Sep 26, 2013

fabulous description of conquering fears together with international accompaniment

My doctoral research was on international protective accompaniment, in Colombia and beyond (a chapter with some of those arguments is just out in a new edited book on Geographies of Peace, a copy of it is up here - all of my work is available on my page).

For my postdoctoral research I am looking at the stories told by international accompaniers, and how they work to build alternative securities through solidarity.  I have spent a lot of time reading blog posts and newsletters from the various accompaniment groups, and recently Sophia, an accompanier from Peace Brigades, posted one of the most compelling I've read, which also gives a great sense of what the work is like. I'm  reposting it below in its entirety:

Conquering fears with the campesino community of Pitalito 

 I like going to terrain, and I knew that it would mean camping for the entire week.
I like going to terrain, and I knew that it would mean camping for the entire week.
I’m back in Barrancabermeja after a couple of month break for my second year with PBI. The big news is Pitalito. The team have already been accompanying the community for almost a month by the time I head off with my fellow volunteer Yoris, and so far it certainly hasn’t been boring! When two of my colleagues accompanied the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP) on the community’s initial return to Pitalito they had a rather sleepless week: keeping guard at night; surprise visits from the military at dawn to see Pitalito´s return for themselves; and visits to and from the municipal capital (by boat) to accompany the lawyers on legal business. However, after the first week things had calmed down a bit, but we still felt that maintaining an international presence was important to ensure the safety of the community in case people tried to forcibly displace them, as they had in 2010.

I´ll be honest, I was a little nervous. I like going to terrain, and I knew that it would mean camping for the entire week. I also knew that it would mean bathing in the river which is always fun, and eating a lot of yucca, sometimes three times a day, which well… it’s that or go hungry. I was scared of two things: one, snakes (bring wellies!), and two… the lack of toilet. On their own these things are manageable, but when there is a serious risk of getting your bum bitten by a snake, you tend to avoid toilet breaks. However, I put these things to the back of my mind. This was going to be an adventure!
I´d seen photos of the previous accompaniments, and when the community had first arrived it had been nothing but a clearing in some trees.
I´d seen photos of the previous accompaniments, and when the community had first arrived it had been nothing but a clearing in some trees. When we arrived I was struck by how much things had changed. I´d seen photos of the previous accompaniments, and when the community had first arrived it had been nothing but a clearing in some trees. However, since then, the makeshift shelters had become large solid tents, the cooking area had a roof, and there was running water for a kitchen sink and a shower. Tomato and yucca cultivating had begun and the community had got into a daily work routine that finished every night with a meeting. Everything was done collectively which was also quite exciting since it really gave it the feel of a project that everyone was building together, keeping everyone motivated. It was really quite special. These different families had been displaced just three years ago, and here they were, back on their land, united, determined to stay and were actually stronger for it!
My first day was excellent, I got to meet everyone, everyone was lovely (always a plus!) and they asked by name after all the volunteers that had passed through before. One of the days we went down to the local town with Rommel, the lawyer from the FCSPP, so he could get hold of some documents pertaining to the case they are bringing against the man accused of displacing the community in 2010. While we were down there we took the opportunity to download the videos and articles that had appeared in the international press about the Pitalito case; the community had not seen them because there is no mainline electricity, much less internet or computers…

And what a night it was! I think until that point people felt that we were the only thing between them and a forced eviction. When they saw the amount of support they had for their project beyond the borders of Pitalito, their motivation and the belief if their project grew. No one was going to be displacing them illegally anytime soon- they could start to think beyond the next few days and start planning long-term. International support showed them that the comunidad campesina de Pitalito project wasn´t an ambition anymore, it was a reality.

