Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: National Geographic Adventure Magazine, April 2002
Source URL: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0204/q_n_a.html


Q&A Scandal in the Amazon by Michaela Ahern

For his April 2002 Adventure article, "Napoleon in Exile" (read excerpt) writer Scott Wallace journeyed deep into the restricted rain forests of Venezuela to investigate one of anthropology’s greatest controversies.

In this interview, he reveals the story behind the story. Plus: stunning new photographs by Les Stone.

In the 1960s anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s accounts of his life among Venezuela’s Yanomami Indians made them—and him—famous. By the early 1990s, however, a growing number of critics were charging him with misconduct, and protests from government officials and activists made it impossible for him to secure a permit to Venezuela after 1993.

The charges stemmed from Chagnon’s allegedly culture-destroying practice of exchanging trade goods such as machetes with the Yanomami for delicate cultural information, including family genealogies (the Yanomami consider it taboo to speak of the dead).

In 2000 native-rights activist Patrick Tierney detailed the anti-Chagnon case in his book Darkness in El Dorado. Just days after it was published, the Venezuelan government sealed off Yanomami territory to outside journalists, researchers, and scientists; banned Chagnon from the region; and began their own investigation into the conditions of the Yanomami and the supposed damage done by outsiders.

In 2001 writer and TV producer Scott Wallace was allowed to accompany the government panel’s first investigation in Yanomami territory, and to hear from the one group whose voices haven’t yet been heard: the Yanomami themselves.

Wallace’s findings are published in the April 2002 Adventure. Here, he tells the story behind his story.

How did you get permission to enter Yanomami lands from the Venezuelan government?

Securing a permit to do this project was very hard. I met an official from the Venezuelan Office of Indigenous Affairs and kept in touch with him over the course of many months. He eventually urged me to contact the director of indigenous affairs directly, which I did.

For several months I tried to convince them to grant me a permit. Eventually they told me to go to Venezuela, but even after I got to Caracas there was an entire week of meetings.

The Venezuelan government didn’t want anyone reporting on the controversy. They were still conducting their own investigation and hadn’t allowed a single journalist into the upper Orinoco River since late 2000. But they eventually granted me and photographer Les Stone permission to accompany them on a government visit to the upper Orinoco.

How did you reach Yanomami territory?

We flew from Caracas in a twin-engine bush plane to Esmeralda, a frontier town close to the Yanomami territories. It’s kind of a forlorn, godforsaken, sweltering place along the banks of the Orinoco River.

We were met by a pair of barefoot Yanomami guides and went upriver in boats to the confluence of the Mavaca and Orinoco Rivers, the area where Chagnon first entered Yanomami territory back in 1964.

What were village conditions like?

We were in the field for a couple weeks. We slept some nights in Yanomami villages, other nights on the grounds of the Salesian mission in Mavaca.

We always slept in hammocks. I had a very nice one with mosquito netting, so I didn’t get bitten much. Les, the photographer, got eaten alive. He had more or less a standard hammock with a mosquito net that was really made for a bed, not a hammock. The mosquitoes totally attacked him, and I was in much better shape.

What did you eat?

We ate a lot of canned goods, PowerBars and peanut butter. Sometimes we’d barter with the Yanomami to get some fish they had caught.

I had boar at one point, river crab, and roasted tapir.

Was malaria a concern?

Malaria and parasites from the river are big concerns. For the most part Les and I tried to purify the river water using a pump, but there were a few occasions when that wasn’t available. I didn't really get ill.

River areas are malarial incubators. So when someone from an infected area travels deep inland to the remote villages, they can pass on the disease with devastating results. No one really knows how many people die in these hard-to-reach villages; the Yanomami don’t like to speak of the dead, which makes it hard get accurate information.

What was your initial impression of Chagnon?

Chagnon is kind of a besieged character and sees himself as that. He’s very wary of anyone who approaches him and wants to discuss his background and the controversy that surrounds him.

He’s not the kind of person that you feel very at ease with. He doesn’t go out of his way to make you feel at ease.

What role does Chagnon’s main critic, Patrick Tierney, play now?

I think Tierney has found the [publicity surrounding his book Darkness in El Dorado] to be something not well suited for his personality. He’s not a confrontational character, even though his book is certainly confrontational. He’s quite shy. When I met him, I thought he was very nice, very soft spoken.

He raises a lot of interesting issues in the book, but I think he overreached on a number of issues and was trying to cover too much ground.

What has been the reaction of Venezuelan politicians to the Yanomami controversy?

The Yanomami issue is an extremely sensitive issue in Venezuela. The government of President Hugo Chávez has made indigenous rights, at least on paper, a cornerstone of his domestic policy.

Probably more than any other indigenous group in Venezuela, which has scores of indigenous peoples, the Yanomami have received the most attention. The allegations that were made in Tierney’s book have implications for Venezuelan institutions as well, so there was a good bit of concern about possible negative publicity.

Are the Yanomami being corrupted by their contact with politicians?

A patronage system on the upper Orinoco has evolved, with politicians increasingly attempting to buy votes. It’s perhaps one of the less desirable unintended consequences of democratization.

In exchange for votes, politicians pass out outboard motors, food, and money. It’s a negative process: Younger kids are no longer interested in raising traditional crops in their gardens, or in many cases, going hunting. Instead they’re waiting around for handouts from politicians.

When can other researchers and journalists hope to return to the area?

It’s going to be a long time and it’s going to be a much more stringent process in the future.

The Yanomami themselves are anxious to have visitors come into the area. Outsiders are their source for things they can’t possibly find on their own, ranging from cloth and steel goods to medicine, money, and so on. There is an interest [in the government] in opening up the area, but it’s going to happen in a very controlled way.

How do the Yanomami deal with the influx of outsiders?

It seems they’re acquiring some experience in these matters. The Yanomami are beginning to form committees and council group representatives to meet with politicians and outsiders. Elders and younger leaders are emerging in the communities and have frequent meetings with one [politician].

I’m not saying all that is particularly positive. I think in some respects this new emerging system is kind of undermining age-old traditions that seemed to work very well for them for a very long time.

Are missionaries still active in Yanomami territories?

The area where I was consists strictly of Roman Catholic Salesian missionaries. In other tributaries of the Orinoco there are American evangelical missionaries.

I think the Venezuelan government would actually like to find a way to get them out of there, but they’re entrenched and providing services to people whom the government traditionally has either been unwilling or unable to provide for.

Are the Yanomami moving to cities or urban areas?

No. Though the Yanomami like to complain about their lot, the fact is they’re living in a paradise. There are no problems with drugs or alcohol, food is abundant, and they like where they are.

Researchers estimate that the Yanomami need to work only a few hours a day to secure their basic subsistence. I met a few Yanomami who had traveled abroad, and they don’t really like it out there. There is almost no outward migration whatsoever.

Are the Yanomami homelands protected?

I think the Venezuelan government has taken great steps to protect Yanomami land. Huge stretches of southeast Venezuela where the Yanomami live have been designated as protected areas.

The Yanomami and their habitat enjoy more protection than just about anyone and any place in the entire Amazon Basin.