Sorting out the mission

he said she saidThe “He said she said” story can be one of the most difficult for a journalist to root out. One side says one thing and the other does their best to contradict. The lazy reporter will do little to resolve the difference, offering little evidence and a handful of quotes that offer an equal number of lines for each side. But does that really serve the reader?

Ignorant quotes by sources who don’t know what they are talking about or lack the credibility to speak on the subject do little public good, but it’s easy to find Mr. Other Side to spout off in support of or against a position in the name of balance. The dedicated hard-working reporter, or something along those lines, searches out The Truth, or the best version they can come up with by press time.

Such as the case in this solid bit of reporting by Chris Kraul of the Los Angeles Times. Here is the heart of the story:

Last month, Chavez ordered the expulsion of about 200 evangelical Baptist missionaries from the country’s Amazon rain forest. He accused them of spying, mining, exploiting indigenous tribes and using jungle airstrips for “imperialist penetration.” Last week, the missionaries were given 90 days to leave the zone.

Some observers see the expulsion, which targeted the Florida-based New Tribes Mission and its offshoots, as a part of a hardening attitude toward religious groups since U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson suggested in August that someone assassinate Chavez. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced last month that it had withdrawn all 219 of its U.S. missionaries from the country because of increasing delays and difficulty in obtaining or renewing visas.

Chavez has also sparred with the Roman Catholic Church. Retired Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, a Venezuelan who was a confidant of the late Pope John Paul II, has accused Chavez of being increasingly autocratic.

I guess Chavez never received the memo that Tmatt has called for Robertson’s excommunication. But there is something deeper to Chavez’s hostility towards the missionaries. It involves the country’s inability to provide basic social services to its poor. Here are those on Chavez’s side:

Some anthropologists and government officials cheered Chavez’s action, saying the expulsion was a welcome conclusion to a 60-year debate in Venezuela over whether the evangelicals threaten cultural diversity by forcing assimilation and modernity on the tribes, even as they deliver much-needed services.

They say the problems posed by the missionaries are not espionage or unbridled capitalism, but the religious and behavioral changes that the missionaries force on tribes in exchange for material and medical help. Those changes are destroying tribes’ primitive rituals and robbing people of what the United Nations has termed world cultural patrimony, the critics claim.

“New Tribes activity amounts to cultural genocide for which the state has to share responsibility,” anthropologist and former Sen. Alexander Luzardo said in an interview in Caracas, the capital.

Did Kraul bother to ask Greenwood whether they required “religious and behavioral changes” in order to receive material and medical help? And what were those behavioral changes? Last time I checked, it was the missionaries in India that fought to end the Hindu practice of sati, where the a widow would allow herself to be burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Kraul did part of his job and went to Greenwood and to those who support his work:

Ingrid Turon, a city council member and member of the Yeguana indigenous community in the village of Toki, six hours by outboard motorboat from here, said those who oppose missionaries want to deprive indigenous people of the advantages of modern life.

“For them, we are like animals in the zoo that people should pay to come see, so they can charge admission, publish their books and take pictures,” Turon said. “They want to deny us the progress that they want, that the entire world wants.”

Greenwood, the missionary, said living among the Indians as a “friend and neighbor” gives him a different — and, he said, more caring — perspective than that of the anthropologists who visit periodically to study the communities and their customs.

“That’s where we are a little bit critical of the scientists who look on the Yanomami as a classroom project. These aren’t objects — these are people,” Greenwood said. “If you have a textbook approach to them, rather than relational, the Indians suffer as a result.”

Greenwood didn’t deny that he wanted to teach the Indians the Bible, which has been translated to the Yanomami language, and to show them the “way of the Lord.” Those teachings include discouraging Yanomami from taking alcoholic or hallucinatory substances, from committing polygamy and incest, and from engaging in inter-tribal violence.

But he insisted that none of the Indians in Cuwa were denied clothing, food or medicine for failing to follow his religious teachings.