At night we would take it in turns to guard the entry into the community for an hour or two, whistle at hand to wake up the community if necessary. Some nights it was just be me and Yoris debating the ethics of international accompaniment , other nights Rommel would be there entertaining us with stories of court cases he´d worked on (you have to hear it to believe it!), and sometimes some of the Pitalito inhabitants would be there. One particular night I remember one of the young men telling us about the Madre Monte, a legendary figure that lives in the hills surrounding Pitalito who would force men to marry her if they were badly behaved. And this was no joke, it had happened to some brothers who lived in the next valley along. It was an absurd conversation, but it also highlighted how far Pitalito´s situation has come. If the Pitalito community´s most immediate worry for the time being is the Madre Monte, and mine are the snakes, then we´ve come a long way. That´s not to say the threat of being displaced has disappeared, but it´s not as imminent as it was when the community returned in May.

I´ve been back to the community twice now. I´ve seen two and a half snakes (one was dead, killed by one of the kids) and survived them all. The Madre Monte is still out there but so far hasn´t made an appearance. My colleagues who have been back since tell me the community has now got fully grown tomatoes and a working toilet, so I´m excited to go back this month and see them for myself. Things really are going from strength to strength.


Sophia Kerridge has been working with PBI in the field since January 2012 both in Bogotá and Barrancabermeja. She is from the United Kingdom.

Sep 20, 2013

Misunderstanding, militarized

As a follow-up to my last post, I am reposting this entry  with more on the new Bowman expeditions, by my friend and fellow geographer Joel Wainwright:

"[Jerry] Dobson, a professor of geography at Kansas University [KU], is the lead researcher on one of 14 projects to win grants this year from the Minerva Research Initiative , a U.S. Department of Defense effort to learn more about other parts of the world through social-science research.  He and other researchers will receive about $1.8 million over three years to study indigenous communities throughout Central America, with a possibility to apply for renewal and receive a total of $3 million over five years. […] “There are too many instances where misunderstanding of other areas has cost us,” Dobson said. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, the United States may have fared better in many of its conflicts over the past half-century with more knowledge about the culture and politics of other parts of the world." - Matt Erickson, LJWorld
Source: Public Political Ecology Lab

