FW: Venezuela Bars Researchers After Book Charges Ethnocide/India ns' measles blamed on pair
FW: Venezuela Bars Researchers After Book Charges Ethnocide/Indians' measles blamed on pair
From: Don [mailto:dbain@...]
Sent: Sunday, January 07, 2001 4:21 PM
Subject: Venezuela Bars Researchers After Book Charges
Ethnocide/Indians' measles blamed on pair
January 7, 2001 (SF Chronicle)
Venezuela Bars Researchers After Book Charges Ethnocide/Indians' measles
blamed on pair
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
Copyright 2001 SF Chronicle
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