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Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Martins1.htm

Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's
Darkness in El Dorado

The  Swing of the Pendulum:
The Impact of Chagnon's Work in Brazil

Lêda Leitão Martins
Cornell University

One of the main points in Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado is the analysis of the negative consequences of Napoleon Chagnon's work for the increasingly difficult survival of the Yanomami. Throughout the last two decades other scholars and human rights advocates have raised the same concern. However, most of the debate around Tierney's book has ignored this side of the issue so far. My intent is to revive the discussion of the impact of Chagnon's work in general and specific ways on the life of the Yanomami. In my opinion it is mostly in the field methods Chagnon used, in his personal interaction with the Yanomami, and in his influence on the welfare of the Yanomami that Chagnon violates anthropological ethics left and right. I will focus exclusively on the latter point due to my own first-hand experience with it and because it is the one that has affected the Yanomami most extensively: their portrait as the "fierce people."

I am from Roraima, the northernmost Amazonian state where 63% of the Yanomami in Brazil live. I have been involved with indigenous issues for eleven years, four of those working directly with the Yanomami. By no means do I consider myself a specialist on this Indian group. I did my doctoral research with the Macuxi, a Carib-speaking people who live in the mountains and savannas of northeast Roraima. However, I had extensive experience traveling inside Yanomami territory and interacting with different villages, and even more dealing with the politics involving their health and possession of their land. Between 1991 and 1995 I worked as a journalist in the Yanomami health project of the Brazilian government, which was responsible for providing medical care and social assistance to the great majority of the Yanomami territory.

When I was first acquainted with Chagnon's theory of the Yanomami as an extremely violent people, I was already working in the health project and I thought his ideas were laughable. But I stopped laughing as soon as I realized that the theories of the famous American anthropologist could be and were being used against the Yanomami. Even worse was that Chagnon himself was attacking advocates of indigenous rights and leaders like Davi Kopenawa (Monaghan 1994), the most well-known spokesman for his people's human and constitutional rights and the recipient of a UN award for his struggle.

This was no small matter in light of the circumstances surrounding the Yanomami. In 1987 their territory was invaded by approximately 40,000 goldminers, five times the estimated Yanomami population (Albert 1999). In the same year, missionaries, researchers and medical teams were banned from their territory by the government on the pretext that it was unsafe for them. The Yanomami were left to their own luck with the miners. Malaria and respiratory infections became widespread, several villages were practically decimated and hundreds of Yanomami gathered around the mining camps and Funai1 posts begging for medicine and food, too debilitated to feed themselves and without effective medicine to face the sudden influx of new diseases. It is estimated that 15% of the Yanomami population died in three years (Urihi Saúde Yanomami 2000). In 1990 due to repeated media coverage of the massive damage inflicted on the Indian population, the Brazilian government began to expel the miners (the so-called Operation Free Jungle) and organized an emergency health plan together with CCPY2 (Pro-Yanomami Commission) and the Catholic Diocese of Roraima. Later this plan became a long-term project of Funasa (National Health Foundation), linked to the Ministry of Health, and my first job directly with an Indian people.

During this period, the 1980's and the first years of 1990s, there was an intense argument in Brazil over the Yanomami territory, its uses and its size. The military, miners, local and national politicians, mining companies, and the local business sector pressured the federal government to demarcate the Indian territory in nineteen scattered islands of land to allow mining to continue in between villages. National and international human rights and environmental organizations and a few sympathizers in Congress and in the government advocated for a continuous territory and the expulsion of invaders as the only means to secure the survival of the group. Davi Kopenawa campaigned in favor of this alternative. We in the Yanomami health project supported the latter in the face of the life-or-death meaning of these two proposals. In 1992 the Yanomami territory was finally signed by the President as a continuous piece of land due mostly to international pressure and the work of CCPY, of which the anthropologists Bruce Albert and Alcida Ramos are among the founders.

The Yanomami felt this dispute in very concrete ways even after 1992 since the use of their territory kept being challenged. To this day their land is still being invaded. The Yanomami suffered the political tug of war through the health project of Funasa and through the actions of Funai, responsible for keeping the region free of miners. When the pendulum swung in favor of the Yanomami there was a flow of money and administrative benevolence from Brasília that resulted in the improvement of the health service for the Indians and yet another Operation Free Jungle by Funai and the Federal Police to expel the miners and avoid their return to Yanomami land. Miners and malaria came hand in hand, and the latter was impossible to control with the former coming and going. But the pendulum quite often swung in the other direction and the health project and Free Jungle ran out of money and institutional support. Miners would return to the jungle, malaria numbers would go up and so would cases of tuberculosis, respiratory infection, malnutrition and, consequently, deaths.

