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General Comments to the AAA El Dorado Task Force

Submitted by Gale Goodwin Gomez, Ph.D.

Chair, Department of Anthropology

Rhode Island College

 

              Setting aside for the moment the accusations and scandals that have focused attention on the anthropologists involved, I would like to shift attention to the real subjects, or victims, of this controversy – the Yanomami.   Although the outside world has seen them in numerous documentaries and tens of thousands of students have read about them in one of anthropology’s best-selling textbooks, it is curious that the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela have a more precarious life situation today than their kin in Brazil.   This seems rather ironic since their images, life stories, and bodily specimens have certainly enriched the research and careers of a number of professionals over the past 30 years.   Why have the Venezuelan Yanomami not benefited from their “fame”? Part of the answer may be found in the differing goals and commitments of those who work(ed) in Venezuela and those in Brazil.   This is a reflection of the different ways that anthropology has been “done” among the Yanomami in Venezuela and in Brazil.

            Brazilian anthropologist Alcida Rita Ramos describes the “Brazilian style” of doing ethnology:

É uma etnologia que não se limita a gerar conhecimentos antropológicos por meio de descrições e análises que resultam da prolongada convivência com povos indígenas, mas vai mais longe. Ela coloca esses conhecimentos diretamente a serviço dos povos estudados, ao se engajar ética e politicamente com o presente e o futuro desses povos.

[It’s an ethnology that is not limited to generating anthropological knowledge through descriptions and analyses that result from prolonged periods of living together with indigenous peoples, but it goes further.   It puts this knowledge directly at the service of the peoples studied, becoming engaged ethically and politically with the present and the future of these peoples.]   (Ramos in Albert and Goodwin Gomez, 1997: book jacket)

            Putting the results of research “directly at the service of the people studied” is quite a different approach from that espoused in the AAA Code of Ethics, which is just as concerned with the researchers’ responsibilities to scholarship, science, and the public as their responsibility to the people studied.   This touches at the heart of ethical issues of working with endangered peoples.   Is the anthropologist free of further responsibility to the people that s/he studies after s/he leaves the field?   Are aluminum pots, machetes, rifles, and glass beads adequate compensation for exploiting the genetic make-up or life stories of a people and culture that may die out within a generation if no one comes forward to advocate on their behalf?

The AAA Code of Ethics is not very helpful in answering questions such as these.

            Although the code states, “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work”   ( 3), and “While anthropologists may gain personally from their work, they must not exploit individuals…They should recognize their debt to the societies in which they work and their obligation to reciprocate with people studied in appropriate ways” (4-5),   it also states, “Anthropologists may choose to move beyond disseminating research results to a position of advocacy. This is an individual decision, but not an ethical responsibility” (6).    In the case of the Yanomami, we can see that the “individual decisions” on the part of researchers in Venezuela and Brazil have made the difference thirty years later.

The Yanomami in Venezuela still lack sufficient, dependable medical care.   In fact, increasing numbers of Yanomami are crossing the border, often walking for days in the dense rain forest, to receive treatment at the health posts of URIHI, an independent, Brazilian NGO that was formerly the medical wing of the Pro-Yanomami Commission.   Of the 453 Yanomami from Venezuela who were treated during 2000, all were suffering from parasitic infections, in addition to 184 cases of malaria, 110 severe respiratory infections, 48 dermatological diseases, 30 cases of conjunctivitis, and 13 cases of diarrhea and dehydration (CCPY Bulletin #12, 1-2).   Most of those who received treatment told of sick relatives in Venezuela, many of whom had died apparently from malaria.   Meanwhile, in Brazil medical care has always been a priority and a challenge for those working among the Yanomami.

When anthropologists Alcida Rita Ramos and Kenneth I. Taylor began working with the Yanomami in 1967, they viewed their work as a means to promote the survival of these people, specifically through medical care and land rights advocacy. Between 1968 (when Ramos and Taylor submitted their first request) and 1978, anthropologists and missionaries petitioned the Brazilian government on eleven occasions for a protected land area for the Yanomami but to no avail. Outraged by the ever-worsening situation of the Yanomami, Ramos joined Bruce Albert, Claudia Andujar, and Carlo Zaquini to found the Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park   (Comissão pela Criação do Parque Yanomami - CCPY).   Now renamed the Pro-Yanomami Commission (Comissão Pro-Yanomami) but still best known by its acronym, CCPY is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) committed to the survival of the Yanomami.

In 1979, CCPY presented to the Brazilian government the first of its numerous proposals for the creation of the Yanomami Park, a protected indigenous reserve.   This proposal was the result of a comprehensive study of the historical, anthropological, judicial, ecological, and medical justifications for the demarcation of a single continuous protected area. Extensive field research conducted by anthropologists Ramos, Taylor, and Albert provided detailed support for this proposal.   Published by Ramos and Taylor as The Yanoama in Brazil 1979 , this document formed the basis for a later publication by the Anthropology Resource Center, The Yanomami Park:   A Call for Action .   This seminal research initiated two decades of activism and subsequent work in applied anthropology for the benefit of the Yanomami people in Brazil.