Yes, the Bowman expeditions are back, rebooted by a Department of Defense Minerva grant, and soon to arrive in all seven Central American countries. To study which indigenous peoples, exactly? Usually in academia such things are not secret, but this project involves the US military.After reading Erickson’s story I wrote Professor Dobson to ask for a copy of his research proposal. In reply to my request, he sent me a link to one of his peevish essays . I thanked him for the piece and asked for the proposal again; he replied by asking if I had read his essay—which, I gather, he sees as a scathing rebuke of critical scholars like me, hence an answer in itself. That’s the thing about collaborating with the military: it makes you more cloistered and secretive. The fraternal romance of power creeps in. Pretty soon you don’t share basic information about your research with other scholars, even when the work is funded from the public and motivated, ostensibly, by a need to create an “informed public.
In fairness to Professor Dobson, he has reason to be defensive. His work has come under sharp criticism (see Joe Bryan’s essay , e.g., and its links). I recently published a book, Geopiracy: Oaxaca, militant empiricism, and geographic thought , that examines how Dr. Dobson and other geographers from the University of Kansas went to Mexico to map indigenous lands with funds from the US military and, according to the communities they studied, failed to mention the source of their funds and their ties to the US military. I won’t recapitulate the whole story (you can read Jeremy Crampton’s review here ), but it’s worth remembering that the controversy started when indigenous communities in Oaxaca discovered the ties between the Bowman expeditions and the US military. They rebelled, publishing a trio of public denunciations of the project, such as this 2009 letter from the community of San Miguel Tiltepec, Oaxaca:
[The geographers] never informed us that the data they collected in our community would be given to the Foreign Military Study Office (FMSO) of the Army of the United States, nor did they inform us that this institution was one of the sources of financing for the project. Because of this, we consider that our General Assembly was tricked by the researchers, in order to draw out the information the[y] wanted. The community did not request the research[;] it was the researchers who convinced the community to carry it out.  Thus, the research was not carried out due to the community’s need, it was the researchers […] who designed the research method in order to collect the type of information that truly interested them. […] [W]e wish to express to the public […] our complete disagreement with the research carried out in our community, since we were not properly informed of the true goals of the research, the use of the information obtained, and the sources of financing [for the entire statement, see Zoltan Grossman’s website ].
The ‘Oaxaca controversy’ shocked many by revealing US military collaboration with academic geographers. With his NSF/Minerva grant, Professor Dobson is again spearheading the military front within the discipline.  Although to read the coverage of his work in LJWorld, it seems the sole motivation is cultural understanding.
Thanks to the Public Records Office at the University of Kansas, I was able to obtain a copy of the proposal that won Dr. Dobson the $3 million. As a scholarly proposal it is not worth serious discussion. The text is comprised mainly of recycled bits of Bowman Expedition doggerel; superficially it resembles an NSF proposal, but the analytical architecture is just shoddy.  For instance, their research hypothesis is: “certain land tenure and land use practices will mean significant level of cultural resilience, with associated benefits, such as environmental conservation and tourism development…” (p 4). Yet these “certain” practices are never defined and the brief theoretical discussion on land tenure relies mainly on a handful of US military sources.  Their methodology is to vacuum up as much material about indigenous communities as they can obtain and repackage everything into one giant “ArcGIS database of digital maps, data, and statistics” (p 5).
Nevertheless, the proposal contains these useful hints about the project. Their fieldwork is based out of the Department of Anthropology at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (or UNAH ) where they are collaborating with anthropologist Dr. Silva Gonzalez (p 5).  They aim to study all the municipalities in Central America where at least 30% of the population is indigenous as classified by language (p 7). Presumably this means that they will conduct considerable fieldwork in Guatemala – home to the largest percentage of indigenous people in Central American – although, curiously, Honduras is the only country singled out for fieldwork in the proposal.
Less ambiguous are their promises about the project’s usefulness to the US military. The proposal’s one-page ‘abstract’ includes this statement:
Impact on DoD Capabilities and Broader Implications for National Defense: The proposed research addresses recognized deficiencies in U. S. foreign policy, military strategy, and foreign intelligence.  DoD will gain new capabilities to conduct human geographic research, similar to but more advanced than those employed extensively in World Wars I and II.  DoD will benefit directly and abundantly from the openly-reported research and the geographic information disseminated and from a greatly improved pool of regional experts, an improved labor pool, and a better informed public in times of future political debates and conflict [my italics].
Never mind a weak analytical argument; this is the stuff that wins Minerva grants.
The Minerva program emerged out of the DoD circa 2007, i.e. the same era as the Bowman expeditions. Through Minerva the DoD seeks to derive ideas and data about potential targets from US-based social scientists. To do so, the Pentagon has teamed up with NSF (which engages the scholars and handles the money). The funding isn’t enormous – a few million dollars per grant – but these are times when money is scarce and even research proposals rated as ‘excellent’ are not necessarily funded by NSF. Ironically, the competitiveness of normal NSF (scientific) funding increases the prestige value of the Minerva (military) grants. And the NSF helps some Minerva applicants assuage their fears that they are not actually conducting military research. But make no mistake; it is the DoD’s money and they shape the agenda.  They will also certainly get the ArcGIS database being built by the Kansas geographers.
