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U.S. Military Funded Mapping Project in Oaxaca: University Geographers Used to Gather Intelligence?

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Written by Cyril Mychalejko and Ramor Ryan

Source: Z Magazine

"War was God's way of teaching Americans geography," once wrote Ambrose Bierce, an American journalist and social critic. Today, a University of Kansas (KU) professor may be using geography to teach Americans war.

Dr. Jerome Dobson, a geography professor and president of the American Geographical Society (AGS), sent out a one-and-a-half page white paper sometime in late 2004-early 2005 to the Department of Defense and civilian agencies looking for funding to promote a $125 million "academic" project that would send geographers to countries all over the globe to conduct fieldwork.

"The greatest shortfall in foreign intelligence facing the nation is precisely the kind of understanding that geographers gain through field experience, and there's no reason that it has to be classified information," wrote Dobson. "The best and cheapest way the government could get most of this intelligence would be to fund AGS to run a foreign fieldwork grant program covering every nation on earth."

This fieldwork program, named the Bowman Expeditions, was enthusiastically received by Dr. Geoffrey Demarest, a former Lieutenant Colonel and current Latin America specialist at the U.S. Army's Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). The FMSO is a research center housed at Fort Leavenworth, about 50 miles down the road from KU. According to its website, FMSO "conducts analytical programs focused on emerging and asymmetric threats, regional military and security developments, and other issues that define evolving operational environments around the world." Demarest, a School of the Americas graduate who served multiple assignments in Latin America during his 23-year military career, has written extensively about counterinsurgency and believes mapping and property rights are necessary tools to advance U.S. security strategies, such as with Plan Colombia. He helped secure a $500,000 grant to partially fund México Indígena, the first Bowman Expedition, which until recently has been quietly mapping indigenous lands in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In January, a communiqué sent out by the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) alleged that the project was carried out without obtaining free, prior, and informed consent of local communities as mandated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UNOSJO also questioned whether the project, which in addition to the involvement of the U.S. military office that runs the controversial Human Terrain System, involves the participation of Radiance Technologies—a weapons development and intelligence company that could in the future use the information collected to the detriment of the local population in terms of counter-insurgency, bio-piracy, or the privatization of land.

The communiqué generated a confined hurricane of criticism on Internet sites and listservs (and a flurry of articles in Oaxaca daily newspapers). But when reports of the conflict starting appearing on international media outlets like Pravda and Seoul Times, project directors Dobson and fellow KU professor Peter Herlihy (lead geographer for México Indígena) were prompted to defend the ethics, purpose, and scope of their projects.

"Because the Foreign Military Studies Office has been one of several sponsors of the first Bowman Expedition México Indígena," they wrote on the México Indígena website to address "misconceptions" on the project, "there has been some understandable confusion regarding the project's aims.... FMSO's goal is to help increase an understanding of the world's cultural terrain, so that the U.S. government may avoid the enormously costly mistakes which it has made due in part to a lack of such understanding."

On the gathering controversy in Mexico, they stated, "The México Indígena team is well aware that some people are suspicious of the fact that FMSO is one of its sponsors. We ask only that such potential critics keep an open mind, that they learn a little about what we really do, and that they reconsider their assumption that any action which involves any part of the U.S. government must necessarily be bad." These words only added fuel to the fire.

Community on Fire

In a small rural Zapotec community deep in the distinctly isolated Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca, southern Mexico, a regional gathering of indigenous peoples' autonomy took place from February 21 to 23. The 3rd Feria of the Cornfield-Globalization and the Natural Resources of the Sierra, convened by the UNOSJO coordination, drew together a couple of hundred local attendees to consolidate the ongoing process of autonomy and present a showcase of indigenous corn-based culture and food sovereignty. But the burning topic of the mapping controversy seemed to overshadow other discussions.

"We made it very clear that we don't want anyone mapping around here," said Juan Perez Luna, community leader of the host village, Asuncion Lachixila. "Yes, we want to map our own communities and, yes, we want to learn how to do it, but we don't believe what these (México Indígena) geographers were saying." Don Juan, an elderly grandfather who attended the gathering, was straightforward with his thoughts on the project: "We think these studies are about counter-insurgency."

The U.S. geographers promoting the México Indígena project first approached UNOSJO in 2006, as if recognizing the NGO as the informal conduit to the Zapotec communities. This coincided with the development of the popular social movements in Oaxaca that gave birth to the Oaxacan Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO) and a dynamic new kind of popular uprising marked by horizontal organizational structures and militant non-violent direct action. APPO seized the city of Oaxaca for seven months in what become known as the Oaxaca Commune, often mobilizing as many as a half-million citizens in support of their revolutionary demands. The state, unfamiliar with how to deal with this kind of social unrest (no obvious leaders to arrest, disappear, assassinate) repeatedly failed to quell the uprising and eventually sent over 5,000 members of the Policía Federal Preventiva (PFP), Mexico's heavily armed federal military-police force, to retake the city. The violent counter-offensive led to several deaths and hundreds of arrests, and was followed by intense repression against the social movement.

Indigenous communities across the Oaxaca state, representing the poorest and most oppressed segment of the population, sided with the inclusive social movement. The Zapotec communities of the Sierras threw their weight behind the APPO, supporting its demands for indigenous autonomy.

"Indigenous peoples' demand for land tenancy and territorial autonomy challenge Mexico's neoliberal policies—and democracy itself," wrote Professors Dobson and Herlihy in a July 2008 article published in the Geographical Review ("A Digital Geography of Indigenous Mexico: Prototype for AGS Bowman Expeditions"). This overtly political observation contrasts strikingly with Dobson's February 5 written response to the growing controversy around his project, where he claimed "our team's abiding dedication to the indigenous people of Oaxaca and our neutrality in all things political."

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Cyril Mychalejko is a writer, teacher, and mountain lover.

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