Thus began an advocacy campaign to protect Yanomami rights and promote the creation of the indigenous reserve. The campaign was coordinated by CCPY and through the years involved the collaboration of numerous human rights advocacy groups and environmental organizations in the U.S. and Europe, including (among others) the Anti-Slavery Society of London, the Indian Law Resource Center, Survival International, Cultural Survival, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club.   It became truly an international effort and demonstrated the significant impact of anthropology when applied to specific goals at the highest political levels.   In 1990 the AAA established a special Commission to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami, and Terry Turner was appointed chair.   A letter to President George Bush from AAA President Jane Buikstra and numerous articles in major newspapers and interviews in the media by Yanomami Commission members contributed significantly to this campaign.

In the months preceding the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992, the international campaign for the creation of the Yanomami indigenous reserve intensified.   In April 1991, Davi Kopenawa traveled to New York and met with United Nations' Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, who took a personal interest in the Yanomami situation.   He also met with World Bank and U.S. officials in Washington, seeking support for the Yanomami reserve.   Protests were organized at Brazilian embassies and consulates worldwide and letter-writing campaigns inundated government offices in Brasília. "Between July and October 1991, FUNAI [the Brazilian National Indian Foundation] received 11,801 letters and petitions from individuals and organizations in 35 countries asking that Yanomami territory be demarcated" (Pro-Yanomami Commission, 1991:7). The international pressure on Brazil's President to protect the Yanomami and their rain forest habitat was tremendous.    Both conservationist and human rights groups in the U.S. lobbied senators and congressmen on behalf of the Yanomami.   Before a visit to Washington by the Brazilian president, eight U.S. senators -- including Al Gore and Edward Kennedy -- urged President George Bush in a letter "to include the plight of the Yanomami people in your discussions next week with Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello" (Pro-Yanomami Commission, 1991:7), which he did.    This letter, dated June 14, 1991, was drafted by AAA Yanomami Commission member Stephan Schwartzman (Terence Turner, personal communication via e-mail, 3/4/02).  

Finally, on November 15, 1991, President Fernando Collor surprised both supporters and opponents by announcing the administrative demarcation of the Yanomami territory.   Less than six months later, the physical demarcation of 68,000 sq. miles of Amazon rain forest, an area the size of Washington State, was completed.   Despite strong objections from the military and from mining interests, President Collor signed the decree ratifying the demarcation and legally created the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve (Terra Indigena Yanomami) on May 25, 1992.

Although other pro-Indian NGOs were also formed in Brazil during the 1970s, CCPY is the only one with specific goals, dedicated to a single indigenous group that has continued its work, uninterrupted, until today.   “A clear example of the results of perseverance in the face of official reluctance and private antagonism are the efforts of the Pro-Yanomami Commission (CCPY), engaged since 1979 in the defense of Yanomami land rights and instrumental in securing the official demarcation of Yanomami territory in 1991” (Ramos, 1998:276).   The goals of the Pro-Yanomami Commission are not limited to the demarcation of land, however; medical care has always been a priority, and education is their current focus ( www.proyanomami.org.b r ).

URIHI - Saúde Yanomami was established as a separate, independent health organization in late 1999 by former CCPY doctors Claudio Esteves de Oliveira and Deise Francisco Alves along with anthropologist Bruce Albert.   It is financed by the Brazilian National Health Foundation.   From its original status as the medical wing of CCPY, serving just over 1,200 Yanomami, URIHI took over the responsibility of caring for over 6,800 or 52% of the total Yanomami population within the Yanomami Sanitary District ( URIHI - Saúde Yanomami, 2000:7).   In 2000, URIHI registered a 50% reduction in the general mortality rate for the Yanomami population it serves and a 60% reduction in infant mortality (URIHI - Saúde Yanomami, 2001:1).   This is a tremendous accomplishment one decade after an estimated 15 % of the Brazilian Yanomami died as a result of disease, malnutrition, and violence brought on by the illegal gold rush of 1987-1990, when the Brazilian government expelled all NGOs and religious missions working among the Yanomami.

Allowed to resume its work in 1990, CCPY began establishing permanent health posts in the Yanomami territory, and in 1995 the education program was initiated.   Both programs have been designed in consultation with Yanomami leaders and are currently being carried out in close collaboration with members of the communities in which they are located.   Rather than merely acting as an intermediary for Yanomami interests in the outside world, CCPY is responsive to the demands of the indigenous communities.   The goal of the Brazilian teachers and medical personnel is to be replaced completely by Yanomami literacy and healthcare workers.   Permanent health care programs among threatened indigenous groups like the Yanomami are essential to their survival and must be maintained by their respective governments.   Unfortunately, the political and economic situations in countries like Brazil and Venezuela make it difficult for these governments to provide the support that indigenous communities need.   This is another reason why advocacy and non-governmental organizations play such a crucial role in the survival of indigenous peoples.  