Geographers have not been at the forefront of the Minerva program; Dr. Dobson’s was, I believe, the only geography proposal funded in this year’s batch. Among geographers there is practically nothing written on Minerva, but perhaps Dobson’s grant will change that (the Social Science Research Council has posted a useful overview on Minerva with some good essays, such as this one by Priya Satia at Stanford). To grasp something of the psychology of those geographers working with the US military today, we are best served by studying the recent pair of extraordinary papers published by Trevor Barnes on Walter Christaller’s work for the Nazi regime (including this one, coauthored with Claudio Minca, in Annals of the AAG 103(3). And in times of Bowman redux, we should reread the late Neil Smith’s outstanding biography of Isaiah Bowman, American Empire :
[C]iting the ‘growing influence of geography among military men,’ [Bowman] even urged the War Department [today’s Department of Defense] to send some officers to the AGS [sponsor of today’s Bowman expeditions] to advance their studies in ‘the field of geography as applied to military operations’.  He hedged about whether Latin American governments should be informed. What became of these plans tendering geography for the purpose of government spying is not clear.  There have always been social scientists who have collaborated with government intelligence organizations, and from the time of the Roman geographer Strabo to the current CIA [headed by Petraeus], geography as a scholarly pursuit has traditionally operated as a handmaiden to the state.  But the great majority of scholars have traditionally frowned on collusion with military intelligence operations, and scholarly associations often carry explicit prohibitions against spying. […] What is remarkable about Bowman’s injudicious peddling of geography and the services of the AGS is the lack of any sense that his eager cooperation with Military Intelligence, the government’s premier spy agency of this period, in any way compromises his scientific integrity or endangers scientists (pp. 89-90).
The Bowman Expeditions represent only one side-project for the US state/military and a small one at that. Thanks to Edward Snowden, the NSA’s spying has been exposed and we’ve learned how hundreds of thousands of people in the US have been subject to government surveillance . The situation is much worse when we consider US state surveillance of the rest of the world.  The task of systematically collecting geospatial data and conducting routine surveillance around the world for the US state/military falls to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA ), an organization that has not received the scrutiny given to the NSA. (On the NSA revelations and the NGA, see Jeremy Crampton’s excellent essay at the Society and Space website.) No less worrying are the myriad military programs to improve how the US armed forces – particularly the Army – ‘uses’ human geography as a weapon. As I have discussed elsewhere , these are geographical projects of much greater significance than the Bowman expeditions and led by people who are more dangerous than Professor Dobson.
We are witnessing an unprecedented attempt by one state to collect data – much of it geocoded – from multiple sources (data mining, satellites, outright spying, and much more), reaching into the most intimate spaces of our lives and saturating our very means of communication. The US government has constructed an unparalleled platform for geospatial data collection and analyses, capable of mapping people’s movements and communications across the entire planet. All of this has potential military ‘applications’, meaning the potential to harm people, including US citizens (since we can have little faith that these tools cannot be used on civilians through police, FBI, or other agencies). The capacity of the US state/military to locate, follow, track, and kill people is without precedent and without equal, and that is the point.  Given the extraordinary record of violence carried out by the US government over the past century – from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – one would have to have an almost religious faith in the infallibility of US leadership and the rightness of their ideology not to look at the government’s military/intelligence capacities and feel enraged at the injustices already committed—and the many more to come.
What are we to do? One way to answer this question, as Professor Dobson reminds us, is to ask how we can “reduce international misunderstandings.”  His approach is to militarize those misunderstandings by providing maps and data to the Pentagon. There is another way, one elaborated beautifully by Edward Said in a 1991 interview. Allow me to quote at length:
There’s only one way to anchor oneself [as an intellectual], and that is by affiliation with a cause, a political movement. There has to be identification not with the secretary of state or the leading philosopher of the time but with matters involving justice, principle, truth, conviction. Those don’t occur in a laboratory or a library.  For the American intellectual, that means, at bottom, that the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world, now based upon profit and power, has to be altered to one of coexistence among human communities that can make and remake their own histories and environments together. … [Unfortunately, even] inside the university, the prevalence of norms based upon domination and coercion is so strong because the idea of authority is so strong, whether it’s derived from the nation-state, from religion, from the ethnos, from tradition.… Part of intellectual work is understanding how authority is formed.  Authority is not God-given. It’s secular. And if you can understand that, then your work is conducted in such a way as to be able to provide alternatives to the authoritative and coercive norms that dominate so much of our intellectual life, our national and political life, and our international life above all.
If we are going to criticize the formation of authority and provide alternatives to the norms that dominate intellectual life, we have no choice: we must confront the US military.

