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Helping endangered tribes survive in the modern world

In a small, paper-stuffed office on the fifth floor of Harvard University's Peabody Museum, two men shuffle through heaps of documents and photos. They help threatened and endangered species - but they're not saving wildlife.

These two men operate an organization called Cultural Survival (CS). The 10 -year-old group is as unique as the people it seeks to aid: the Kuna of Panama, the San (Bushmen) of South Africa, the Kurds of Turkey, the Yanomami of Brazil.

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Cultural Survival's 24 sites around the world provide legal counsel to tribal societies deprived of their rights; lend emergency food and financial assistance to groups threatened with extinction; and acquire tracts of land for displaced people.

In addition, CS produces an 8,000-circulation quarterly magazine and publishes in-depth research reports - all on an annual budget of under $225,000.

How does CS do it?

''Networking,'' answers projects director Ted MacDonald. ''We rely very heavily on the expertise and advice of more than 4,000 anthropologists around the world.''

Each year, Mr. MacDonald explains, CS receives scores of requests for aid from indigenous peoples themselves or from support groups. ''We never initiate our own projects,'' explains publications director Jason Clay. In fact, CS can support only 15 percent of the project proposals that come to it.

Projects are chosen by what MacDonald calls ''the guiding philosophy of the organization'' - that of its founder and current president, David Maybury-Lewis.'' That philosophy translates into ''not being just 'nay-sayers' against human development, but working with the government of each country to resolve the problems facing an indigenous group within its borders,'' says MacDonald.

''We try to be both advocates for indigenous peoples and economic progress,'' Mr. Clay adds. He explains that many groups of people, when neglected by the society around them, ''have become wandering migrant workers or bums,'' further swelling the large unskilled labor force in most third world countries.

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In a recent project, a local development agency asked CS for support in an Indian land dispute in Ecuador. Three local tribes in the Amazon region of that country - the Cofan, Siona-Secoya, Hoaorani - were struggling to maintain their lands in the face of petroleum exploration and government-sponsored colonization.

Plugging into its network of experts, CS assembled a team of forestry and wildlife-management experts, agrarian reform officials, local development specialists, and anthropologists. Many had extensive experience in the area and were trusted by the Indians and the government alike. Their challenge: to find tracts of land for the tribes that would not deter the region's development, nor bite into its newly formed national parks.

A solution was achieved. ''The indigenous groups were given private land on the borders of the national parks,'' says MacDonald. ''They could still continue their traditional economic activity of hunter-gathering while gradually evolving toward better participants in the modern, technological economy around them.''

The key to success, he says, was the anthropologists. ''They had been studying these peoples for years and had already done research on the exact amounts of land these groups needed to survive.''

Leaders in the field of anthropology have similar regard for CS.

Norm Whitten, editor of American Ethnologist magazine, says CS exhibits ''a real sensitivity to extraordinarily diverse groups of peoples and situations.'' Its concern transcends political ties, he claims, citing the group's continued support of the Mesquito Indians in Nicaragua, where, ''faced with confronting a leftist government, most other human-rights organizations have abandoned the Mesquito cause.''

Another important aspect of Cultural Survival is its publications. Through these publications, emphasizes Clay, CS seeks public scrutiny and criticism of CS projects. Recent issues of Cultural Survival Quarterly have addressed the impact of tourism on small societies and the effects of worldwide deforestation.

Also, CS aims to funnel information garnered by Western scholars about indigenous groups back to those people and their countries. Clay explains that one method of achieving this has been ''joint publication - allowing publications in other countries to reprint whole or parts of our quarterlies in their native languages.''

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