México Indígena

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México Indígena is a project of the American Geographical Society to organize teams of geographers to research the geography of indigenous populations in Mexico. The project's stated objective is to map "changes in the cultural landscape and conservation of natural resources" that result from large scale land privatization initiatives underway in Mexico.[1] The project is led by Peter Herlihy at the University of Kansas and is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through its Foreign Military Studies Office. The project has been the subject of criticism by various groups including groups representing indigenous peoples. Critics allege that the project was not forthcoming about its U.S. military funding, and that the project has various ulterior motives besides gathering information for research purposes. The project began in 2005, and lasted through 2008.

Project and objectives[edit]

The México Indígena was the first in a series of planned projects to enhance United States government geographical data around the world.[2] The stated objective is to produce maps of the "digital human terrain," of the region's indigenous peoples. To accomplish this, the American Geographical Society sent geographers to several regions to gather cultural and GIS data and build relationships with local institutions.[2]

México Indígena was led by a team of geographers who specialize in Latin American, including Peter Herlihy[3] of the University of Kansas,[4] as well as Jeremy Dobson and Miguel Aguilar Robledo.[5]

Project methods[edit]

México Indígena's primary method for obtaining and understanding geographic data is participatory research mapping (PRM). In PRM, local investigators, chosen by the communities, are trained by the formal researcher in geographic data gathering techniques. Cognitive mental (individual) maps are converted to consensual (community) maps, including only features whose nature, name, and coordinates have been verified. These are then converted to standardized maps,[6] which the communities may choose to use for educational, political, legal, or other, purposes. Participatory maps of resource-use areas, for example, have been used successfully for indigenous territorial claims in Panama (Herlihy 2003) and elsewhere. México Indígena's primary tool for joining data from different sources to produce maps and to analyze trends is geographic information systems (GIS).

Sponsoring and collaborating institutions and participants [7] of the México Indígena research project have included the University of Kansas (US), the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí (Mexico), the Foreign Military Studies Office, Radiance Technologies (US),[8] and the Mexican federal environmental ministry SEMARNAT.

In many respects the México Indígena project is an example of military geography. "FMSO's goal is to help increase an understanding of the world's cultural terrain."[9]


The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges' International Development Project Database Survey notes that the México Indígena research project has received between $751,000-$1,000,000 from all sources external funds, including: U.S. Department of Defense, Foreign Military Studies Office; U.S. Department of State, Fulbright-Garcia Robles; the American Geographical Society; the University of Kansas' Center of Latin American Studies; Mexico's Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales; and the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí.[10]


Imperial Geography: Geopiratería[11]

The false attribution of location in the visual arts has been deemed "geopiracy" by Vogel (2006) and rigorously defined in Vogel et al. (2008). México Indígena raises consequential questions when humans are not falsely situated (located) in digitally-generated topographies of the human terrain. The ethical questions generated by the moral quagmire associated with efforts such as the México Indígena project have yet to be adequately addressed. While México Indígena's ethical guidelines explicitly assert "No information will be acquired through deception or misrepresentation" [12] significant concerns have arisen regarding the nature of the research,[13] despite the project's embrace of a putatively participatory research methodology that ostensibly "empowers" the local community in geographic knowledge generation and manipulation. Naïve statements by team leaders of Mexico Indígena's controversial land titling project designed to produce "digital human terrains," (for example, "Experience has proven that, when communities themselves give the world their understandings of their land, the world is better equipped to respect these alternative understandings"),[14] underscore legitimate and deeply troubling questions that have emerged surrounding the ethical conduct of the US-based researchers involved in México Indígena.[15] México Indígena project leader Peter Herlihy and the editor of "Participatory Mapping of Indigenous Lands in Latin America" a special Issue of the journal Human Organization of the Applied Anthropology Association initially explained to the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO, S.C.) that the proposed research objective was to assess the influence that the Mexican Government's PROCEDE program has had on indigenous people's communities. Nevertheless, Herlihy did not explain that the research initiative he led was financed by United States Army's Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), nor did he mention that research findings would be given directly to FMSO. As the Zapotec's indigenous organization, the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca notes, "Herlihy neglected to mention this despite being expressly asked to clarify the eventual use of the data obtained through research." Similarly, he failed "to acknowledge [to UNOSJO, S.C] the participation of Radiance Technologies, a company that specializes in arms development and military intelligence" [16] According to a statement released at the end of January 2009 by the Project leader, Peter Herlihy, "FMSO has financed the expedition to Mexico, as well as others to Colombia, the Antilles and Jordan, through the Radiance Corporation,[8] that administers the contracts between FMSO, AGS, and the universities" ("The American Geographical Society's Bowman Expeditions seek to improve geographic understanding at home and abroad: Spotlight on México Indígena")[permanent dead link]. Managed under contract by Radiance Technologies, an Alabama-based military contractor specializing in intelligence and logistical services, Herlihy's research has been financed through FMSO, indicating for some that "the Mexico Indígena project is involved in gathering intelligence for the US Army." [17]

According to the Independent Media Center [18] "The researched [Oaxaca] communities knew nothing of this involvement and are left feeling like victims of geopiracy."