Sep 13, 2013

Geographers working for war and dispossession

It can be argued that political geography in particular began as the handmaiden of empire, war, and pillage.  There are certainly many of us trying to use it now instead for social justice, equality, and peace - but I am outraged to report that some are still using it to steal people's land and resources.  I think it's safe to call that the extreme opposite of solidarity. As part of a group effort to decolonize my discipline I am re-posting the following article by my friend and colleague Joe Bryan in its entirety:

Source: Joe Bryan
The Lawrence World-Journal recently reported the Defense Department’s decision to fund the latest Bowman Expedition led by the American Geographical Society and the University of Kansas Geography Department.  Like the first – and controversial – Bowman expedition to Mexico , this latest venture will be led by KU Geographers Jerome Dobson and Peter Herlihy and will target indigenous communities.

Like previous Bowman Expeditions , the expedition’s goal is to compile basic, “open-source,” information about countries that can be used to inform U.S. policy makers and the military. This time, however, they won’t be focused on a single country.  Instead they’ll be working throughout Central America, a region that Herlihy and Dobson have elsewhere called “The U.S. Borderlands.” What is this Expedition about?  And why is the Defense Department funding academic research on indigenous peoples?

As with the expedition to Mexico, Herlihy and Dobson are focused on land ownership. Echoing a growing list of military strategists, Herlihy and Dobson contend that areas where property rights are not clearly established and enforced by states provide ideal conditions for criminal activity and violence that threaten regional security.

Herlihy and Dobson propose to use maps made with indigenous communities of their lands to clarify this problem, ostensibly with an eye towards securing legal recognition of their property rights. In their expedition to Mexico, Herlihy and Dobson turned over their findings to Radiance Technologies , an Alabama-based military contractor specializing in “creative solutions for the modern warfighter.” It’s not clear whether this new expedition will do the same, though the program funding it, the Minerva Research Initiative , evaluates proposals according to their ability to address national security concerns.

The rationale for these Expeditions has been parsed in film , print , and by academics (myself included ), revealing them to be little more than intelligence gathering efforts carried out by civilian professors and their graduate students. Zapotec communities visited by the previous expedition to Mexico have further denounced Herlihy’s and Dobson’s efforts as “geopiracy ,” (and again here ) that replay some of colonialism’s oldest tactics of extracting information from communities for people (the U.S. Army) who live elsewhere.  Zapotec communities in Oaxaca have also accused Herlihy of failing to inform them of the U.S. Army’s role in funding the Expedition and process data collected by it.

Military funding for the latest Bowman Expedition raises the question of what the U.S. military wants to know about Central America.  Moreover, why is it funding research on indigenous peoples? It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. military has much interest in the nuances that distinguish, say, Tawahka communities from Emberá ones.  Nor does the military appear concerned with the chronic insecurity of land rights, which continues to be one of the primary threats faced by indigenous communities. A far more likely answer lies with the military’s growing interest in collecting information about the “cultural” or “human” terrain that they can use as needed for a variety of purposes, from managing risks posed by natural disasters to planning military interventions.

Maps of the sort produced by the Bowman Expeditions are certainly useful for this task compiling information about who lives where and place names, to give two examples. But maps can only describe the territory. What they cannot describe are the intricacies of the “terrain ” such as the social networks through which access to land and resources are negotiated or the history of struggles over land.

The U.S. military is more familiar with this terrain than one might think. Beginning with the “Banana Wars” of the early 20th Century, the U.S. military has intervened more times in Central America that just about any other region in the world. Indeed the Marines’ first resource on counter-insurgency, the “Small Wars Manual ,” drew extensively from their experiences navigating the indigenous Mayanagna and Miskito communities in pursuit of Augusto Sandino’s anti-imperialist forces in Nicaragua.

In the 1980s, U.S. military advisors once again traversed the indigenous areas of Central America for tactical gain. In eastern Nicaragua and Honduras, they helped train and organize Miskito-led armed groups as part of the proxy battle strategy of the Contra War. In Guatamala they targeted Maya communities as bastions of guerilla support with genocidal consequence. Dense forests and other isolated areas throughout the region further provided cover for airstrips also used for illicit shipments of cocaine and weapons orchestrated by the Reagan Administration in support of the Contras.
Herlihy knows this history well. He’s been mapping the forested areas in eastern Honduras used by the Contras and Miskito armed groups since the late 1980s.  Herlihy’s (and Dobson’s) main military contact, Geoffrey Demarest , knows this history too.  A graduate of the School of the Americas, he served as a military attaché to Guatemala.  He’s since become an expert on counter-insurgency, publishing extensively from his experience in Colombia and its relevance for current wars . More recently, he enrolled in the Geography Ph.D. program at KU under Dobson’s supervision.

