Mapping Indigenous Mexico for whom?

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US Academics Are Mapping Resources in Mexico; Corporations and the US Military Are the Beneficiaries of the Data

By Silvia Ribeiro

La Jornada February 3, 2009

colonos are reproducing here an investigation by the ETC Group, also posted on NarcoNews

As the Union of Organization of the Sierra Juarez [Unión de Organización de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca] has complained (Unosjo, 15/1/09), they have been victimized by a new type of appropriations in their communities: “geo-piracy”. This refers to using (and abusing) the local wisdom of the indigenous and rural villages to make digital highly detailed maps of their geography, resources, (hydrology, natural and cultivated biodiversity, archeology, social, cultural) to place all this on electronic pages with open access, at the disposition of whoever wants to use it. For example, corporations, institutions, or the army of the United States, which financed the project in Oaxaca. What is true, is that previously the project was carried out in nine communities of the Potosi Huasteca, and it is going on in the Sierra Tarahumara.

The implications of this type of activity are so vast, that it is difficult to sum them up. The detailed and precise map of the territories is only possible if it is extracted from local knowledge of those who live there. On processing this knowledge with new technologies, such as systems of digital geographic information, superimposed on satellite maps freely accessible on Google, one obtains an enormous volume of information which is not known or can not be appraised. These maps are of great utility for military ends and for counterinsurgency, but also for industrial purposes (exploitation of resources like minerals, plants, animals and biodiversity; mapping access roads already constructed or “necessary”, sources of water, settlements, social maps of possible resistance or acceptance of projects, etcetera).

The parallel with bio-piracy is surprising: both are based on accessing the knowledge –and potentially their resources– of the communities, based on rich and detailed knowledge of their environment, to obtain benefits which in no way favor the communities and even can seriously harm them. In both cases, the voluntary handing over information on the part of the communities is obtained thanks to the intervention of local people and people from universities or national academic institutes (with international agreements), with the timely appearance of some foreigner (gringo), who are the ones really directing the projects. Behind them, obscure financiers, who constitutes the real beneficiaries of the projects, for example transnational businesses, or in the case of geo-piracy, the armed forces of the United States.

According to Unosjo, a team led by the US geographer Peter Herlihy, arrived at the Sierra Juárez in 2006, to inform and ask aid for a “participative” mapping project entitled “México Indígena”. Herlihy presented the project as a form of digitalized mapping done with and in the service of the communities themselves, in the framework of study about the impact of Procede. [Procede is a law which permits transfer of communal land into salable property]

Although he mentioned other collaborators of the project, like the American Geographic Society (through Jerome Dobson, its president), the University of Kansas, the University of Carleton, the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí (Dr. Miguel Aguilar Robledo) and Semanart [Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales is the office for Environment and Natural Resources], he did not mention the active participation of the business for military technology Radiant Technologies nor that the financing was provided by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO)

It was not forgetfulness. The FMSO is described as “a center of investigation and analysis of Intelligence Assistance Activities under the Command of Training and Doctrine of the Army of the United States (…) which administrates and operates the Center of Intelligence Joint Mission of Reserve of Fort Leavenworth.”

Fort Leavenworth was the military center of command during the expansion of the United States onto indigenous territories since 1800 (the genocide referred to by television as “winning the West”). Also it has been the center of vigilance and control of native populations since the Civil War in that country. Presently it is focused on “ emerging and asymmetrical threats to the national security of the United States”, obviously stemming from their vision of the danger which the indigenous peoples represent. From that point, their aid to this project of geo-piracy focused on indigenous areas.

The director of Fort Leavenworth is David Petraeus, who commanded air assault Division 101 during Operation “Iraqi Freedom” against the people of Iraq, being then the first commander of the Multinational Command for Security and Transition in Iraq.

The information from the “disinterested” geographers of the project “México Indígena”, are presented monthly at the FMSO of Fort Leavenworth. Among many other facts that appear in these reports, which from a simple glance raise the hairs on one’s neck, is related a conversation between the leaders of México Indígena with Petraeus, where he affirms that based on his experience in Iraq, “ knowledge of the cultures is a multiplier of [military] forces …the knowledge of cultural ` terrain’ can be as important, and at times more, than the knowledge of the geographic terrain”. The leaders of México Indígena add with pride that “the culture and local residents are then the “decisive terrain” and that their project will succeed in completing the digital description of the ´ cultural terrain ´ if indigenous México. Except that now they are warned.


4 thoughts on “Mapping Indigenous Mexico for whom?

    colono said:
    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 01:46 (115)

    Obviously, we do not really agree to this use of “-piracy”, since the pirates, peace be upon them, liberated what was private and made it collective, whereas these thieves take what is collective and make it private – in other words, what we are dealing with here is pretty much the opposite.

