Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Media Advisory July 2, 2002
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.aaanet.org/press/pr_edtf.htm

El Dorado Task Force Releases its Final Report

Accepted by AAA Board with comments

The publication in November, 2000 of the book Darkness at El Dorado by Patrick Tierney generated a storm of controversy over the author's allegations concerning fieldwork practices of some anthropologists with the Yanonomi Indians. On February 3-4, 2001, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association established a five member Task Force to conduct an inquiry into the book's allegations. AAA past president Dr. Jane Hill was named chair. On May 18, 2001 she presented the Board with the Task Force's Final Report. (The entire report is posted on the AAA web site.)

The key finding of the Task Force that dwarfs all others relates to the devastating health conditions of the Yanomami Indians. "The most critical thing we learned is that these people are really in terrible danger," Jane Hill says. "This is a critical situation that threatens their very existence."

The 300 page Task Force Final Report was a labor-intensive effort involving extensive research, numerous interviews, widespread readings, visits to Venezuela and Brazil, discussions with government officials and medical experts from various countries and with theYanomami themselves. It was prepared with extensive input from the membership and was written in response to a request for an "inquiry" not an "investigation."

Key findings:

1) The Report notes that AAA has been advocating for the Yanomami for many years, starting in 1970 and thus predating the El Dorado book.

2) Health crisis: By far the most important finding in the Report relates to the urgent health condition of the Yanomami Indians. Malaria is rampant and there's a serious danger of extinction from this disease. Figures from 1995 indicate a 60% infant mortality rate. Adults are almost uniformly infected. Brazil has health clinics everywhere, but only a few Yanomami of Venezuela can get basic care in one or two locations. For anything beyond the most simple care, they have to be flown to Puerto Ayacucho. 86% of Venezuelan Indians have no access to basic clinical care and therefore no access to doctors.

3) Ethics: The Task Force found only one issue that they believe rose beyond the level of bad judgement to ethical violation. In 1990, the anthropologist Chagnon was denied a research permit by the Venezuelan authorities. Instead of appealing to the director of indigenous affairs, he affiliated with a group of wealthy people, connected to then President Perez and widely believed to be involved in illegal and corrupt activities, and obtained access to military aircraft through their foundation, FUNDAFACI. Chagnon made numerous flights into the Yanomami area without any quarrantine proceedures or other protections for the indigenous peoples. The Task Force maintains that this was unacceptable on both ethical and professional grounds and was a breach of the AAA's Code of Ethics.

AAA ethical standards require that anthropologists must put the best interests of the people being studied ahead of their research. Chagnon compromised this principle.

The Report also notes that new international rules governing research with human subjects must be accompanied by careful reflection of its potential costs and benefits to the people under study.

4) Blood. On the issue of Yanomami blood samples being held by outside researchers, the Task Force Report urges biological anthropologists who hold samples to start negotiations with theYanomami in Venezuela and Brazil. Some Venezuelan Yanomami are strongly opposed to the use of blood for research,, especially of people who are deceased, but the Venezuelan Yanomami have not yet taken an official position while the Brazilian Yanomami strongly oppose the continued use of the blood for any purpose at all.

5) Measles. On the question as to whether anthropologist Neel should be censured for the measles vaccinations that were given to the Yanomami, the Task Force Report determined that they "unquestionably....saved many lives" and were "a beneficial measure."

6) Chagnon's depiction of the Yanomami. Chagnon's representation of Yanomami as "fierce people" conveyed a false image that was damaging, according to the Report. It regrets that Chagnon failed to publicly correct his erroneous depictions and support their human rights. Instead, he has made public statements attacking his professional enemies rather than correcting misinformation. Chagnon did, however, modify his portrayal of the Yanomami in subsequent editions of his textbooks.

7) The Report points out that anthropologists have a unique and difficult task in representing the "full complexity and contradiction and ambiguity and variability of human life" in their work, especially when dealing with very vulnerable people.. (see Sec. 2.2.b.4). It also states that anthropologists have a responsibility not to let others, including publishers or journalists, simplify and stereotype their work.