Still, what is the national security interest in Central America that a Bowman Expedition there can help address?  Indigenous land ownership has already been extensively mapped in much of the region as part of property reforms supported by the likes of the World Bank.  Several countries in the region now also have promising laws on the books recognizing indigenous and black land rights.
Yet neither maps nor legal reforms have been enough to stop the region from becoming a major transshipment route for cocaine en route to the United States. The State Department estimates that more than 80 percent of cocaine bound for the U.S. passes through Honduras. Some of this trafficking makes use of infrastructure created by counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1980s.

In 2011, Herlihy once again mapped the Honduran Mosquitia as part of another U.S. Army-funded Bowman Expedition. Shortly thereafter, in 2012, the region was targeted by the DEA who made use of counter-insurgency tactics developed in Iraq to fight traffickers.  Among those lessons of Iraq applied in the Mosquitia was the use of forward operating bases immersed in the region’s physical and cultural terrain of the Mosquitia. Two of those bases, El Aguacate and Mocorón , were repurposed bases constructed during the Contra War. The campaign fits a broader pattern of escalating militarization of Central America further illustrated by this map compiled by the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Source: Fellowship of Reconciliation
The application of counter-insurgency tactics gives mapping indigenous areas a more sinister edge. Historically the U.S. military has relied on the designation of “Indian Country ” and “tribal areas” to designate areas at the edge of state control, often turning them into free-fire zones where the conventions of war, legal and otherwise, do not apply. Better knowledge of these areas has scarcely reduced incidents of violent conflict as Dobson suggests.  Instead, that knowledge has served as a “force multiplier” – to use General Petraeus’s term – that allows the U.S. military to intervene with greater efficiency. Herlihy and Dobson claim to champion the rights of indigenous peoples, but the money and data trail suggests that is only a secondary concern to U.S. military interests.

So why is U.S. military funding academic geographers to do research in indigenous areas in Central America instead of relying on its own people to do the work?  In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has relied on social scientists embedded with combat units as part of the Human Terrain System program to gather similar information.  Funding academic researchers to do similar work poses a number of advantages.  For starters, it sidesteps the ethical controversy raised by the Human Terrain System. It also brings the added benefit of relying on “civilian” researchers to access communities who might otherwise be wary of soldiers in military uniform. At the same time, it gives the military precisely the kind of detailed, georeferenced information – the spatial “metadata” – sought by the Human Terrain System for areas that lie far from current combat zones. It’s an approach consistent with what geographer Derek Gregory describes as the “everywhere war ” currently waged across society on the whole by covert military teams, surveillance, and drones. By taking the measure of indigenous communities according to security interests, the Bowman Expeditions stand to perpetuate a role that is far too common in Geography’s history.  The Bowman Expeditions have generated some productive debate (see also here , here , and here ) in this regard, though in a context of shrinking budgets for university research and education the allure of military money remains powerful enough to trump ethical concerns.

Meanwhile, as geographers debate the merits of military funding, indigenous peoples continue facing a long list of violent threats from drug trafficking, illegal logging, loss of lands, and institutional racism. The military-funded Bowman Expeditions merely add to that list. Still, as the Zapotec communities in Oaxaca forcefully remind us, it’s their information and the decision to participate in projects like the Bowman Expeditions – or any other research – ultimately resides with them. Herlihy’s and Dobson’s failure to address those concerns will only diminish their access to this field, undermining the kinds of rights and free exchange of knowledge they profess to support.
See Also:
U.S. Military Funded Mapping Project in Oaxaca: University Geographers Used to Gather Intelligence?
Military-backed Mapping Project in Oaxaca Under Fire 

Joe Bryan is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For additional resources on the Bowman Expedition, see Zoltán Grossman’s fantastic website.

Sep 3, 2013

Beyond Solidarity - fabulous event

if you are anywhere near Oakland check this out! if you go I'd love to hear how it went.  (for those who get this as an email you may need to click the link to see the image describing the event)