Mapping Controversy in Oaxaca: Interview with Aldo Gonzalez, Indigenous Rights Officer of UNOSJO

When the Union of Social Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) released a press statement last January denouncing the Mexico Indigena/Bowman Expeditions extensive geographical project to produce maps of the “digital human terrain” of Zapotec communities, they had little idea the storm it would create across the globe.

Photo by Anne Kristine

Zapotec leader calls for withdrawal of US military funded mapping project from rural Oaxaca communities, accusing geographers of counter-insurgency activities.

When the Union of Social Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) released a press statement last January denouncing the Mexico Indigena / Bowman Expeditions extensive geographical project to produce maps of the “digital human terrain” of Zapotec communities, they had little idea the storm it would create across the globe. Charging the US geographers with lack of full disclosure with regard to the funding received from the US Military Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), UNOSJO claimed that the Zapotec participants felt like “they had been the victims of an act of geo-piracy”.

Following sensational headlines in local Oaxaca newspapers, the story was taken up at a national and international level, from Mexico to Moscow to Seoul. Although hardly meriting a mention in the US media, the controversy did however ignite fury in the blogsphere, and on English language listservs and websites. While raising significant questions regarding research ethics and academic collaboration with the military in the US, the crucial issue at hand in Mexico remains US interference in the region, by conducting an intelligence-driven mapping project focusing on both counterinsurgency and bio-piracy. Taking into account the 2006 Uprising in Oaxaca that almost overthrew its incumbent governor as well as the existence of armed insurgent groups in the state, Oaxaca does lend itself as a staging ground for focusing on what the US Foreign Military Studies Office calls “emerging and asymmetric threats”.

The Mexico Indigena project leader Peter Herlihy completely denies all accusations and reasserts his team’s “abiding dedication to the indigenous people of Oaxaca and our neutrality in all things political.” Bowman Expeditions leader Professor Jerome Dobson, however, defends the military connection and what he believes is the role for his particular academic discipline in government affairs – “My whole rationale for Bowman Expeditions is based on my firm belief that geographic ignorance is the principal cause of the blunders that have characterized American foreign policy since the end of World War II," wrote Dobson in his Feb. 5 statement answering his critics. “America abandoned geography after World War 2 and hasn’t won a war since."

Upside Down World spoke to Aldo Gonzalez recently at the Zapotecs’ 3rd Feria of the Cornfield- Globalization and the Natural Resources of the Sierra – convened by the UNOSJO coordination at the rural indigenous town of Asuncion Lachixila, where representatives of UNOSJO’s 24 affiliated communities gathered to celebrate Zapotec autonomy and discuss the mapping controversy.

UDW: Bowman Expeditions say that UNOSJO have no authority to speak for the two individual Zapotec communities in question who accepted the Mexico Indigena study. “Does Aldo Gonzalez legally or politically represent the people of the rural villages where we work?” asks Professor Dobson, answering himself – ” No. He is simply the director of a small NGO called UNOSJO”. What is your response?

Aldo Gonzalez : Mr Herlihy and Mr Dobson –and indeed the US military– are used to speaking to individuals. For them it is sufficient to ask one person as the owner of a piece of land for permission. But for the indigenous communities things aren’t like that. Today we are struggling for the autonomy for our indigenous peoples, and this is a project bigger than any one single community. So what is happening in Tiltepec and Yagila is affecting other Zapotec communities. For this reason, we have the courage, the duty and the reason to protest against Bowman Expeditions because it is not just the communities of Tiltepec or Yagila, but all the communities in that region, all the Zapotec communities, and indeed, ultimately, all of the indigenous communities in Mexico who are being or will be affected by the studies.

So in some sense, this conflict is about the clash of two visions of life that are very different. This one, the project of the indigenous communities, is collective, and theirs – which is the one that the US government wants – is to individualize. Bowman Expeditions clearly state that in this mapping project they are collecting information so that the US government can make better foreign policy decisions. So obviously they are going to take into consideration the information gathered here in these communities and apply it in general to all the communities in similar circumstances in Oaxaca and all over Mexico.

By not really revealing their intentions, by not revealing the sources of their funding, by not giving all the information, Mexico Indigena are violating the communities. They are concealing the truth, they are lying. The two communities who decided to accept the Bowman study did so without being fully informed. “

UDW: Project leaders Professors’ Herlihy and Dobson say that the project doesn’t present any danger whatsoever for the communities being mapped. On the contrary they say that they are helping the communities, and those in other regions of Mexico like San Luis Potosi – where they oversaw another mapping project – saying their study helps communities counter land privatization schemes.

AG: Well they would say that, wouldn’t they! But it’s not true. UNOSJO has been revealing how Dobson, or better said, the US military authorities who are behind project, are very interested in seeing that indigenous land be privatized, individually.

So when they are doing their studies in indigenous communities we can clearly see that, for example in San Luis Potosi the community lands that were studied there were communally held land, ejidos, and PROCEDE — the government privatization scheme of communally held land — entered into practically all the states’ ejidos. The question is different in Oaxaca, where the communal land fall under different ownership laws as they are called agrarian communities, not ejidos, so they can’t be so easily privatized, and what’s more, the majority of the communities in Oaxaca didn’t participate in the PROCEDE scheme. So for sure, the geographers and the US military are interested to know more about why the indigenous communities resisted that government program and seem intent of disrupting the process of privatization. Well of course, its very clear to us here why we didn’t take part in PROCEDE, but they don’t understand why. In the United States, private property is everything, but for the indigenous communities in Mexico, property is something different entirely. We don’t want to privatize our communities. Nor do we want that the land of one ejido be sold. Today our agrarian communities’ lands can’t be sold by law, but they can be converted into ejidos, and thus under ejido law, they may be privatized through PROCEDE, divided up and sold individually. We don’t want this to happen, but we think they, the FMSO and their people are interested in seeing this process of selling off the land. So during their mapping investigations, they are seeking to identify some kind of mechanism or some kind of way of obliging or forcing the communities to join the PROCEDE program.

UDW: Why are the US Army Foreign Military Studies Office interested specifically in the Zapotec?

AG: Principally they are overseeing their studies with a view to counterinsurgency, but not only this. Also – ever since Vietnam – they have adopted the strategy of attempting to convince or win over the hearts and minds of the people who oppose them. They do this by offering little gifts, crumbs as such, so it is said that the wars of the US are to win over the hearts and minds of the people they are trying to subjugate – and we think you can include the resistance of the Zapotec in that category.

So, its not just about military control, but also about strategic control over the communities, controlling their land and their consumption.

UDW: How do you view the current situation?

AG: We have been talking to the communities involved in the US studies and they maintain that they were not sufficiently informed about the source of finance and they feel angry because of this. For sure the Herlihy team will try and go to them to change their minds and convince them otherwise, and that will generate more debate. Nevertheless, we must point out that this debate doesn’t only include the two places where they did the studies. There are other Zapotec communities affected by the situation and they must be included in the debate too.

Look out for the April Edition of Z Magazine, where Upside Down World Editor Cyril Mychalejko and Ramor Ryan provide an comprehensive article on The Bowman Expeditions’ Mexico Indigena Project and the controversy surrounding it.

Ramor Ryan is an Irish journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico. His book Clandestines: the Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile was published by AK Press in 2006.

Link for the press conference:

Interview with Melchiades: