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Comments on "Introduction" to the El Dorado Task Force Preliminary Report

Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel

Department of Anthropology

University of Hawaii


As the AAA Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado observes with good reason: "Such an "inquiry" is unprecedented in the history of the association." The Task Force goes on to state that its inquiry will explore the truth or falsity of the allegations and also engage in reflection of a moral and scholarly kind (p. 1). Has the Task Force actually comprehended its statement that its inquiry is unprecedented and then fulfilled its charge from the Executive Board? Has the task force genuinely engaged in reflection of a moral and scholarly kind? It is most embarrassing, disappointing, and unfortunate that there are far too many serious flaws in the substance of the Preliminary Report as well as in the procedures of the Task Force.

Here are just six among numerous flaws, and only from the first 21 pages of the Preliminary Report.

1. The Task Force asserts that "Darkness in El Dorado is the single most complete source on the history of anthropology and other scientific endeavors among the Yanomami" (p. 2). This is incorrect. Books by Luis Cocco (1972:47-102), R. Brian Ferguson (1995), and William Smole (1976:14-16, 220-222), among several other sources, provide far more complete information up to the date of their publication (also see Sponsel 1998:98). Patrick Tierney really focuses on only a few selected aspects of the history of Yanomami research and largely ignores or neglects most others.

2. The Task Force claims that: "All members have made every effort to become thoroughly acquainted with the anthropological literature on the Yanomami in the specific area that they were assigned, consistent with their expertise" (p. 3). However, the Task Force cites a relatively obscure 1983 publication by J. Saffirio and Raymond Hames, but does not cite a more wide-ranging and far more influential and accessible earlier report by Alcida Ramos and Kenneth Taylor (1979) which first drew attention to the plight of the Yanomami in Brazil, following the devastating consequences of the construction of the northern perimeter highway deep into their territory. The Haximu (Hashimu) massacre is mentioned, but the decisive reports by Bruce Albert (1984, 2001), Alcida Ramos and others (2001), and Rocha (1999) are not cited. In touching on the health situation of the Yanomami (p. 7), the Task Force fails to consider the work of Marcus Colchester (1984), and of Jean Chiappino and Catherine Ales (1997). Also the Task Force does not mention the applied anthropology of Jacques Lizot (e.g., 1975, 1989, 1996). In addition, other relevant literature is ignored, including reports by Dennison Berwick (1992), Jeffrey O'Connor (1997), Leslie Sponsel (1994, 1997), and others. Yet these sources have long been readily available in the bibliography on the Douglas Hume web site (http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume) and elsewhere. The Task Force mentions the work of CCPY (now called the Pro-Yanomami Commission) and other organizations in Brazil and beyond, but does not discuss the Yanomami Survival Fund established by Napoleon Chagnon (see Rabben 1998:138, note 7, Tierney 2000:183, 188-189). (See http://www.proyanomami.org.br). Shouldn’t Chagnon be afforded the opportunity to explain the Yanomami Survival Fund and other matters to the Task Force?

3. Janet Chernela's reciprocal interview with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami is very revealing and mostly positive (pp. 9-17). However, Chernela, in discussing Chagnon's image of the Yanomami as "the fierce people" and its impact in Brazil, states that in 1988-89 the AAA did not have explicit ethical guidelines (p. 15). Later Chernela states that there was no code of ethics of the AAA in 1968 (p. 15). These statements are flatly contradicted by the material on the AAA web site under the Committee on Ethics and in the studies on anthropological professional ethics by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (1991, 1998). In fact, the AAA had been developing various statements on professional ethics since at least 1967. (Also see Dooley 2001). Moreover, beyond the AAA, but certainly pertinent to the James Neel expedition and its work on the measles epidemic as well as Tierney's corresponding allegations, there long existed the Nuremberg Code of 1947, Declaration of Helsinki of 1964, UN Universal Declaration of 1948, UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and so on. Also Chernela (p. 17) leaves Davi Kopenawa Yanomami with the impression regarding this unprecedented scandalous controversy that "This is a fight between men who make money" (p. 17). Is this accurate? Is this fair to the profession and those involved directly and indirectly with this scandalous controversy? Is it fair to the Yanomami?

4. Contrary to the Task Force (p. 19), initiatives to develop a Committee for Human Rights within the AAA actually started several years before 1990, and they were stimulated by far wider and more diverse concerns than only the Yanomami. Furthermore, the AAA has been involved with human rights in various ways at least since 1947. (See the documents on the AAA web site under Committee for Human Rights and Sponsel 1993).

5. Contrary to the misinformation and disinformation campaign of partisans, and now a statement by the Task Force (pp. 19-20), the packet of material about Chagnon distributed at the 1993 annual meeting of the AAA was not anonymous, although its distribution was. It included dated articles from Venezuelan newspapers authored by Aliana Gonzalez, David Ayala, Eileen Byrne, Anabel Flores, Leslie Hillman, Edgar Lopez, Julia Rodriguez Flores, Tania Vegas, among others, as well as a New York Times article by James Brooke. It also included testimony by Venezuelan Air Force Capitan Luis Manuel Jatar. The cover letter ended with the words "A group of concerned Venezuelans" but was unsigned. Beyond Chagnon, many of the articles were about his associates as admitted in his own books, gold miner Charles Brewer-Carias and fugitive Cecilia Matos, both investigated for criminal activities by the Venezuelan government. Furthermore, even if authorship of all items in the information packet had been anonymous, that would not necessarily automatically invalidate the contents.

6. The Task Force asserts that the AAA Commission for Human Rights declined to become involved in the 1994 scandalous controversy between Chagnon and the Salesian missionaries because it did not consider this to be a matter of human rights (p. 20). That is correct, I was chair of the Commission and remember the situation. However, the Committee on Ethics was alerted about the matter, although apparently they did absolutely nothing. In any case, several of Tierney's allegations involve serious human rights abuses. If the Commission for Human Rights had Tierney's book with all of its allegations and documentation in hand at the time, then surely it would have investigated the matter. Indeed, the presence of a member of the Committee for Human Rights on the Task Force would seem to imply that in setting up the Task Force some AAA officials must have considered the possibility of human rights abuses. Yet, except for Chernela's work, almost all of the discussion, including in the Preliminary Report, has been about matters other than human rights abuses. Does the Task Force really think that there were no abuses of human rights whatsoever in this case?

If the Task Force as a whole appears to be somewhat deficient in competence as evidenced by many significant flaws in just the first 21 pages of the Preliminary Report, there are also at least five serious matters of professional ethics which demand attention.

1. Several questions seem appropriate for serious reflection of a scholarly and moral kind by the Task Force and many others. Why have three decades of intermittent scandal and controversy surrounded Chagnon, unlike any other anthropologist in the entire history of the discipline? Why has the AAA and profession as a whole all but ignored the numerous and diverse critics of Chagnon's work for three decades? (See Sponsel 1998). Why did it take a journalist to finally attract the attention of the AAA, profession, and public? What are the professional and ethical responsibilities of textbook authors to their readership, profession, and the Yanomami when they uncritically portray the Yanomami in the "ethnographic present" from a single source; ignore criticisms of Chagnon's work as well as alternative explanations and interpretations of Yanomami aggression; sensationalize Yanomami aggression to the point of dehumanizing them; and largely if not completely ignore the plight of the Yanomami as they face the devastating impacts of invasive road construction and wildcat gold mining, namely, rampant epidemics together with genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide in synergy? Also, why aren't many more anthropologists actively involved in discussing and debating the broader issues emerging from the Pandora's box opened by Patrick Tierney's book, including in this section of the AAA web site?


2. The February 3-4, 2001, meeting of the AAA Executive Board included in its fourth charge to the Task Force that "It is expected that the Task Force will seek information from AAA members, the author, and key anthropologists mentioned in the book" ("El Dorado Interim Report/Request for Information" posted at http://www.aaanet.org). In its Preliminary Report the Task Force asserts that "We have conducted a number of interviews, emphasizing interviews of persons with first-hand knowledge of the Yanomami" (p. 3). Several months ago, I asked six specialists who have worked with the Yanomami if they had been approached by the Task Force, and none had. Which Yanomami specialists has the Task Force actually interviewed, if any? In contrast, Trudy Turner interviewed 16 researchers who worked with other groups and outside of the Amazon. That may be appropriate, but why has the Task Force ignored most Yanomami specialists? Could it be because the overwhelming majority of them have repeatedly been critical of Chagnon for decades? And why might that be so? Are they all wrong and only Chagnon alone is right?

3. Various AAA officials and the Task Force have stated that they cannot censure individuals accused of unethical conduct, because the AAA is not a certifying body (p. 21). Does that follow logically? Obviously, the AAA does not certify professional membership like the legal profession which can disbar a member or the medical profession which can revoke a physician's license. However, decertification and censuring are two quite different things. (Anyone can easily check a standard English dictionary regarding this distinction). Just because the AAA does not certify its members, that does not necessarily mean that the leaders of the AAA, Task Force, Committee on Ethics, Committee for Human Rights, Society for Latin American Anthropology, and other relevant units of the AAA can not publicly condemn extremely unethical behavior, as for example, through statements in the Anthropology News and/or an open letter or declaration at the annual convention. If any of the more serious relevant allegations made by Tierney are valid, then wouldn't it be unprofessional, unethical, and just plain immoral for AAA officials to remain silent? Wouldn't silence also be a terrible embarrassment to the membership of the AAA and in front of the public? If the Committee on Ethics can not make such a general statement of censure, condemnation, or disapproval, assuming the Task Force finds grounds to do so, then of what good is either the Committee on Ethics or the Task Force?

4. For whatever reasons, two members of the Task Force, Janet Chernela and Fernando Coronil, publicly admitted at the last AAA convention that they did not read and approve the Preliminary Report before it was made public at the convention and posted on the AAA web site. As a result at the last AAA convention in its business meeting the Society for Latin American Anthropology unanimously voted, and without a single negative vote or abstention of any kind, to request that the AAA withdraw the Preliminary Report of the Task Force from its web site. Unfortunately, some members of the AAA and the public might think that the AAA is not just "threatened by scandal" (p. 2), but already is deeply involved in a scandal, and that the Task Force itself is a contributing factor.