The Kansas City based SmartPort Inc.[19] is pushing forward with its project to convert Kansas City into what is called an inland port for Mexican shipments, and facilitating the free passage of goods across the Mexican border. One may question why Kansas City merchants may have an interest in maps of Mexico. Yet as SmartPort Inc. observes, "Located in the heart of America at the hub of the transcontinental and NAFTA trade corridors, Kansas City is a center of choice for warehousing, manufacturing and distribution".[20] Herlihy has commented that his research in Mexico can benefit SmartPort Inc. planners by offering them with information about the regions along Mexico's railways. He said, "They can take this information and use it for all kinds of things to really understand what they call the cultural terrain," Herlihy is reported to have also said. "You can't even predict all the uses" [21]

Given the American Geography Society's long and intimate association with imperial agendas,[22] it is perhaps no surprise that the AGS sponsored México Indígena project has been the source of fierce criticism from indigenous organizations in Mexico, not to mention from a student-based group at the University of Kansas—the academic home of Mexico Indígena.[23] Student supporters of KU Watch's critique of México Indígena demonstrated at the University of Kansas to enhance awareness about research conducted at the University funded by the Department of Defense.[24] In response to criticisms raised by the University of Kansas student group KU Watch, Peter Herlihy, a leader of the Bowman Expedition, said that he was "proud to raise the flag and say look at what the government is funding," In addition, Herlihy reported that his research project "empowers indigenous people by putting intellectual property where it belongs." Moreover, he noted that "Geographical intelligence is needed for peace and prosperity just like it is needed for war and destruction,".[24] Recently, a number of geographers have written to the AAG requesting that it conduct its own inquiry into the nature and consequences of Peter Herlihy's research in Mexico, which they "feel violated the ethical norms of our profession."[25]

Meanwhile, Esteban Ortiz Rodea, the Mexican State representative for the Secretary for the Environment and Natural Recourses (SEMARNAT) has publicly acknowledged that no Federal funds were used to support the implementation of the "México Indígena" project in the communities of the Sierra Juárez. Moreover, Aldo González, the leader of the Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca (UNOSOJO) apparently only became aware of "México Indígena's" ties to FMSO very recently. González has since joined other Zapotec leaders and expressed grave concern regarding the actual intentions of the United States Department of Defense-funded project.[26][27] This concern culminated in mid January, 2009, when Juan Pérez Luna y Aldo González of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) released a press statement denouncing the México Indígena's lack of full disclosure regarding funding procured from the United States Army Foreign Military Studies Office.[28]

The Co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples' Specialty Group (IPSG) of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and Secretary of the Indigenous Peoples' Knowledges and Rights Commission (IPKRC) of the International Geographical Union (IGU), Renee Pualani Louis, lamented the release of UNOSOJO's declaration by noting how it was such a "sad day for geographers and anyone doing research with Indigenous communities especially in Meso-America."[29]

As the Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca's press release indicates, Zapotec Indigenous Peoples in Mexico are demanding full transparency from the U.S. scholar leading the United States Department of Defense funded project. In their words, "Prof. Herlihy failed to mention that he received funding from the Foreign Military Studies Office of the U.S. Armed Forces. The failure to obtain full, free and prior informed consent is a violation of the rights of indigenous communities as codified in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations in 2007." (according to UN Declaration Article 11/2, research must be conducted with free prior and informed consent).[30] As noted by the website El Enemigo Común in their essay 'A Road to Hell', "The role of the Foreign Military Studies Office in identifying 'emerging and asymmetric' threats in Oaxaca, Mexico is chilling to say the least. Fort Leavenworth has a vast array of knowledge with regards to how neo-liberal changes in Mexico's property regime will affect indigenous culture and land use."[31] Data from the "México Indígena" project are disseminated monthly at Fort Leavenworth's Foreign Military Studies Office. It is reported that during a conversation between Gen. Petraeus and the project leaders of México Indígena, Petraeus observed that, "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". Accordingly, the project heads of México Indígena are reported to have stated that "the culture and local residents are then the 'decisive terrain'".[32] So-called-participatory mapping (PRM) is a technique that fully capitalizes on local indigenous knowledge in the creation of "formalized" maps necessary for the creation of neo-liberal property regimes. According to an excerpt from 2006 Methodological Approaches Report of México Indígena: "The participatory mapping, or PM, methodology rests on the philosophy that local populations have some of the best and most detailed knowledge of their surrounding lands and resources and that can be collected and interpreted geographically."[33][34]