But what has all this to do with ethics in anthropology? That depends on what or who made the pendulum swing in one direction or the other. Chagnon, at the very least, helped to push it away from the Yanomami on several key moments. The insistence on characterizing the Yanomami as "fierce" since Chagnon started to publish in the 1960's has created a widespread negative impression about this people that, although difficult to assess in its extent, can be pinned down through particular examples, of which I will cite a few.

In 1988 he published an article entitled "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population" in Science in which he characterized Yanomami society as primarily driven by the men's will and need to kill in order to acquire social status and more wives, and in consequence to secure a large number of offspring (Napoleon A. Chagnon 1988). The article came out at the height of the gold rush and of the debate over the destiny of Yanomami land. As Alcida Ramos, Bruce Albert, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and others have pointed out, the major Brazilian newspapers reproduced Chagnon's description of the Yanomami as killers and his quotation of a Yanomami man calling for law and police among them to stop "their wars of revenge" (See Albert and Ramos 1989, Cunha 1989). His idea fit like a glove with the position for the fragmentation of the Indian territory. Albert and Ramos quote General Bayna Denys, the Military Chief of Staff, declaring at the time that the Yanomami were too violent and had to be separated in order to be "civilized," although surely the general did not use this term with quotation marks.

In April 1994 Chagnon's work again appeared in the Folha de São Paulo, a major national newspaper, in an article by Janer Cristaldo (Cristaldo 1994b). The piece was entitled "Os bastidores do Ianoblefe" (Behind the Scenes of the Yanobluff) and it challenged through gross mistakes and misrepresentation of facts the very existence of a massacre of a Yanomami village, Haximu, perpetrated by goldminers in 1993. The Haximu massacre shocked not only everybody who worked with the Yanomami but the international community and the Brazilian society in general. It was classified as a crime of genocide by the Brazilian government.

But Cristaldo-voicing the opinions of the military, politicians and miners' advocates who from the beginning cast doubt on the assassinations-argued that the massacre, if it happened at all, was more likely to have been carried out by other Yanomami due to their violent nature and practices. Chagnon's ideas were explicitly invoked to support Cristaldo's accusations against pro-Indian rights organizations that, according to the journalist, were behind the so-called fabrication of the massacre, or at least of its explanation. In fact, the overall inspiration of the article seems to be Chagnon's words.

In December 1993, Chagnon published a piece supposedly about the Haximu massacre, which, to his credit, he believed was carried out by miners (Napoelon A. Chagnon 1993). But in reality his main purpose in the text was to attack the Salesian missionaries of Venezuela. Chagnon also took the opportunity to throw rocks at "left-wing anthropologists," Yanomami leaders and finally "survival groups" that according to Chagnon were profiting from the Indians' tragedy. Chagnon's main point was that Venezuelan authorities should investigate other causes of Yanomami death, in this case, the Salesian influence that he suggested had done more harm to the Indian than the miners had. It is not the occasion here to dig into the long standing dispute between Chagnon and the Salesians except to point out that Chagnon used this dispute to cast a shadow on advocates of Yanomami rights in general and on Yanomami spokesmen in particular. His accusations were vague and unsubstantiated but easily picked up in Brazil. Cristaldo's article, indeed, seems merely a logical extension of Chagnon's allegations.

A second article by Cristaldo followed that first one. In this one he wrote, "the savage state of the Yanomami, who have not even reached a social contract like that of the chimpanzees, has been amply proved by the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon" (Cristaldo 1994a, my translation). I need not say the accusations formulated by Cristaldo represented a total dismissal of all the violence and abuses suffered by the Yanomami and, in particular, by the Haximu village. One has only to look at the letters to the newspaper that followed the article to see that it made a great impression on the lay audience.

In Roraima those articles came as a blow to work in support of the Yanomami. In the health project I recall they raised anxiety and an extra burden to deal with the bureaucrats of Funasa, and the politicians behind them, who where not happy spending their budget taking care of Indians, especially "ferocious" ones. The argument of Yanomami brutality and the allegations against Indian rights advocates increased and justified political interests in retracting health and social services to the Yanomami population and in giving incentive to the miners to return to the jungle.