    See for instance: and also

    z said:
    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 23:23 (016)

    you know geographers make “cognitive” maps too. like how the monks during the “conquest” had the indigenous peoples make maps. They connect them with story telling sometimes….this might be even worse unless of course it is just handed back to the peoples as some sort of cultural preservation project or something…..or some participatory project…about protecting specific culturally valued natural resources…with some sort of survey for the people….

    mokturtl said:
    Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 22:16 (969)

    Summary of UNOSJO’s second Press Conference
    from February 19, 2009, which details the accusation of an alleged link between the Bowman Expeditions and the Human Terrain System.
    Excerpts of the press conference can be viewed on YouTube:

    II Press Conference by UNOSJO
    Oaxaca, February 19, 2009

    The accusation of “geopiracy”, the robbery of traditional Zapotec knowledge by the Mexico Indigena Project in the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca, brought on an international ethics discussion on research in indigenous communities. After UNOSJO’s first press bulletin was published in newspapers, journals and web forums around the world, geographers and anthropologists voiced their concern about damage to the reputation of their disciplines due to the comportment of their colleagues from Kansas University (,,

    AGS ethics in practice

    There have also been pronounced responses from the people running the México Indígena project. Particularly Jerome Dobson, president of the American Geographic Society (AGS) pointed out the ethics guidelines that govern research conduct of the Bowman expeditions ( The following section details, how these guidelines were violated by the research team led by Peter Herlihy.

    Thus, point E of the AGS ethics guidelines states that “no information will be acquired through deception or misrepresentation” and point G states that “original sources of funding for AGS-sponsored expeditions will be made publicly transparent.” We hereby reaffirm that the people in the communities where the mapping project took place were neither informed about the funding by the Foreign Military Research Office (FMSO) nor were they told about the Involvement of the military supplier Radiance Technologies. According to the communal authority who was president of the agrarian committee in Yagila at the beginning of the investigation in 2006, they also knew nothing about the monthly reports on the ongoing research work in their communities, which the North-American scientists sent to the FMSO (
    While the logos of the FMSO and Radiance Technologies do not appear on the maps that the México Indigena team handed to the people of Tiltepec and Yagila in December 2008 (, the FMSO logo does appear on the preliminary maps of Zoogochi and Yagila, clearly visible on slides 38 and 39 of the Spanish power point presentation, which Herlihy placed on the Mexico Indígena webpage after our first press release ( This allows us to conclude that the FMSO logo was deliberately removed from the maps as to not cause suspicion among community members.

    Point J. of the ethics guidelines states that “all results of AGS-sponsored expeditions including data, information, reports, articles, and web sites, if released to anyone outside the immediate research team, must be made freely available to everyone, including United States Government agencies, host countries, other academic researchers, and the public.” People in the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca speak Zapotec and Spanish. The exclusive publication of reports and research results in English constitutes a clear violation of point J.
    Moreover, slide 23 of the English power point presentation shows the names of community members from Yagila to illustrate the localization of individual land plots ( The letter, which Dobson wrote in reaction to our first press release however, states that the people of Yagila explicitly asked the Mexico Indigena team not to publish their names ( This constitutes a clear violation of the will of the researched community as well as of points E, J, and O of the AGS ethics guidelines, the last of which affirms that “lead scholars, expeditions members, and AGS will protect the confidentiality of any human subjects that may be involved.” In the recent publication of photos showing both community members and UNOSJO staff (, slides 11, 33, 35, 36, 37) we also see a clear violation of this last point.
    Finally point N. of the ethics guidelines states that “lead scholars and other members of AGS-sponsored expeditions must comport themselves in a manner that respects cultures in the host country. A significant breach of this provision may result in recall of individuals or entire expeditions.” We consider the numerous violations of the AGS ethics guidelines grave enough to merit a suspension of the Mexico Indigena project.

    “Coincidences” in time and space

    The México Indígena team came to Oaxaca in 2006 at the time of the formation of the Oaxacan Peoples’ Assembly (APPO). APPO is also mentioned in the monthly reports, which the researchers sent to the FMSO ( – Project Status Report, July 2007). These reports also mention that the communities of Zoogochí and Yagavila suspended their cooperation with the geographers after communal authorities “with the help of local APPO sympathizers disapproved our involvement”.
    The English power point presentations show preliminary maps of both communities, which carry the FMSO logo ( Maps produced after Zoogochí and Yagavilla stopped working with the Mexico Indigena team do not carry the FMSO logo ( Was the removal of the logo from the maps perhaps a strategic decision by the Kansas geographers who feared to lose their two remaining research locations?
    The FMSO report also mentions that Herlihy’s team continued processing data collected in Zoogochí and Yagavia after these communities decided to leave the project ( – Project Status Report, July 2007). This constitutes another clear violation of the will of former research participants. With an eye on the FMSO’s focus on counterinsurgency, the choice of Oaxaca as a research location does not appear coincidental. After all, the other Bowman expeditions also took place in countries of strategic interest to the US and where there are insurgent activities, such as Colombia, Kazakhstan and Jordan.