Neglecting to disclose funding sources to research participants violate the ethical principles of both the Association of American Geographers (AAG) as well as the Belmont Report. Failure to inform participants about the potential risks or unintended consequences associated with the study abrogates the principal of informed consent, and hence violates the rights of the project participant's. México Indígena's military-funded investigations do in fact pose a risk in Oaxaca for individuals and communities, especially in light of the fractious and divisive nature of village and inter-village politics in Southern Mexico, not to mention the socio-political turmoil in this region that has been fragmented by international migration, political factionalism and economic marginalization.

Notwithstanding such critiques, in Peter Herlihy's estimation, México Indígena is a concerted effort to renew "society's commitment to inform the public and the United States government about world geography".[35] The American Geographical Society has been clear about the potential sanctions accompanying a breach of ethical conduct. According to an AGS document released on the México Indígena web site called "Developing Guidelines for Ethical Conduct of Foreign Field Research": "Lead scholars and other members of AGS-sponsored expeditions must comport themselves in a manner that respects cultures in the host country while simultaneously adhering to widely held values of American culture. Their actions must not adversely affect the people or natural environments of host countries. A significant breach of this provision may result in recall of individuals or entire expeditions."[9]

The Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca (UNOSJO) has reiterated its rejection of the University of Kansas geographers associated with the México Indígena Project for failing to obtain informed consent from the communities involved in the research.[36][37][38] UNOSJO continues to maintain that research was conducted in a covert fashion.[39] Moreover, the coordinator of the Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca Aldo González Rojas is reported to have said in Spanish that "the looting of traditional Zapotec knowledge about land and territoriality is tantamount to geopiracy (geopiratería), which is being conducted through the work of México Indígena in the indigenous communities of the Sierra. This in turn has generated an international debate over the ethical nature of social research conducted in indigenous communities."[40]

Aldo González Rojas, speaking on behalf of UNOSJO, has indicated that it is necessary to determine if the information collected by "México Indígena" is for U.S. military or counter-insurgency purposes. As such, UNOSJO has called for complete disclosure of the institutions and corporations with privileged access to the data collected by México Indigena. UNOSJO holds that the DOD funded Bowman expedition in Mexico is dedicated to developing military tactics for application in zones of armed conflict. UNOSJO continues to claim that Mexico's Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) has financed the work of México Indígena through its support of the University of San Luis. SEMARNAT has previously disputed UNOSJO's claim, saying they have not funded the implementation of the "México Indígena" project in indigenous or mestizo communities in the Sierra Juárez. According to Esteban Ortiz Rodea, reports from the indigenous communities of Tiltepec, Yagavila, Ixtlán, Yagila and Guelatao suggest few indications of the actual communal collection of zapping information, despite "México Indígena" project's championing of PRM.[41]

Posted on the México Indígena web site is an image of a "parcel sketch map of part of community of La Pila, with request to PROCEDE authorities" from an ejidatario of the Pila—Municipio de Ciudad Valles, which provides digitized visual identification of families tying them to place (parcels).[12] In addition to mapping the region, the México Indígena team established a database that includes the names of community members, the location of their plot(s) of land, the formal and informal use of their territories, as well as other data that is not accessible via the Internet.[42] An egregious human rights concern that emanates from the México Indígena project is the alleged deception research, not to mention the privileged knowledge associated with "digitally" tying people to place and then releasing this critical cultural terrain intelligence information to immigration and other border security personnel. To date, this vital ethical concern has not been addressed by the México Indígena team, while this concern was lauded by a recent apologetic analysis of the project which notes that, "PROCEDE's effects on the Mexican populace is a perfect example of salient GIS information untapped by the IC. The United States Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, based on hometowns or origins of detained illegal immigrants where PROCEDE has been enacted, could identify out-migration trends from Mexico and enhance the deployment and effectiveness of border protection resources" [43] (See the description of México Indígena in Batson, Douglas 2009 Registering The Human Terrain: A Valuation of Cadastre. National Defence Intelligence Press). The OaxacaLibre web site is clear in expressing regional apprehension regarding México Indígena 's treatment of confidential data, asserting that the local community should control such sensitive data: "El derecho a la información se maneja también dentro del derecho de la privacidad, el conocimiento comunitario debe ser controlado por la comunidad."[44]