My colleagues and I in the health project knew by experience that this political context would be translated into delays or the cut-off of payments for the use of airplanes and helicopters and for food for the medical teams inside Yanomami territory. Many times we had to evacuate the teams or leave them and their patients without assistance for days or weeks. During such times people would stop you in the grocery stores or in the bank to harass and even threaten you if they knew you were somehow involved with indigenous people. In Boa Vista, the state capital, conversations took place everywhere on indigenous issues under the tone that it was too much (rich) land for a few Indians. In conversations with politicians and sympathizers of goldminers I heard arguments echoed from quotes from Chagnon about Yanomami's aggressiveness and the consequent argument that it was to their own benefit if they were rapidly "pacified."

I should make clear that I do not blame the anthropologist for the gold rush and the dramatic situation inflicted on the Yanomami. Nor can he be held responsible for the political ideas and actions of military, politicians and governmental bureaucrats in Brazil. Those people would think and act in the same manner without Chagnon's ideas, and the gold rush would have occurred even if Chagnon had chosen to work elsewhere. It is also worth noting, however, that others have expressed opinions on the misfortune of Chagnon's choice of research location. Survival International has recently stated that the Yanomami would be in a better position if indeed Chagnon had gone to work in another part of the world (Survival International 2001). The organization affirms that Sir Edmund Leach refused to support the campaign in favor of the Yanomami territory because "they would all 'exterminate each other'" and that the British government turned down an educational project for the Yanomami on the basis that any program with this Indian people should aim to reduce violence.

Chagnon's work has without a doubt significantly influenced the ideas of the general public and has served to give the appearance of a scientific basis to arguments against Yanomami rights in Brazil. As I tried to show here, the ideas put forward by Chagnon had specific consequences for the Yanomami. Therefore, I cannot agree with statements like Roy Rappaport's that Chagnon's work has not had much effect in Brazil (Booth 1989). As president of the American Anthropological Association, Rappaport made this statement at the time that Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, then president of ABA (Brazilian Anthropological Association), wrote in the Anthropology Newsletter warning of the "the political consequences of academic images and the extremely serious consequences that such publicity can have for the land rights and survival of the Yanomami in Brazil," as cited by Booth. The AAA took no effective action to investigate or even address the complaints from ABA3. Rappaport's rather dismissive position was that "anthropologists should be concerned about how governments interpret our work, but there is nothing short of not publishing to stop this kind of thing from happening," quoted in Booth's article. He is right in suggesting that any publication can be used politically by other parties and that anthropologists should be concerned about the use of their writings. But the Chagnon's case begs the question of what should be done when scholars are not concerned about how their writings are used, even when their ideas are used with their knowledge against the interests of their subjects.

Chagnon can not be exempted from responsibility for the repeated use of his work against the interests of the Yanomami people. In the cases mentioned above and in others, Chagnon did not, although he could have, react against the use of his work to support attempts to take land and governmental services away from the people he studied and made a career out of. It would certainly have deflated the balloon of people like Janer Cristaldo if Chagnon had disassociated his work from their intentions. Chagnon deliberately ignored all warnings and complaints that his portrait of the Yanomami was bringing harm to them, and he took no effective action to avoid the political use of his work against the Yanomami. And he even joined the attacks on Yanomami leaders and human rights advocates.

I expect the anthropologists, through their professional body, in America to take actions to redeem the image of the Yanomami in Brazil and elsewhere.


1.  The equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the US.

2.   In 1995 the organization changed its name. It was formally called Comissão pela Criação do Parque Yanomami (Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Reservation)

3.   This fact is recalled in the latest ABA statement about Chagnon's work read in the AAA annual meeting of 2000.



Albert, Bruce. 1999. "Yanomami." http://www.socioambiental.org/website/epi/yanomami/yanomami.htm, accessed March 10, 2001.

Albert, Bruce, and Alcida Rita Ramos. 1989. "Yanomami Indians and Anthropological Ethics." Science 244:632.

Booth, William. 1989. "Warfare Over Yanomamö Indians." Science 243:1138-1140.

Chagnon, Napoelon A. 1993. "Killed by Kindness?" Times Literary Supplement:11-12.

-. 1988. "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population." Science 239:985-91.

Cristaldo, Janer. 1994a. "Massacre ou "panelocídio"?" Folha de São Paulo. May 8, pp. 6-3.

-. 1994b. "Os bastidores do ianoblefe." Folha de São Paulo. April 24, pp. 6-3.

Cunha, Manuela Carneiro da. 1989. Anthropology Newsletter 30.

Monaghan, Peter. 1994. "Bitter Warfare in Anthropology." The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Survival International. 2001. "Statement regarding the current allegations that scientists and journalists devastated the Yanomami," accessed February 8, 2001.

Urihi Saúde Yanomami. 2000. "Quem são os Yanomami." Kahiki Totihi 1.