Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News 44(3), March 2003
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html

Collaborations and Distinctions

Janet Chernela

Chair, AAA Committee for Human Rights

We wish to report favorable new data on the status of Yanomami health in Brazil. These encouraging findings are the direct consequence of health delivery services that emphasize disease prevention. The information is of special relevance to the American anthropological community, since there has been some justifiable concern that its inquiry into Darkness in El Dorado might endanger immunization campaigns. Fortunately, we find no evidence to support that conjecture.


Recent reports by health professionals working among the Yanomami of Brazil show greater cooperation in all areas of medical services than in the past. For example, a new program of child healthcare instituted by URIHI, a health NGO in partnership with the health ministry of Brazil, provides immunization for Yanomami children under five years of age. As a result of a widespread immunization campaign recently carried out by URIHI, Yanomami infant mortality was reduced by 75% in the past two years (Relatorio, URIHI, 2002). This would not have been possible without the cooperation of parents who permitted and encouraged the participation of their children in immunization programs.

Yanomami youth with URIHI health worker, Homoxi village, Brazil. Photo by Janet Chernela

A more dramatic demonstration of the recognized need by Yanomami of responsible healthcare is cooperation involving blood samples. Although blood samples taken for research purposes in the 1960s are the focus of official Yanomami complaint (see Boletim Yanomami, No 11, Mar 2001; see also letter from Volkmer de Castilho, Subprocuradora-Geral da República, Mar 7, 2002), Yanomami cooperation and even leadership in blood sampling for disease control is greater than ever. The number of blood samples collected among Yanomami for purposes of malarial identification in 1999 was 18,547, or 3.5 samples per individual per year. Instead of decreasing, as might have been the case if Yanomami doubted the safety or advisability of blood sampling, this number grew by approximately 300% between 1999 and Dec 2001. In an all-out effort to eradicate malaria in 2001, 5,500 Yanomami in Brazil provided monthly extracts to total 66,164 samples (Boletim Yanomami No 30, Sept 5, 2002). Through this close monitoring mortality from malaria dropped from 61% in 1999 to zero in only three years.

Key to these successes are the roles played by Yanomami microscope technicians trained by URIHI. These specialists remain in their remote home villages where they collect and analyze samples, and record their findings. A principal policy of URIHI is the active role of Yanomami in combating diseases among them.

In short, health continues to be a paramount concern among Yanomami who recognize the necessity of medical procedures to ensure their well-being. Data from health workers among the Yanomami show no decline in voluntary participation in immunization programs or blood collection. Their data, instead, show growing cooperation between Yanomami and health practitioners, as well as increased Yanomami participation in health delivery services with excellent results. There appears to be no confusion by Yanomami regarding medical cooperation when directly related to health needs. These findings provide eloquent data with which to support conscientious, participatory and preventive healthcare to indigenous peoples.


In relation to these findings, I wish to draw attention to an important distinction made by Yanomami spokespersons between medical procedures for purposes of research and purposes of healthcare. That distinction was made in interviews collected by me as a member of the AAA Task Force and again upheld by different Yanomami speakers at an Apr 2002 conference at Cornell U. The distinction was most recently made by Peri Porapitheri, a Yanomami healthcare worker who addressed the AAA at its 2002 Annual Meeting.

To illustrate this critical distinction, note, for example, the answers provided by Julio Wichato, a Yanomami nurse, to questions posed to him at the Venezuelan Shakita Meetings (Nov 2001) regarding the controversial collections of 1968:

Q: What is the problem with collecting blood? You collect blood also, do you not?

A: The problem is that they [unnamed teams assumed to be headed by James Neel] studied it and didn’t send us the results. When they help us it’s different….

Q: When people . . . receive blood transfusions nowadays what happens to the blood?

A: I don’t know, maybe they save it.

Q: Do they send the results?

A: No.

Q: And you don’t object to that?

A: No. Because that is to help us.

Like Wichato, other Yanomami interviewed consistently distinguished between medical attention for research purposes and medical attention for healthcare. They rejected the first but recognized the import of the second. Regarding the 1960s collections, Davi Kopenawa had this criticism:

The Yanomami were just supposed to give blood and stand around looking. They [the collectors] didn’t talk about malaria, flu, tuberculosis or dysentery.

Local Venezuelan health workers also emphasized a fundamental distinction between cooperation for purposes of research and cooperation for healthcare. Guillermo Domingo Torres, Coordinating Physician for the Orinoco District with the Ministry of Health, explained it well (Nov 24, 2001): “I think it best at this moment to address only specific problems. We call this ‘operational investigation’ or ‘applied research.’ We are concerned only with solving current problems. If researchers want to continue their presence it must be in order to solve problems, not to gather knowledge about ethnicity.”

I close with a citation from Davi Kopenawa, in which he addresses the AAA (his full statement is available in the Report of the El Dorado Task Force):

An anthropologist should really help as a friend...defending the Yanomami when they are sick. . . . . If a Yanomami catches a cold, he may die.

We already have an enemy among us—it is disease. This enemy kills. . . . We are all enemies of disease. Anthropologists can bring useful messages to the Indians. They can understand what we are doing; we can understand what they are doing. We can talk about ways to defend the Yanomami, even by helping the Yanomami understand the ways of the whites to protect us. [You can say,] ‘Let’s not let them die of disease.’ But do not use the name of the Indian to gain money. The name of the Indian is more valuable than paper. The soul of the Indian that you capture in your image is more expensive than the camera with which you shoot it.

Janet Chernela is professor of anthropology at Florida International U, Miami, where she is co-director of the Brazilian Studies Program. She is chair of the AAA Committee for Human Rights, a member of the AAA Commission on Indigenous Peoples, and former member of the El Dorado Task Force.