Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: Yanomami Indians, Guinea Pigs of US Scientists

Andrés Cañizález

CARACAS, Nov 1 2000 (IPS) - Indigenous leaders, government agencies and human rights activists in Venezuela are demanding guarantees that members of the Yanomami community in the Amazon jungle will not be used as guinea pigs by researchers.

Harrowing reports of experiments to which Yanomami Indians were allegedly submitted in the late 1960s have shaken the global scientific community, and public opinion at large, since the early October publication of the book “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon”, by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney.

Indigenous rights activist and People’s Defender of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, Luis Bello, told IPS that his office, along with the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of Amazonas (ORPIA), were attempting to verify rumours of the presence today of a U.S. researcher in Venezuela’s Amazon jungle region.

Bello said the researcher is apparently a student of Napoleon Chagnon, a prominent anthropologist from the United States whose 1968 bestseller “Yanomami: The Fierce People” gave the isolated indigenous group international renown.

According to Tierney’s book, Chagnon was one of the researchers involved in a project funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which — the writer alleges — sparked a measles epidemic that killed “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of Yanomami in the late 1960s.

Based on 10 years of work gathering evidence, Tierney maintains that as part of the project, U.S. geneticist James Neel injected members of the Yanomami ethnic group with a virulent vaccine, Edmonson B, counter-indicated by medical experts for use on isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles, in order to observe symptoms similar to those of measles.

According to Tierney, Neel — who passed away in February — gave his research team orders to let the disease run its course, and not to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami.

The aim of the experiment was apparently to study natural selection in “primitive,” genetically isolated human societies, the reporter argues, based on what professors Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel at the University of Hawaii describe in a letter to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) as “convincing evidence.”

Neither the Venezuelan government nor the Yanomami subjects were previously informed of, or gave their permission for, the vaccination campaign, says Tierney.

Although there are no official records of a measles epidemic around that time, parliamentary Deputy Nohelí Pocaterra, a member of another Venezuelan indigenous group, says elderly Yanomami tell stories of a killer disease that wiped out a large part of their community in the late 1960s.

“Since our Yanomami brothers and sisters are so far away, those of us who are in the city must speak for them,” said Pocaterra.

Neel, the director and originator of the project, was a researcher at the University of Michigan, and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Chagnon, who worked with Neel in Venezuela’s Amazon jungle region in the 1960s, shot to fame when he published his book on the Yanomami, an isolated 21,000-member indigenous community living in the Amazon jungle in Brazil and Venezuela.

Chagnon, who works today at the University of California in Santa Barbara, has been prohibited from entering Yanomami territory since “we kicked him out” three years ago, Bello told IPS.

However, he said the anthropologist and other foreign researchers moved in and out of the Venezuelan jungle at their leisure, without authorisation or controls.

The Venezuelan Education Ministry’s director of Indigenous Affairs, Gabriela Croes, admitted the existence of such irregularities, and said the ethical basis of studies carried out with the Yanomami was often dubious.

She added that “the Venezuelan state has stayed outside of these questions, but it must not continue to do so, given the gravity of the problem.”

Sergio Arias at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research outlined irregular mechanisms and procedures used by foreign anthropologists carrying out research in this South American country.

“They generally seek out a Venezuelan colleague, who they invite to participate on the condition that he or she make all the necessary arrangements,” said Arias. “These researchers, vassals of the new colonialism, do just about anything in order to get their names on the study.”

But the Yanomami are not only sought out by anthropologists and other researchers. Large mining and timber companies, as well as gold prospectors, have a special interest in the area inhabited by the ethnic group. And, more recently, the pharmaceutical industry is interested in patenting native knowledge of the medicinal properties of tropical plants.

“All of this interest in the Yanomami is based on three factors: they inhabit a place with enormous (natural) wealth; they are the least acculturated indigenous group in Latin America; and they live in the region with the greatest biodiversity in the world,” said Bello.

The Yanomami had basically no contact with the rest of the world until the mid-1950s. According to others who have studied the indigenous group, Chagnon’s book not only put them in the international spotlight, but also erroneously stereotyped them as a “fierce” people.

Chagnon, meanwhile, claims the controversy stirred up by Tierney’s book and the request by several university professors for the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to launch an inquiry are part of “a witchhunt” and a thirst for “vengeance”.

The Venezuelan Education Ministry’s Office of Indigenous Affairs and the parliamentary Commission on Indigenous Peoples announced an investigation of Chagnon and of Neel’s experiments, as denounced by the book “Darkness in El Dorado”, which has not yet been translated into Spanish.

Professors Turner and Sponsel, members of the AAA, sent a letter to the association urging it to deal with the scandal triggered by the book — which “should shake anthropology to its very foundations” — and to undertake an in-depth debate on ethics and methodology in the field.

Turner and Sponsel also alleged that Neel was involved in experiments elsewhere, in which people were injected with radioactive plutonium “without their knowledge or permission.”

Another indigenous lawmaker in Venezuela, Deputy Guillermo Guevara, a long-time chairman of ORPIA, told IPS that a bill currently being drafted would stipulate that ethnic groups must be previously consulted and must give their approval to any research or projects involving them.

Venezuela’s brand-new constitution, approved last December, enshrines a number of indigenous rights that must now be specifically legislated and regulated by parliament, Guevara pointed out.

 
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