Stolen Spirit: The Issue of Yanomami Blood

This week, representatives of the Yanomami Indians from the Amazon basin were invited to talk about ethics and scientific research during a seminar held at Cornell University. The audience -- comprised mainly of prestigious anthropologists from all over United States -- witnessed more than a simple presentation. The Yanomami took advantage of their opportunity to request the return of their own blood, taken some 25 years ago as samples for future academic research.

According to the book “Darkness in El Dorado: How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon,” by the scientific journalist Patrick Tierney, geneticist James Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagon took samples of blood from the Yanomami Indians in the 1960s. These samples were taken in territories located on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, according to Mr. Tierney, and exchanged for manufactured goods provided to the Yanomami community. Since then, it seems that the blood samples have been continually used and reprocessed for new research, without the prior consent or knowledge of the Indians. Now, the Pro-Yanomami Commission has been made aware of the location of blood samples held in the state university of Pennsylvania among other locations.

The book has revived a controversial debate on the ethics of scientific research and the protection of the genetic heritage of indigenous peoples. The protection of these kinds of rights was the subject of the Nuremberg Code of 1947, an international legal convention that established an international code of ethical conduct on human research. Furthermore, Resolution 196/6 in Brazil controls any such research conducted through the National Commission on Research Ethics of the National Health Council. The statute widely restricts research on indigenous populations, and on the shipment of biological material abroad. The Brazil-based National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) also seeks to monitor all national or foreign researchers intending to enter indigenous territories.

David Kopenawa, a representative of the Yanomami from the Demini region of the Amazon, had previously demanded the return of the blood samples a year ago, during the annual meeting of the Association of American Anthropologists (AAA). According to the Instituto Medioambiental, his words were, “I want them to give the blood back to me so that I can take it back to Brazil and spill it into the river, to make the shaman’s spirit joyful.”

This time, David Kopenawa, along with Toto Yanomami, José Serepino —the other Yanomami representatives who went to Cornell University this week—were also supported in their official request by the Brazilian Public Attorney, Ela Wiecko Volkmer de Castilho. About one month ago, Ela Wiecko sent a document to the Penn State University asking for clarification on the collection of blood samples by North American researchers.