Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: San Francisco Chronicle, D8, January 7, 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/01/07/MN102188.DTL

Venezuela Bars Researchers After Book Charges Ethnocide Indians' measles blamed on pair

Phil Gunson

Caracas, Venezuela -- Headline-grabbing allegations of ethnocide leveled at two U.S. researchers have led to a ban on all new scientific studies in indigenous regions of Venezuela.

The development is the latest fallout from Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado," a book in which he alleges that the late geneticist James Neel and controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon caused a lethal measles epidemic in the 1960s among the Yanomami Indians, an Amazonian tribe that is one of the world's most isolated peoples.

The epidemic, Tierney says, led to "hundreds, if not thousands" of deaths, a charge that has caused a rift among anthropologists.

The allegations have rocked the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, or IVIC, a research institute funded by the government.

Not only did IVIC collaborate for many years with Chagnon's controversial studies of the Yanomami, but one of the institute's most revered founders -- Dr. Marcel Roche -- was involved in the original 1968 expedition into the tribe's lands.

Scientists in a variety of disciplines -- though not, it appears, those belonging to IVIC -- are now facing a serious threat to their research projects.

In November, Gabriela Croes, director of indigenous affairs for the Venezuelan government, announced a moratorium on all research in indigenous areas. IVIC and other scientific bodies were not consulted, nor even officially informed.

At its recent convention in San Francisco, the American Anthropological Association set up a commission to determine whether Tierney's allegations have merit. In Venezuela, a vice presidential panel of inquiry was named last month.

The developments have angered IVIC's director, immunologist Egidio Romano, who says the panel of inquiry lacks the resources to carry out a proper investigation.

"I had to buy the members' copies of the Tierney book," he said. "And hardly any of them speak any English. I don't know how they're going to investigate the allegations."

Romano also denounces Tierney as a "fraud, a person who alters the information he is given, considers only the context that interests him and exaggerates his conclusions."

He adds that the research moratorium is "the equivalent of saying, 'You're guilty, and now we're going to investigate exactly how you are guilty.' "

Chagnon's methods and conclusions have been questioned by foes both from within his field -- "cultural anthropologists from the academic left," as he likes to describe them -- and from without. Chagnon recently retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

A little-known aspect to the controversy surrounding him has been his decade-long open dispute with the Salesian missionaries, one of the most powerful institutions in Venezuela's Amazonas state.

The government has traditionally relied upon the Salesians for education, health and other services in Indian territory.

Chagnon argues that the death rate of Yanomami in the vicinity of Salesian mission stations is four times the normal rate, and that the Salesians are guilty of hundreds of Yanomami deaths because they distribute shotguns to the Indians -- a charge the church rejects.

Chagnon's close Venezuelan collaborator, explorer and naturalist Charles Brewer-Carias said, "(For the Salesians) the most important thing has been to convert the Indians, regardless of the consequences. That guaranteed the continuing financial support of the state."

Brewer-Carias considers the Tierney book a component of a defamation campaign waged by the Salesians, whose power in Amazonas, he argues, is threatened by Chagnon's writings.

The Salesian bishop of Amazonas, Mons. Jose A. Divasson, denies proselytizing and says the Salesians' mission has been "to accompany the Indians. . . . We are very respectful of their culture."

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

Divasson also says Chagnon is a hypocrite: "In an interview in 1989 or 1990, he said the best way of working with indigenous peoples was the Salesians' way."

In a telephone interview, 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)."

Nohely Pocaterra, chair of the parliamentary commission on indigenous peoples, says she understands the scientists' concern over the moratorium, but says it is "necessary to call a halt" to research activities "because we urgently need an inventory of what is being done."

Under Venezuela's new constitution, she points out, 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?"

Even before the current controversy surfaced, scientists already faced a ban on research into indigenous use of herbal medicines. Human rights activists say multinational drug corporations are making vast sums by exploiting the Indians' intellectual property, while giving nothing in return.

The new ban covers all new projects involving foreign or private research institutions. The effect on IVIC, a government body, is limited to projects involving collaboration with foreign scientists.

"We assume (the scientists) have good intentions," Pocaterra said. "But then that's what we thought about Chagnon."

The Yanomami, meanwhile, are pressing a fresh grievance against President Hugo Chavez's government. Thirty-two tribal leaders recently signed a letter claiming that the government is in breach of its obligations under a 1999 agreement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to ensure adequate health care for the indigenous.

The Yanomami say 10 children and two adults have died since October from respiratory diseases as a result of official negligence, which is alleged to include the dispatch of vaccines whose expiration date had passed.