Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune , BOOKS;Pg. BOOKS-1, December 17, 2000
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Rumble In The Jungle; 'Darkness in El Dorado' sparks a firestorm among scientists, journalists -- and takes no prisoners

Brian Alexander

How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon
Patrick Tierney
Norton, 396 pages, $27.97

Say what you want about politicians, they are used to the criticism. Scientists, on the other hand, especially "soft-science" scientists who often cannot refute criticism with hard measurements the way most physicists or biologists can, are among the most defensive of all professions when they are criticized.

This explains my current dilemma: Do I review Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado" or do I review the letter from the National Academy of Sciences that literally raced the book into my hands? Do I talk about the truth of Tierney's subtitle ("How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon") or do I review the hue and cry erupting from certain scientific quarters?

The idea of wading into this muck makes me queasy. I have some small experience writing about "soft" scientists, and about such scientists working in South America, and I can tell you they do not take kindly to even the slightest questioning of their practices. What Tierney does is drop a thermonuclear device on the way anthropologists have handled themselves among the Yanomami, the poster children of the Amazon.

And what the National Academy of Sciences and the American Anthropological Association have done in their attacks on Tierney and his book, is respond in kind. Now letters are flying in journals and meetings are being held, making it as difficult to remain neutral as it has been during the Bush-Gore election fiasco.

To be sure, there are problems with Tierney's book. The biggest one is that he is not neutral, either. "I gradually changed from being an observer to being an advocate," he says of his contact with Amazonian Indians. "It was a completely inverted world, where traditional, objective, journalism was no longer an option for me."

The reason objective journalism has become "traditional" is that it is still the best way to get a point across. You hear from both sides, you present the evidence as best you can and you let the reader make up his or her mind. People who make their own decisions without being led by the nose are often the most ardent converts.

Tierney does his point no good by being strident right out of the blocks. He is also a leader of Rain Forest Action Network, a group that opposes just about all development in the rain forest. That may or may not be a good idea, but there is another side to the development story -- and you won't hear it fromTierney.

But at least Tierney warns us that what we are about to read is biased, that it has an aim going in, and that that aim is to document the depredations of white men upon the Indians. Those depredations come not just from the hands of the miners who originally galled Tierney, but by the anthropologists who cast themselves as heroes in "NOVA" and National Geographic specials, and by journalists who tag along for the ride.

"Darkness in El Dorado," which Tierney says took 10 years to write and certainly seems exhaustive, is true. I mean this in the big sense. Despite the refutations swirling around the book, Tierney's main argument is correct: anthropology, and sometimes journalists, have screwed up in a big way.

That said, when you accuse people of wrongdoing in print, you had better be right not just in the big sense, but in the details, too, and Tierney apparently has made some factual errors. Some he has reportedly admitted to, and some seem satisfactorily highlighted by critics. But in refuting some of his charges, the National Academy of Sciences makes a couple of mistakes of its own by mischaracterizing what Tierney writes, especially about a key episode in his book: the vaccinating for measles of the Yanomami.

In short, nobody will come out of this controversy unscathed, and that's too bad, because "Darkness in El Dorado" is worth reading. Instead of shouting so loudly, scientists and journalists ought to take a deep breath and ask themselves a few questions -- questions readers ought to ask, too. For example, what are anthropologists doing in the jungles in the first place? Is the idea to report to the rest of us about the customs of a people about whom we used to know very little? Or is it to confirm our fantasies?

Napoleon Chagnon, the UC Santa Barbara anthropologist who wrote "The Fierce People," the classic study of the Yanomami, is Tierney's primary target. Tierney accuses Chagnon of inventing his observations, manufacturing episodes and stirring the cultural pot to create the effects he wanted to see, like murder and warfare. Tierney makes a convincing case.

