement.

The Office of Indigenous Affairs also welcomes concern for the present and future wellbeing of the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples of Venezuela. Despite recent efforts to improve and extend systematic medical attention, only approximately 35% of the Venezuelan Yanomami receive regular medical care. Thus health-wise the situation continues to be critical particularly in regards to infant morbidity and mortality. Malaria, hepatitis, and respiratory and gastrointestinal infections continue to be the main illnesses in the area. The increasing presence of national institutions and external agents also raise new issues for the Yanomami particularly in regards to their social and cultural integrity in the context of rapidly changing circumstances. The Yanomami presently face the challenge of adapting to the new interaction with powerful national institutions on bases that do not threaten their cultural integrity nor undermine their self-determination. Undoubtedly, renewed efforts are required to radically improve the health situation and to provide the Yanomami with the channels for a more intercultural and symmetrical interaction with the outside world.

This intercultural model of more equitable interaction between indigenous societies and the outside world should also apply to the field of scientific and particularly anthropological investigation. Perhaps the controversy elicited by Darkness in El Dorado should move us to reflect on certain methods and practices wherein by conceiving of indigenous societies as mere arenas for the testing of research hypotheses human subjects are in fact reduced to human objects. And if this were the case perhaps we should ask whether such objectification of individuals, communities and entire societies does not in itself constitute also an instance of violation of human rights.

The varied and grave nature of the allegations made in Darkness in El Dorado together with the unprecedented publicity the ensuing controversy has received in the US, Venezuela and elsewhere has generated widespread attention towards how these charges will be dealt with by government, professional and other agencies and institutions of the involved countries. There may be also some concern in academic circles that the allegations made will damage the public image of anthropology and other disciplines or that they may impair the future ability of their practitioners to obtain future permits for research among indigenous peoples. Once again, we believe our greatest concern and priority should be oriented towards determining whether the Yanomami were harmed in the manners and to the extent the book claims. The Yanomami are undoubtedly the most significant audience these sessions have.

Gabriela Croes
Dirección General de Asuntos Indígenas
Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte
República Bolivariana de Venezuela
E-mail: asuntosindigenas@hotmail.com

Jesús Ignacio Cardozo
Commission to investigate allegations of Darkness in El Dorado
E-mail: watori@hotmail.com