5. Moreover, Raymond Hames and Trudy Turner are members of the Task Force which is charged with conducting an impartial and fair investigation of Tierney's allegations and reporting its findings to the AAA leadership, membership, and public. Yet Raymond Hames is a former student of Chagnon; his long time collaborator in field research, publications, and grants; and his long time defender. Is this a serious conflict of interest? Can Hames be an impartial investigator and assessor on the Task Force? Should Hames have even been asked to serve on the Task Force in the first place? Should Hames have accepted the appointment? Should Hames recuse himself immediately? Do the statements by Hames in this Preliminary Report and in the Robert Borofsky roundtable evidence impartiality? (See: http://www.publicanthropology.org). Trudy Turner held a post-doctoral fellowship in James Neel's Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan. Is this a conflict of interest? Can she be an impartial investigator and assessor on the Task Force? If her relationship with Neel were known, then should she have been invited to serve on the Task Force in the first place? Should she have accepted? Should she recuse herself immediately? Do her statements in the Preliminary Report evidence impartiality? Indeed, do such questions call the entire Preliminary Report and Task Force into serious question? Can the officials and membership of the AAA have any confidence in the Final Report of the Task Force, if Raymond Hames and Trudy Turner remain members?

To conclude, if, as the Task Force states at the outset that it intends to engage in reflection of a scholarly and moral kind, then can it avoid the above questions and concerns and still fulfill its responsibilities to the AAA, profession, and Yanomami?



References Cited

Albert, Bruce, 1994, "Gold Miners and the Yanomamo Indians in the Brazilian Amazon: The Hashimu Massacre," in Who Pays the Price? The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis, Barbara Rose Johnston, ed., Washington, D.C.: Island Press, pp. 47-55.

Albert, Bruce, ed., 2001, "Research and Ethics: The Yanomami Case: Brazilian Contributions to the Darkness in El Dorado controversy," Brasilia, Brazil: Pro-Yanomami Commission Document No. 2.

Berwick, Dennison, 1992, Savages: The Life and Killing of the Yanomami, London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.

Chiappino, Jean, and Catherine Ales, eds., 1997, Del Microscopio a la Marca, Caracas, Venezuela: Ex Libris.

Cocco, Luis, 1972, Iyewei-teri: Quince Anos entre los Yanomamos, Caracas, Venezuela: Libreria Editorial Salesiana.

Colchester, Marcus, ed., 1985, The Health and Survival of the Venezuela Yanoama, Copenhagen, Denmark: International work Group for Indigenous Affairs Document No. 53.

Dooley, David, 2001, "Ethics: Protecting Human Subjects and Research Integrity," in his Social Research Methods, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Ch. 2, pp. 16-39

Ferguson, R. Brian, 1995, Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, ed., 1991, Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology: Dialogue for a New Era, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, 1998, "Ethics," in Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, H. Russell Bernard, ed., Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, Ch. 5, pp. 173-202.

Lizot, Jacques, 1975, Diccionario Yanomami-Espanol, Caracas, Venezuela: Universidad Central de Venezuela.

Lizot, Jacques, 1989, No Patapi Tehe: En Tiempos de los Antepasados [Yanomami-Spanish cultural school primer], Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela: Vicariato Apostolico de Puerto Ayacucho.

Lizot, Jacques, 1996, Introduccion a la Lengua Yanomami: Morfologia, Caracas, Venezuela: UNICEF Venezuela and Vicariato Apostolico de Puerto Ayacucho.

O'Connor, Geoffrey, 1997, Amazon Journal: Dispatches from a Vanishing Frontier, New York, NY: Penguin/Dutton.

Rabbin, Linda, 1998, Unnatural Selection: The Yanomami, the Kayapo and the Onslaught of Civilization, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Ramos, Alcida Rita, and Kenneth I. Taylor, The Yanomami in Brazil 1979, Copenhagen, Denmark: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs No. 37.

Ramos, Alcida, Bruce Albert, and Jo Cardoso de Oliveira, 2001, Haximu: Foi Genocidio!, Brasilia, Brazil: Pro-Yanomami Commission Document No. 1.

Rocha, Jan, 1999, Murder in the Rain Forest: The Yanomami, the Gold Miners and the Amazon, London, England: Latin American Bureau.


Smole, William J., 1976, The Yanoama Indians: A Cultural Geography, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1993, "The Mutual Relevance of Anthropology and Human Rights: Some Initial Explorations on History and Arguments," unpublished Working Background Paper for the Commission for Human Rights (April 29-May 1).

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1994, "The Yanomami Holocaust Continues," in Who Pays the Price? The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, Ch. 5, pp. 37-46.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1997, "The Master Thief: Gold Mining and Mercury Contamination in the Amazon," in Life and Death Matters: Human Rights and the Environment at the End of the Millennium, Barbara Rose Johnston, ed., Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, Ch. 5, pp. 119-161.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1998, "Yanomami: An Arena of Conflict and Aggression in the Amazon," Aggressive Behavior 24(2):97-122.

Tierney, Patrick, 2000, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.