Cultural Survival

Cultural Survival

Alejandro L. Flores * Posted May 1999

Organization Website:

Type of Organization: Type of Organization: Based in the U.S., Academic and practitioner.

Date founded: 1972

Newsletter or Journal: Cultural Survival Quarterly.

Annual Membership fees: $45.00 Individual, $25.00 Student, $35.00 Teacher, $60.00 Institution, Add $10 for international memberships.

Affiliation with other groups: PONSACS Program on non-Violent Sanctions.

Listserve or other internet resources: "Active Voices- The Online Journal of Cultural Survival" is available through the organization's website.


Contact Address:
Cultural Survival
215 Prospect Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

(617) 441-5400


A Brief History of Cultural Survival

Cultural Survival was founded by anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis who had conducted fieldwork with his family and indigenous peoples of South America. Its founding corresponded in time to the formation of formal organizations of indigenous solidarity in Latin America. While the resistance represented by these movements is simply a continuation of centuries of largely spontaneous indigenous resistance to external encroachment, the movements were not rarely formalized as organizations until the 1970s. At this time indigenous peoples’organizations benefited from the support of international organizations such as Cultural Survival as well as Survival International, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Rainforest Action Network, and Rainforest Alliance. These international organizations succeeded in widely publicizing indigenous struggles, resulting in some pressure for action that within the countries where the movements had originated.

About the Cultural Survival
Cultural Survival supports projects that promote local self-determination of any ethnic group residing within a multi-ethnic society. While this can take the form of protecting and promoting the practice of cultural identity, it has often meant helping assure the ancestral material basis for the group's survival. This process is seen as a question of self-determination and management of change rather than one of promoting older cultural norms. Appropriate action and external initiatives at the community level invoke collective reflection and decision-making through maximum community participation. Cultural Survival understands local organizing processes to be the essential agent of change and central to the empowerment of cultural communities.

Cultural minorities have faced many oppressive realities. War and genocide have overwhelmingly affected minority civilian populations and writers in Cultural Survival Quarterly have consistently addressed these continued threats. The resources of less powerful ethnic groups have been encroached upon by various more powerful external interests. Cultural Survival conducts research of cultural communities to examine the impact of external aggression on their culture and livelihood. Recent areas of focus have been Chiapas, Mexico and the South African Masai (P. Maybury-Lewis 1999). As an advocate for minority communities, Cultural Survival has worked to bring human rights to the top of the agenda in international relations. The organization provides educational resources and programs to promote awareness and understanding of the situations of the ethnically marginalized.

Cultural Survival's approach to the issues of poverty and environmental degradation has been the empowerment of indigenous methods of cultivation and ecosystem management, which are not usually supported by conventional resource providers. Ethnobotany has unquestionably shown the extensive knowledge of indigenous people for their particular surrounding biomes to a degree of effective utility that results in a lower impact than would be exerted by any other population. The relationship between indigenous people and biodiversity is thus one of mutual continuation. Another point of advocacy is the intellectual right of indigenous peoples to their knowledge, and the challenge to its expropriation by pharmaceutical industries or agribusinesses.

Cultural Survival works with cultural communities by providing resources to support ecologically and socially sustainable economic activity. They have aided communities that have held a disadvantaged position in the subsistence market. The realities of forest extractivism, which is a potentially sustainable economic base for indigenous communities, is characterized by a market situation in which an unjustifiably minute fraction of the end market value of forest products is paid to primary extractors. This results in a smaller population being supportable by a given area of land and a greater environmental impact since more product must be gathered to obtain a living wage. Furthermore, it means that a great proportion of South American extractivists are in a chronic debt peonage position with respect to their brokers. Cultural survival, through a division called Cultural Survival Enterprises, has helped to link extractivist unions more directly to the consumer end of transnational market. Local organization enables these producers to effectively negotiate prices of their goods. Such networking has also connected these producers to resources that facilitate some local processing of extracted material (Clay 1992).

There has been some controversy in response to the approach of Cultural Survival in facilitating the participation of small producers into the global economy, even where they had already been participants in a grossly disadvantaged position. Efforts by Cultural Survival to help indigenous peoples deal with powerful elements on equal footing in the area of market production have been criticized as misconstruing the root issues of land tenure and ancestral domain and the relationship between the global market and forest habitats. It has been argued that indigenous peoples should not have to secure their rights by marketing their resources on the terms of global capitalism. Critics have continued to insist that injustice against indigenous peoples is foremost an issue of land and human rights rather than money.

As an organization practicing applied anthropology, Cultural Survival risks association with the use of anthropology in the service of powerful interests and as a facilitator of colonialism, intelligence gathering, corporate marketing and relations, and international "development." The goal of objectivity in anthropological study has sometimes been seen as advocating an amoral, apolitical, and neutral approach. Furthermore, none of these values are reflected in the orientation of most professional anthropologists employed by fund-providing institutions. Having mentioned Cultural Survival, Sponsel (1995: 274-286) suggests that a more appropriate orientation for anthropology would be human needs. Anthropologists would be in the best position to prepare documentation to strengthen ancestral domains and serve as spokespersons representing indigenous people where they are affected in decision-making processes, and would be capable of launching external interventions. Ecological and economic anthropologists would serve as excellent consultants and cultural brokers in the indigenous administration of economic activity in adaptation to the global economy. They could assist in regulating the impact of global economic processes on a home community, and support the accrual of communal funds for indigenous councils. Such economic activities could include indigenously regulated ecotourism, and cooperative processing and distribution of indigenous cash products that would retain the value deducted by big business brokers and distributors. This is the stance that Cultural Survival has taken.

Reduction of access to land from which traditional resources are procured is an issue that encompasses or is linked to all other indigenous resource problems. Steps that Cultural Survival facilitates involve the demarcation of ancestral domain, legal recognition of ancestral lands, and continued enforcement of indigenous sovereignty and human rights within these lands. Struggles persist even after legal recognition of stewardship, with governments taking the side, either overtly or by omission, of large extracting companies and supporting large infrastructure projects. The struggle for indigenous land rights has been promoted by Cultural Survival in a way that acknowledges the autonomous identity of ethnic units. While widespread political prejudice disfavors the communal in favor of private ownership, the struggle of indigenous people has shown that the "commons" arrangement has been the basis for cultural and economic survival, preventing the alienation of ancestral resources into assimilation by the global economy (D. Maybury-Lewis 1996).

Clay, Jason
____1992 Buying in the Forests: A New Program To Market Sustainably Collected Tropical Forest Products Protects Forests and Forest Residents in K. Redford & C.Padoch eds., Conservation of Neotropical Forests. New York: Columbia University Press.

Maybury-Lewis, David
____1996 Voices From the Commons. Cultural Survival Quarterly 20(1):3.

Maybury-Lewis, Pia
____1999 Personal Communication.

Sponsel, Leslie
____1995 Relationships Among the World System, Indigenous Peoples, and Ecological Anthropology in the Endangered Amazon in L. Sponsel ed. Indigenous People and the Future of the Amazon. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Richard Wilk's Home Page | Theory Main Webpage




Use this table of contents to navigate to different sections of the site


Anthropology Journals

Associations & Organizations

Biographies of Anthropologists

Disciplines & Subdisciplines

Theory Through Time


Richard Wilk

Anthropology Department

Indiana University Bloomington

701 E. Kirkwood Ave. SB 242

Bloomington, IN 47405


This site  is generously sponsored by the IU Department of Anthropology and IU Campus Instructional Consulting and was designed by Cierra Olivia Thomas-Williams.