I have trouble determining the veracity of both side’s statements. Who are these people and what are their relationships to both the government and to the missionaries? There isn’t enough time or space to vet either side’s claims so the reader is forced to make a judgment, which usually resorts to already-established biases or perceptions.

The remaining part of the story relies on what must have been more than a couple days worth of reporting and observing the Greenwood’s at work. Snippets of their daily lives seem to back up their claims that they are trying to provide basic services while sharing their faith with those in the community. While Kraul doesn’t come right out and say it, the reader who finishes the piece should come away knowing that they have a better idea of the truth.

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  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I have been following this story, and was frustrated that there is no background on Ingrid Turon. Are his views the mainstream of indigenous voices in this area? Is he in New Tribe’s pocket? I know for a fact that a documentary was made (“I Speak To Caracas”) that gives a different indigenous point of view than Turon’s. Even New Tribe’s web site which is promoting a 3000-person strong protest in favor of NTM remaining shows some ambivalence over the organization and strong support for Chavez.

    From the story:

    “We are stating that we do not share in the Oct. 12 decision of President Chavez. We are not against the government. We have voted for President Chavez, and we are thankful for all that he has done for the tribal people, but we are not in agreement with this decision because we believe that it is based on a lie.”

    The organizers of the rally specified that they are not against a serious investigation of the work NTM Venezuela does in the State of Amazonas, “but we want it to be a serious and responsible investigation,” Cayupares continued. “If there is something found against them, we who live with them in the jungle want to know about it. We were amazed at all the lies and outrageous statements that have been said.”

    …end quote

    I also know that there is a long a sorted history between New Tribes and Venezuela, far more complex and sorted than either of these stories imply.

    So I would really like some truly in-depth reporting that digs into all the issues involved.

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  • Scott

    I think you mean sordid and yes I’d like more detail too.

  • Charlie

    These sorts of charges — forcing religious conversions, destroying native cultures, importing US values into indigenous communities — are simply BS. They are the same baseless accusations that some leftist governments, anthropologists and rights groups have been making for decades, and they have never been proved to be true.

    Pioneering missionaries like the Greenwoods are providing choices, alternatives and compassionate humanitarian aid to people who have been passed over by modernity. It is possible to choose both to be true to your cultural heritage and to embrace some of the advantages of modernism at the same time, e.g. clean water, innoculations, dietary improvements. And, incidentally, Christianity.

    But too many who claim to care about preserving indigenous cultures would deny them any and every possibility to make their lives better. The West embraces cultural advances for itself, but prefers stagnation for these showcase indigenous communities. This is paternalism passing itself off as enlightenment.

  • Chris Burd

    There’s a view that these traditional Amerindian cultures are doomed anyway: they cannot avoid changing into something radically different under the pressure of Western modernity (they can’t even assimilate to the surrounding Western culture, as used to be assumed). The question is whether they’ll have a hard landing or a soft landing. Hard landing: if you’ve looked at the wreckage of some North American native cultures, you know what that means. While it may be true that missionary activity (as a vector of Western culture) can accelerate the collapse/transformation of these culture, it has also laid the basis for a (relatively) soft landing in many cases.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “It is possible to choose both to be true to your cultural heritage and to embrace some of the advantages of modernism at the same time, e.g. clean water, innoculations, dietary improvements. And, incidentally, Christianity.”

    I’m all for indigenous people benefitting from modern advances, but I feel that all too often tribal groups have been offered modern advances and inclusion in exchange for their tribal faiths.

    I’m sure some tribal groups happily convert, but not all missionary groups are sensitive to matters of cultural heritage, and some do seem to practice questionable tactics in establishing a foothold in tribal areas. The history of New Tribes isn’t spotless, and there are some valid concerns over their actions that should be examined.

    Oh, and I did mean “sordid”, my bad, I sometimes type faster than my internal editor.