  • Betrán García, Hermógenes, 2009 "'Saberes indígenas' robados" 15 Feb ADN Sureste web site.[45]
  • Davies, Nancy 2009 "Geographic Survey Project of the Sierra Juarez Mountains Stirs Protests: In Oaxaca, Geographers Deny Surveillance Charges" The Narco News Bulletin February 21.[46]
  • Dobson, J. 2006. AGS Conducts Fieldwork in Mexico. Ubique. Vol 26, No. 1.
  • Forte, Maximilian 2009. "Contemporary Colonial Scholarship and the Spreading Human Terrain System: AGS Bowman Expeditions, Zapotec Indians, and onto the Caribbean." Posted in COLONIALISM/IMPERIALISM OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY Jan. 29.[47]
  • Herlihy, P. 2003. Participatory research mapping of indigenous lands in Darien, Panama. Human Organization. 62: 315-331
  • Herlihy, P. 2007 Mapas Comunales de La Lima, La Pila, Chuchupe, Kuatlamayan, Chimalaco, Tazaquil, Tacuime, and Santa Cruz, Mexico. México Indígena: Cartografía partícipativa, tenencia de la tierra, uso de los recursos naturales y conservación ambiental en comunidades indigenas de la Huasteca, Mexico:. Información obtenida a través de Etno-investigadores Locales.
  • Herlihy, P. and G. Knapp. 2003. Maps of, by, and for the Peoples of Latin America. Human Organization 62.
  • Herlihy, Peter H., Jerome Dobson, Miguel Aguilar Robledo, Derek Smith, John Kelly, and Viera, Aida Ramos 2008 "A digital geography of indigenous Mexico: prototype for the American Geographical Society's Bowman expeditions." (GEOGRAPHICAL FIELD NOTE). The Geographical Review.
  • Herlihy, Peter, Derek Smith, John Kelly and Jerome Dobson 2006. "México Indígena: Mexican Open-Source Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Project Final Report, Year One", Prepared by the Radiance Research Team for the Foreign Military Studies Office and the American Geographical Society June 5.
  • Hernández, Carlos Alberto 2009 "Aldo González actúa con fines electorales, alerta Semarnat La dependencia no financió ni conoció del proyecto México Indígena, afirma delegado estatal." El Imparcial Jan. 23.[26]
  • Maines, Sophia 2006 "Expeditions touted as modern intelligence gathering" Exploring the world anew October 23 [21]
  • Matias, Perdro 2009 "Exigen se investiguen posibles violaciones a pueblos indígenas." Barricada de Oaxaca. Jan. 16 [48]
  • Oaxaca Study Action Group 2009 "Fwd: Zapotec Indigenous People in Mexico Demand Transparency from U.S" Jan. 30 Oaxaca Study Action Group web site.[49]
  • Observador Ciudadano 2009 "Exige Calderón acción ciudadana contra corrupción ¿Estados Unidos invadido por la corrupción y el narco mexicano?¿La Ruta de la Fuerza Militar? ¿La Ruta de la Democracia? ¿La Ruta de la Corrupción?" Prospectiva Política. Jan. 21.[50]
  • Ribeiro, Silvia 2009 "Geo-Piracy in Oaxaca... and Much More US Academics Are Mapping Resources in Mexico; Corporations and the US Military Are the Beneficiaries of the Data" La Jornada. February 3.
  • Stanton, John 2009. "Human Terrain System meets the Bowman expeditions: US Army/TRADOC Embroiled in Another Controversy."[51]
  • Torrentera G. Lilia 2009 "¿Qué hacen las Expediciones Bowman en México?"[52]
  • Torrentera G., Lilia 2009 "Permite gobierno mexicano espionaje de EU en zonas indígenas."[52]
  • UNOSJO, S.C. 2009 PRESS BULLETIN FROM UNION OF ORGANIZATIONS OF THE SIERRA JUÁREZ OF OAXACA (UNOSJO, S.C.) Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico 14 January (Denouncing México Indígena Project and demanding that Peter Herlihy "honor his promise of transparency and that the Mexican public be made aware all his sources of funding and the institutions that received information on findings obtained in the communities.")
  • Vogel, Joseph, Janny Robles, Camilo Gomides, and Carlos Muñiz, 2008. "Geopiracy as an Emerging Issue in Intellectual Property Rights: The Rationale for Leadership by Small States" 21 Tulane Environmental Law Journal (Spring), 391-406.

Further reading[edit]

  • Porteous, J. Douglas and Sandra E. Smith (2001). Domicide: The Global Destruction Of Home. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 978-0-7735-2258-9.
  • Smith, Neil (2003). American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23027-2.
  • Vogel, Joseph Henry; et al. (2008). Geopiracy as an Emerging Issue in Intellectual Property Rights: The Rationale for Leadership by Small Status. Tulane: Environmental Law Journal. pp. 391–406.


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External links[edit]