Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Independent (London), FOREIGN NEWS; Pg. 18, December 9, 2000
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Scientists And Missionaries Fall Out Over Epidemic That Decimated Amazon Tribe

Phil Gunson In Caracas

ALLEGATIONS THAT American scientists were responsible for wiping out Yanomami Indians have caused a rift among anthropologists and are now threatening to disrupt all scientific research in indigenous regions of Venezuela.

In his book Darkness in El Dorado, Patrick Tierney alleged that scientists led by the late geneticist James Neel and the controversial Californian anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, triggered a measles epidemic in the 1960s among the Yanomami tribe, one of the world's most isolated peoples.

The epidemic, Mr Tierney claims, led to hundreds or even thousands of deaths. But Egidio Romano, director of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research has denounced Mr Tierney as a fraud, a person who alters the information he is given, and exaggerates his conclusions. Scientists at the state-funded institute are concerned. Not only did the institute collaborate for many years with Professor Chagnon's studies of the Yanomami, but one of its founders participated in the 1968 expedition.

Moreover, the institute's research is being blocked in a variety of disciplines. Last month the director of indigenous affairs for the Venezuelan government called for a moratorium on all research in indigenous areas. The institute was not consulted, nor even officially informed.

The American Anthropological Association, at its recent convention in San Francisco, set up a commission to determine whether Mr Tierney's allegations have any justification. In Venezuela, the health ministry is also gathering evidence.

Dr Romano feels the research moratorium puts the cart before the horse. "It's the equivalent of saying, 'You're guilty, and now we're going to investigate exactly how you are guilty'."

Professor Chagnon is no stranger to controversy. For a decade he has been in open dispute with the Salesian missionaries, one of the most powerful institutions in Venezuela's Amazonas state, on whom the government has relied for education, health and other services in remote Indian territory.

According to Professor Chagnon's Venezuelan collaborator, the explorer and naturalist Charles Brewer-Carias, the most important thing for the Salesians has been to convert the Indians, regardless of the consequences. That guaranteed the financial support of the state. Mr Brewer sees the Tierney book as part of a defamation campaign by the Salesians, whose power in Amazonas, he argues, is threatened by Professor Chagnon. The Salesian Bishop of Amazonas, Mgr Jose Angel Divasson, denies proselytising and says the Salesians' mission has been to accompany the Indians. "We are respectful of their culture," he says.

In turn he accuses Professor Chagnon and Mr Brewer-Carias of exploiting the Yanomami for their own purposes, extracting huge amounts of blood and DNA samples in exchange for trade goods - such as machetes - that sparked conflict within the communities, and of acting as a front for "powerful interests" such as tourism and mining.

He also claims Professor Chagnon is a hypocrite. In an interview in around 1989 he said the best way of working with indigenous peoples was the Salesians' way, he points out.

Professor Chagnon acknowledged that this was true. "I had reservations about their work, but this was not the time to air them," he said. "I made that statement in the context of developing a collaboration (with the missionaries)." Professor Chagnon, who denies all the accusations, argues that the death rate of Yanomami near mission stations is four times the normal rate, and that the Salesians are guilty of hundreds of deaths because they distribute shotguns to the Indians - a charge the church rejects.

Nohely Pocaterra, who heads the parliamentary commission on indigenous peoples, says she understands the scientists' concern over the moratorium, but claims it is "necessary to call a halt ... because we urgently need an inventory of what is being done". Under Venezuela's new constitution, she says, the Indians have a right to be informed and consulted, and she asks what is perhaps the key question.

How is it that, despite the presence of so many scientists in indigenous communities, the Indians are sinking deeper and deeper into extreme poverty and diseases like malaria and tuberculosis are more and more common? And rights activists say multinational drugs corporations are making vast sums by exploiting the Indians' intellectual property, while giving nothing in return.

Faced with protests from the research institute, the indigenous affairs department staged a partial retreat. It said the moratorium applied only in the Upper Orinoco region where the Yanomami live, and was a temporary measure.

Members of the parliamentary commission are to visit the institute to discuss the issue. "We assume (the scientists) have good intentions," said Nohely Pocaterra. "But then that's what we thought about Chagnon."