Notwithstanding the existing medical programs among the Yanomami in Brazil, the continued presence of illegal gold miners on their lands not only pollutes the streams and rivers with deadly mercury, frightens away game animals, and results in violent conflicts between the miners and the Indians, but it dramatically increases their health risks. There is a direct correlation between the presence of gold miners in the area and the mortality rate of the Yanomami, especially from malaria (Goodwin Gomez, forthcoming). The spread of tuberculosis as well as respiratory and venereal infections is also linked to the presence of gold miners.    Currently, the most serious health problems among the Yanomami are acute respiratory infections and malaria ( www.urihi.org.br ). However, the health of the Yanomami depends not only on continued funding of the medical programs but also on the protection of their lands from recurrent invasions by outsiders.   While only a few hundred gold miners are estimated to remain entrenched in Yanomami territory, this number could increase very quickly in a favorable political climate.   These invasions have been and will continue to be difficult to prevent without a monitoring system on the ground and support from local politicians.   Moreover, the Brazilian government’s renewed interest in building military outposts and permitting commercial mining on indigenous lands threatens the gains that have been made over the past decade to stabilize and improve the health situation of the Yanomami.   In Venezuela meanwhile, the thousands of isolated Yanomami, who do not live near mission stations, are suffering from extremely grave health problems without the medical care that is supposedly mandated by the government (Bruce Albert, personal communication via e-mail, 3/6/02).

Until this decade the plight of the Yanomami had been told exclusively through non-governmental organizations, missionaries, and anthropologists.   The Yanomami had few possibilities to directly express their own desires, emotions, and concerns.   Davi Kopenawa became one of the first of his people to travel internationally and share his indigenous perspective with the world.   One positive outcome of the Darkness in El Dorado controversy is the fact that Yanomami are actually being interviewed and their opinions are being brought to the public forum.   We must listen to what they have to say and respond seriously to their petitions.   It is time for those who profess an interest in the Yanomami to step forward and support their requests for help in recovering or destroying blood samples (and the DNA extracted from them) and in obtaining compensation for damages in the form of funding for health and education programs.   American anthropology should put itself at the service of the Yanomami.   This endangered people has “served” the profession well and deserves to be fully compensated, finally.

A second positive outcome is the renewed discussion on professional ethics. Practicing anthropologists and students alike must review the issue of ethics, especially with regard to working among such vulnerable and endangered peoples as the Yanomami.   It is critical that those who work among such groups be committed to the group’s well-being and future survival above any other professional or research agenda.   Research in these cases must be of service to the people studied; otherwise, it is purely exploitative.   It should no longer be acceptable to merely record a people’s knowledge, culture, or language “for posterity.”   In this era of universal human rights and respect for the perspective of   “the other,” anthropologists cannot be allowed to conduct fieldwork “on subjects” but must be sensitive to the needs of their “collaborators.”   This term “collaborator” implies a two-way relationship so that each member of the team contributes something to the other.   The profession must take a hard look at situations involving indigenous people and assess whether the research that is being undertaken provides significant benefits in the long term for the people studied.   It is not enough just to “not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people” (AAA: 4).   Work among endangered peoples requires a dedication and commitment that goes beyond the minimum standards set by the AAA Code of Ethics.   Students need to understand this at the outset so that they can be prepared to make a contribution to the future of the people they will study.    American anthropology would do well to study the example of   “Brazilian-style” ethnology.

References Cited

 

Albert, Bruce and Gale Goodwin Gomez

 

1997     Sa úde Yanomami. Um manual etnolingüístico.   Coleção Eduardo Galvão.   Belém:  Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi.

 

 

American Anthropological Association

 

2001     Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association.   < http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ethcode.htm > (11/14/01)

 

 

Anthropology Resource Cen ter (ARC)

 

1981     The Yanomami Park: A Call for Action. Boston: ARC.

 

 

Comiss ão Pro-Yanomami

 

2001     Boletim da CCPY – Edição no. 12 – 25/04/01 (Electronic Bulletin #12). 

1991     The Collor Administration and the Yanomami (Part 2). Yanomami Urgente, No.14.   São Paulo: CCPY.

 

 

Goodwin Gomez, Gale

 

2002       Genocide   by Neglect: The Impact of Gold Mining and Government Response on Yanomami Health and Survival.   Forthcoming in Leslie Sponsel, ed., El Dorado Revisited: Gold, Oil, Environment, People and Rights in the Amazon.

 

 

Ramos, Alcida Rita

 

1998      Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil.  Madison:  The University of Wisconsin Press.

 

 

Turner, Terence  

1991     Report of the Special Commission to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami.   Committee of Human Rights Document of Historical Value. http://www.aaanet.org/committees/cfhr/docshist.htm   (3/7/02)

 

 

URIHI – Saúde Yanomami

 

2001     Jornal da Urihi. Ano II – número 5 (março de 2001).   Boa Vista, RR: URIHI – Saúde Yanomami.  

2000     Kahiki Totihi. Ano I - número 4, (agosto de 2000). Boa Vista, RR: URIHI – Saúde Yanomami.