Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
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Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News, volume 43, number 8, november 2002, page 5
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Commentary on the El Dorado Task Force Report

Lêda Martins, Cornell U

The Final Report of the El Dorado Task Force presents more of the debate among its members than a unified conclusion on the allegations, although consensus on some important questions does exist. The Task Force found most of the allegations raised in Darkness in El Dorado to be supported by substantial evidence. The 300-page report is the result of intense public peer pressure after the 2001 AAA Annual Meeting for a thorough assessment of the allegations brought up by Patrick Tierney. The Final Report is indeed very different from its first draft, first released in Nov 2001.

The final report fails, however, to address some important issues. The gaps are in part a consequence of another kind of demands. As the Final Report explains, Chagnon’s supporters successfully pressured the AAA to appoint Ray Hames as an additional member of the original Task Force (Jane Hill, Janet Chernela, Fernando Coronil, Joe Watkins and Trudy Turner) with the argument that Coronil was associated with Terence Turner, one of the most outspoken critics of Chagnon. Although Coronil was a student of Turner, they have never collaborated in research and writing; Chagnon and Hames have. The most problematic aspect of Hames’ appointment was that he had been involved in projects that were the objects of the Task Force’s inquiry. Hames responsibility on the Task Force was to review the charge that Chagnon instigated and rewarded the Yanomami for fighting and raiding other villages. The report presents no discussion of this issue because Hames resigned under accusations of conflict of interest before the report was completed.

1968 Measles Vaccination

The most explosive suggestion in Darkness in El Dorado was that the 1968 measles vaccination was conceived as an experiment to "resolve the great genetic question of selective adaptation" because the vaccine used (Edmonston B) provoked a reaction very similar to the disease itself (p 59). On this topic, the report states that Neel shows in his writings and research a great interest in the rate of reproduction of headmen and their ability to respond to selective pressures. Yet the Task Force did not find evidence that Neel used vaccinations as a research method to test his hypothesis on the existence of genes for leadership. However, the final report did conclude that the research done with samples of Yanomami bodily materials was a type of "natural experiment," and that Neel did not follow the official standards (the 1949 Nuremberg Code and others) for informed consent that already existed at the time. Moreover, the report makes a crucial conclusion that the explanations given by Neel and his teams to the Yanomami were misleading because they implied that researching this data would result in direct health benefits for the group, which was never in fact the objective of the study.

Discussion of the vaccinations turned mainly to the possible research purpose of the campaign. Some Task Force members, like Trudy Turner, claimed that the vaccination campaign was conceived only as a humanitarian effort, and that the posterior research results drawn from the campaign originally were unforeseen. Terence Turner argued that for Neel, the campaign had both humanitarian and research goals. Most important, the report acknowledges that Neel gathered observations on the reactions and the effects of the disease and vaccine during the expedition, that he returned to Yanomami territory in 1969 and collected new samples from the people vaccinated the previous year, and finally that he published an article (with Chagnon, Centerwall and Casey) in 1970 based on the notes from the vaccination campaign and the analysis of the samples collected after the inoculation. Despite those facts, the Task Force was not able to reach a conclusion on the issue.

The other major problem raised in the controversy was of the conflict of interest between the vaccination and the collection of specimens in the face of the epidemic. Neel showed his annoyance with the necessity of massive vaccination in several field notes, but the team put aside some tasks of Atomic Energy Commission research, such as the gathering of anthropometrical measurements, to administer the 1,000 doses of vaccine that were available. The question remaining is how much medical attention was put aside in favor of research tasks. The members of the Task Force were not able to reach an agreement on this issue. Rather, the report endorses the suggestion made by Bruce Albert that a multidisciplinary commission be formed to make a thorough assessment of the actions taken by Neel and his team during the 1968 measles epidemic.

Allegations Against Chagnon

The final report is an important contribution to the clarification of allegations against Chagnon that have been made for decades now. The Task Force found those allegations to be true. The Task Force believes that Chagnon’s emphasis in representing the Yanomami as "fierce," "primitive" and "unacculturated" has been detrimental to that people. The report observes that the media repeatedly used Chagnon’s ideas with negative consequences to the Yanomami’s political struggles for land and protection against invasions, and that Chagnon did not make significant attempts to refute such interpretations. Moreover, the report notes that Chagnon actually attacked Yanomami spokesmen and human-rights advocates in media news in times when the Yanomami faced a gold rush in their territory. The Task Force recommends that the use of Chagnon’s book in anthropological courses should include a reflection on the theoretical limitations and political implications of his scheme of classification and metaphors used in representing the Yanomami, which the Task Force states "fall directly into the discursive system that Fabian (1983) has called the ‘denial of coevalness’" (2.2.b.3 of the report).

The report also points to a pattern in Chagnon’s attempts to conduct anthropological research disguised as other activities and without submitting to consent from Yanomami and governmental authorities. For instance, when his permit to enter Yanomami territory was revoked in the early 1990s by the Venezuelan Director of Indigenous Affairs upon the request of some Yanomami leaders, Chagnon collaborated with FUNDAFACI (Foundation to Aid Peasant and Indigenous Families), directed by Cecília Matos, the mistress of Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, and Charles Brewer Carías, a businessman and right-wing politician involved in illegal mining inside indigenous territories.

It would be premature to take the acceptance of the Task Force report as marking the end of the controversy. There still are several important questions that are left unanswered by the El Dorado Task Force. Special attention should be drawn to the contribution of Chagnon’s actions to the violence that erupted within and between the villages in the region where he worked. AAA President Donald Brenneis wants to move on, away from the controversy and in the direction of the defense of the rights and lives of indigenous peoples, in particular of the Yanomami (Sept 2002 AN, p 8). That, however, might be an impossible way out for the AAA. It is questionable how effective and welcome the support of the AAA will be, now and for the future, in the struggle of indigenous peoples against oppression and violence when not all questions on the misconduct of anthropologists were openly and comprehensively addressed by the AAA. On what ethical basis will the AAA be willing to take its stand in responding to violations of the rights and integrity of indigenous and other subjects of anthropological research?

Lêda Martins has been working with indigenous people in the Amazon for 12 years, especially on issues of land rights and health projects. She worked for four years in the Yanomami health project of the Ministry of Health in Brazil. She currently is finishing her PhD in anthropology at Cornell U with a dissertation about the political movement of the Macuxi of the State of Roraima, Brazil.