The Q'eros, an indigenous community of the Peruvian Andes, identify themselves as "the last Incas." The Q'eros people fashion their way of life, their traditions, their belief system-their very existence-on their Inca heritage.
How did the community react when researchers from the National Geographic Foundation's Genographic Project offered to use DNA testing so that "the people of Q'eros can know their ancestral roots?"
As you might expect, there was some backlash.
"The Q'ero Nation knows that its history, its past, present, and future, is our Inca culture, and we don't need research called genetics to know who we are," wrote Benito Machacca Apaza, president of the Hatun Q'eros community, in a letter asking the regional government in Cuzco to prevent the Genographic Project from entering their communities to collect samples. "We are Incas, always have been and always will be."
"It is disingenuous to presume, as the Genographic Project has, that indigenous peoples' origin narratives and the genetics narratives will peacefully coexist in parallel," says Alejandro Argumedo, Research Director for Asociación ANDES, a Cuzco nonprofit concerned with protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
"We believe that the Genographic Project is blinded by its own ambition. We don't believe that it came to Cusco with malice in mind, but its intentions are wholly self-serving."
Part of the groups' indignation stems from a letter which Asociación ANDES says a representative of National Geographic sent to the Hatun Q'eros community, encouraging the community to come to a presentation where seven people from National Geographic would explain the Genographic Project and seek participants. "Everything is voluntary, there is no obligation," the letter assures, "but you are going to have fun and learn a lot!" The letter also promises that the presenters "will use a projector and beautiful images!"
The Hatun Q'eros' are concerned with protecting more than their pride and self-identity, though.
"The Q'eros, and for that matter many other indigenous peoples, are facing outside pressures on their land from extractive industries," Argumedo says. "If the Genographic Project were to, for example, claim that the Q'eros were migrants to the Andes from the lowland forests, this information could be used by mining interests to bolster their argument that they should be granted rights by the Peruvian government to extract minerals from Q'eros territory. In fact, although it was not mentioned to the Q'eros, the Genographic Project even says on its website that it wants to study genetic links between the Q'eros and lowland peoples."
Of course, participants have the option of simply refusing to give samples. The concern, says University of California at Berkeley professor Kimberly TallBear, is that potential participants have the opportunity to make an informed decision. The Genographic Project addresses this in their code of ethics, where it affirms that informed consent in the project must be "deliberate, considered, individual and collective."
The initial letter cited by the Hatun Q'eros does not appear to meet the Project's standards. "To the contrary, a one-page flyer with patronizing language was delivered to the community not long prior to the planned DNA collection," TallBear says. "A powerpoint presentation was planned immediately prior to DNA collection. This allows no time for community input to the research process, nor for real collective consent as collective discussions take considerably more time than individual discussion and consent."
National Geographic spokesperson Lucie McNeil tells it differently.
"Our South American team has been undertaking outreach and sampling work with Peruvian leaders, communities and individuals since September 2007," she told GeneWatch. "Our reception has almost uniformly been very positive, and the Peruvians we have contacted are keen on having access to other ways of learning and adding to their knowledge of their own history. "
As for the Q'eros?
"We have been reaching out to the Q'eros communities since 2009," she says, and had learned that "verbal permission of a mayor to come to his community is the necessary step before any sampling takes place." McNeil stresses that "only outreach has taken place in the Q'eros community"-no samples have been collected yet-and that "we were not planning to visit" the Qocha Moqo community, which filed the complaint. The letter that spurred the controversy, ostensibly from a representative of National Geographic, suggests otherwise, specifically addressing the Qocha Moqo community. National Geographic has declined to comment on its knowledge of the letter or its authenticity.
McNeil says that the Hatun Q'eros at Qocha Moqo were the only Q'eros community to file a complaint, and that the mayors of nearby Q'eros communities Ch'allmachimpana and Chuwa Chuwa had already given the Genographic Project verbal permission to visit. The Project cancelled their visits to those communities after the mayor of Qocha Moqo filed his complaint. "We received immediate word from the communities of Ch'allmachimpana and Chuwa Chuwa that they are very disappointed that we were not able to visit them," McNeil says. "We have heard they are also disappointed with the Mayor of Qocha Moqo for filing the complaint on their behalf - apparently Q'eros protocol requires him to discuss this with the other communities first."
Both sides say that they have yet to contact each other directly. In the meantime, McNeil says, "Our South American team continues to work successfully with other communities in Peru. Engagement of around 90 Peruvian communities has taken place and we have 1060 samples."
Don't expect the Q'eros of Qocha Moqo to join them.
Samuel W. Anderson is Editor of GeneWatch.