Racist comment on BBC fuels unfounded stereotype of Amazonian tribe

May 29, 2002

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The Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rainforest were branded 'the meanest people on the planet' in a racist insult broadcast on the BBC this morning. The remark, made by Dirk Wittenborn, author of the novel 'Fierce People', was completely without foundation. Similar comments in the past have been extremely harmful to the welfare of the Yanomami people. Survival intends to issue a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Commission about this racist statement.

Wittenborn's opinion of the Yanomami appears to be based on the work of the highly controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon's work has been heavily criticised and discredited by other anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami, and described as thoroughly biased and even fabricated.

The portrayal of the Yanomami as a 'fierce' and 'mean' people has been extremely damaging to their welfare in the last few decades. In the 1970s Sir Edmund Leach refused to back Yanomami land rights as he thought they would 'exterminate each other' and the British government rejected a funding proposal for an education programme in the 1990s stating that any project undertaken would need to 'reduce violence' amongst the Yanomami.

Up to 20% of the Yanomami were wiped out by disease and mercury poisoning as a result of invasion on their land during the 1990s, they have been massacred by gold miners invading their land and denied full ownership of the lands they have lived on for thousands of years. More generally, the portrayal of tribes as 'primitive', 'Stone Age' and 'unchanged for centuries' is equally damaging to tribal peoples and is often used to 'justify' racist policies towards them.

Survival Director Stephen Corry stated, 'Staff at Survival International have known the Yanomami people for over 30 years and they are certainly not 'mean'. Frequently people do not attempt to check their 'facts' when talking about tribal peoples, enabling harmful misconceptions and stereotypes to prevail.'