Or is it the anthropologists' motive for adventure or their own gratification? "The crew knew about Lizot," Tierney writes of a NOVA/BBC documentary crew's interactions with Jacques Lizot, a French anthropologist who was widely regarded as a pedophile. "That's why Jillings first turned to Kenneth Good to be the film's anthropologist. Good refused, feeling that he had been burned so badly in a 'National Geographic Explorer' special the year before that he did not want to be involved in another production. 'You don't have good choices,' a member of the NOVA/BBC crew said on condition of anonymity. 'I came to admire Lizot in a way. He was a man with a particular problem who could never have been happy in a normal society, and he found a place where he could work that out and still do some good on the whole. I mean, three generations of Yanomami boys have been in and out of his hammock without any lasting harm.' "

This passage points out some very telling truths. First, the production member quoted is a racist. Turning young boys into prostitutes -- Lizot apparently traded sexual favors for industrial products -- is considered wrong in our culture. But because it was the Amazon and these boys were not white, well, no harm done.

Second, too many of us regard wild places like the Amazon as our playground; there, we can act out our fantasies. Anthropologists working in such places, especially the jungle, become media stars. We want to see them in action, against the backdrop of the colorful natives. We want TV crews to swoop down in helicopters. It is high-minded armchair entertainment.

But the anthropologists can only be stars if the natives act on cue, and TV depends on people like Lizot to make it happen. Whites are famous for setting up little fiefdoms in South American jungles (and, for that matter, in African jungles), and sometimes supposedly selfless researchers join the act.

Journalists do not come off much better in Tierney's book. "Hundreds of journalists hitched rides [on Brewer's helicopters] too. They paid their tribute by burnishing Brewer's iconic image as the explorer-hero. Redmond O'Hanlon of the Times Literary Supplement called Charlie 'the great explorer and photographer of Venezuela,' and described his connection to the American Museum of Natural History, but kept Brewer's mining and politics out of their jungle adventures."

We should ask ourselves why such facts go unmentioned. We should ask why the U.S. government was taking blood samples from the Yanomami when the Indians could hardly have given real informed consent, why governing bodies of academic societies cannot seem to discipline their members or even hold them accountable. We should ask how we would feel if beings from another planet plopped down in our midst and began to poke us and take our picture and foment violence and put us in documentaries. We should ask how we would feel when their diseases spread among us and kill us off.

This is not to say that all anthropologists are up to no good and that all involvement of first-world types among tribal peoples is a bad thing. I've met some very dedicated and selfless people working in jungles. But as "Darkness in El Dorado" amply shows, places like the Amazon are wide open for those seeking to make a name for themselves, to make a fortune, to prove a theory. It has always been so, and it has always come at a cost for the people who do not have plane tickets out, or funding from a university or a government.

Years ago, when I told a man in the Brazilian Amazon that I was traveling farther into the jungle, he asked me why I wanted to go there.

"You wouldn't be going there unless you wanted something," he said. "Nobody goes there unless they are spying or stealing oil or gold. What do you want?"

Brian Alexander writes for Wired magazine, among others. He is the author of "Green Cathedrals: A Wayward Traveler in the Rain Forest" and has written for the journal Science.

Excerpts from Darkness in El Dorado

The massacre seemed to bring out the madness in everyone.

The next battle began over which reporters would fit into a Brazilian helicopter headed for Haximu. The press held a lottery for the three positions available, but the reporters from Brazil's two biggest news competitors, A Folha de Sao Paulo and O Globo, were not favored by chance. As the helicopter started to lift off, the last of the lottery winners -- a photographer -- jumped on board. But as he did so, the reporter from O Globo ran past the security guards and grabbed hold of the photographer's legs. Seeing that, his rival from A Folha also sprinted out and tackled the Globo man around the waist. All three were dangling as the helicopter went airborne. Their behavior amazed theYanomami warriors standing by the airstrip, who were all painted black and armed with bows and arrows, preparing for a revenge raid against the miners.

"I had to rush out in front of the helicopter and wave the pilot back down," said Leda Martins, an FNS official and former journalist, who was coordinating press relations. "They were twelve feet off the ground, and the Globo guy was still hanging on the the Folha guy, while the photographer, who was barely holding on himself, was kicking his legs like mad to get rid of them both. It was really wild. When the helicopter landed, and we finally got them untangled, the two reporters from O Globo and A Folha started tearing each other apart. ... The Yanomami warriors were mystified. They came up to me afterward and wanted to know what the fight was all about. But I wasn't able to explain the feud between O Globo and A Folha to them."

In Venezuela, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and explorer Charles Brewer Carias also hopped onto a helicopter going to Haximu. And, like the reporters, they found themselves in a war of their own making.