Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
Home | Darkness in El Dorado | Contact

Internet Source: The Record Online, November 16, 2000
Source URL: http://www.bergenrecord.com/home/rummo1620001116c.htm


Helping Indians of Amazon change for the better

GREGORY J. RUMMO

When one thinks of an anthropologist, visions of tents, sweat-soaked khakis, and well-worn notebooks come to mind.

Integrity also comes to mind. These scientists, who make their living by studying primarily pre-industrial peoples and their cultures, are supposed to follow a code of ethics similar to "The Prime Directive," made famous by the science fiction TV show "Star Trek." Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, anthropologists are forbidden from interfering with the subject civilization in any way that would artificially accelerate its development or markedly change its culture.

But a recent USA Today story about a book titled "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon" (W.W. Norton & Co.) raises serious charges against anthropologists who studied the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil and Venezuela during the 1960s.

The most serious charge stems from a series of measles vaccinations given to the Yanomami by a team of anthropologists. These vaccinations allegedly caused an epidemic that killed hundreds of Indians. The book offers evidence that the Yanomami deliberately were used as guinea pigs in a macabre and cruel experiment.

The book, written by Patrick Tierney, also alleges that French anthropologist Jacques Lizot sexually exploited Yanomami boys and girls. (Lizot says any sexual relationships he had in the Amazon were consensual and involved only adults.) Furthermore, Tierney charges that Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist with the University of California-Santa Barbara, mischaracterized the Yanomami as warlike, that he staged fights, and that he altered data to support his theory.

If true, these accusations are shocking, especially for a profession that prides itself on the ability to study cultures unobtrusively. But is this sort of research possible, or merely an intellectual ideal? I believe that no one -- not even an "objective" scientist -- can interpose himself into a group without causing some change. And to complicate the matter further, in many cases, the people being studied want change. They desperately hunger for the freedom to determine their own destinies rather than follow what an ivory-tower academic with a laptop thinks is best.

Much like anthropologists, missionaries go and live with various peoples. But missionaries are motivated by love instead of by a scientific quest for knowledge, best described as "publish or perish."

In 1998, I spent a week with 450 Maquiritare and Sanema Indians who live in the tiny village of Chajurana in the Venezuelan rain forest. A 90-minute flight in a Cessna 206 from Puerto Ayacucho on the Venezuela-Colombia border took me to a machete-manicured airstrip that is a mere 500 meters long. The remoteness of the location is hard to comprehend. There are no roads here. Without the Cessna, the trip would take two weeks by canoe along dangerous rivers filled with crocodiles, piranhas, and anacondas.

During my stay, I lived with the Clint Vernoy family in their thatched-roof hut. The Vernoys are Baptist missionaries and invited guests in this part of the world. They have earned the right to live among the Maquiritare. Consequently, they are able to minister to their Indian neighbors in a variety of ways -- by providing medicine, food, and other sundries, which the Maquiritare use for bartering.

The Vernoys' presence also provides a reason for Mission Aviation Fellowship to land its two single-engine Cessnas on the village's airstrip on a regular basis. These planes bring supplies to the Vernoys and provide a window to the outside world for the Indians in Chajurana. Most importantly, the Vernoys provide a Gospel witness among their Indian hosts.

I asked Clint what the Indians say to those who would accuse him of interfering in their culture.

"The secular anthropologists want the Indians to stay the way they are," he told me. "But the Indians themselves have often told me that they do not want others telling them how to live and that they must not change or become modern. The Maquiritare want to experience progress. They want to be able to determine their own destiny."

The Vernoys would be the first to admit they are living among the Maquiritare to effect a change in their culture, an honesty that is lacking among their academic counterparts.

"The secular anthropologists come here and try to tell the Indians how to live. Then they get on a plane and go home to the comforts of Western civilization. We are gaining the right to be heard because we live among them," Clint said.

This approach is certainly a far cry from the actions described in "Darkness in El Dorado," and is a refreshing change in a world where the weak are still exploited by the powerful in most Third World countries.

GREGORY J. RUMMO is the chief executive officer of New Chemic (US) Inc., an import-export corporation in Montvale. He has an M.S. in chemistry from Fordham University and an M.B.A. in finance from Iona College. He is a member of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Paterson, where he also serves as choir director. Rummo wrote an opinion column for The Record from December 1993 to March 1995. He and his wife, Jenny, and their two sons, James and John, live in Butler.