    Property regime and the Bowman Expeditions

    In his response to our last press bulletin, Jerome Dobson praises the work of the Geographic Information System Africa (AGIS), which managed to title some 200,000 terrains to individual proprietors. He goes on to say that this is exactly what is needed in emerging democracies, war torn countries and in any state that switches from communism to capitalism, such as Cuba.
    The FMSO’s coordinator of the Bowman Expeditions, Geoff Demarest, a graduate of the School of the Americas, has written books about land privatization in both Cuba and Colombia, which he regards as key for US-American counterinsurgency strategies. Even so, México Indígena’s study on the PROCEDE privatization program is presented in almost critical tones (“neoliberal land privatization policies threaten the tapestry of community life”). However, UNOSJO regards such words as a cover up. The ideological project of Dobson and Demarest consists in the privatization of communal lands as part of a wider neoliberal property regime and as a counterinsurgency strategy.

    The Bowman Expeditions and the Human Terrain System (HTS)

    Our linking of the Bowman expeditions with the US army’s counterinsurgency strategy “Human Terrain System” (HTS) has rekindled some debates among north-American anthropologists. The idea behind the HTS is to employ a selected bunch of social scientists to increase the efficiency of the US army. The Human Terrain teams are employed to map social structures and conflicts to identify potential friends and foes. In this, the teams also take recourse to a global database, the World Basic Information Library – WBIL, which was initiated by the FMSO in 1997 to provide military, political, economic and infrastructural information on any country in the world.
    While UNOSJO never asserted that the Bowman Expeditions directly are part of the Human Terrain System, we assume that the data procured by the Bowman expeditions in the Sierra Juárez feeds directly into the WBIL. As both the Human Terrain System and the WBIL are managed by the FMSO, we presume that they and the Mexico Indigena Project are part of the same strategy. If the Mexico Indigena team maintains to not have anything to do with the HTS, we demand proof from the FMSO that the data collected by them are not used by the WBIL. We also demand a complete list about all institutions that have had access to the processed data from the Mexico Indigena research project.

    mokturtl said:
    Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 22:58 (999)

    This is a translation of the March 17 Press conference by the Oaxacan indigenous community of Tiltepec, which exposes the statements by Herlihy and Dobson that claim the community’s consent as lies.
    There also is a video with excerpts from the press conference and an interview with the Tiltepec comisariado on YouTube:

    The statements on video by one of Herlihy’s initial contacts from Yagavila reveals that the Mexico Indígena Team’s mapping offer was rejected precisely for the reason that it wasn’t participatory:

    Position of San Miguel Tiltepec on México Indígena
    To the general public
    To the news media

    We, the citizens of the community of San Miguel Tiltepec, through our Municipal Authority and Commissioner of Communal Goods, would like to let you know our position regarding an investigative project called México Indígena, begun in 2006 and finished in July of 2008, which produced a map containing information regarding place names as well as other cultural and geographical information furnished by people in our community.

    The investigative researchers and students (Derek Smith, John Kelly, Aída Ramos and others), headed by Peter Herlihy, who appeared before the General Assembly in our community, only told us that the aim of the research was to find out about the impacts of the PROCEDE program on indigenous communities. They never told us that the data they collected in our community would be turned over to the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) of the United States Army, and neither did they inform us that that institution was one of the sources of financing for the project. For this reason, we believe that our General Assembly was deceived by the researchers, who intended to gather information for their own interests.

    The community did not request the investigation; instead, the researchers convinced the community to approve it. Accordingly, the research did not arise from a felt need in the community. On the other hand, the investigators from the México Indígena project were the ones who designed the research method for gathering the kind of information that really interested them.

    Information has been circulated in different news media and on the internet, alleging that our community agrees with the results of the investigation, when we were not even aware of what was going on. These statements were made by researchers from the México Indígena project (Peter Herlihy) and the president of the American Geographic Society, Jerome Dobson.

    For the reasons stated above, we want to made our disagreement perfectly clear with regards to the investigation carried on in our community since we were never duly informed of the true aims of the project, the uses of the information furnished, or the sources of financing.

    We demand that those responsible for the project México Indígena, the American Geographic Society, the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) of the United States Army, the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, and the University of Kansas, as well as all other agencies whose participation has not come to our attention, comply with the following:

    * Cease and desist from making any use whatsoever of the information collected in our community;
    * Give us back the information that you took from our community;
    * Immediately destroy all information about our community that you have in your possession and furnish us with the proof of destruction;
    * Immediately eliminate all the information on the Internet that you published about the investigation carried on in our community; and
    * Publicly apologize to us for having violated our rights as indigenous peoples and for having violated the very norms that appear in the Code of Ethics of the American Geographic Society that you profess to respect.

    Lastly, we issue an alert to all the indigenous communities and peoples of Mexico and the world to not be caught unawares by the investigative researchers of the Bowman Expeditions, or by any other investigators who are only pursuing their own interests or those of the groups they represent; on the other hand, the communities and peoples ourselves should decide on anything that might be researched among us and who should do it.

    San Miguel Tiltepec, Ixtlán de Juárez, Oax., March 17, 2009


    Rogelio Hernández
    Agente de policía municipal
    San Miguel Tiltepec

    Bernardino Montaño Mendoza
    Presidente del Comisariado de Bienes Comunales
    San Miguel Tiltepec

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