Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Zapotec Indigenous People in Mexico Demand Transparency from U.S. Scholar


The Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) - a longtime partner of Grassroots International based in Mexico - denounced a recently conducted study in the Zapotec region by U.S. geography scholar Peter Herlihy. 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. In addition, UNOSJO fears that this in-depth geographical mapping of indigenous communities may be used in some harmful manner by the military.

The México Indígena project forms part of the Bowman Expeditions, a more extensive geographic research project backed and financed by the US Foreign Military Studies Ofice, among other institutions. The FMSO inputs information into a global database that forms an integral part of the Human Terrain System (HTS), a United States Army counterinsurgency strategy designed by FMSO and applied within indigenous communities, among others.

Since 2006 the Human Terrain System HTS has, since 2006, been employed with military purposes in both Afghanistan and Iraq and according to the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, further Bowman Expeditions are underway in Mexico, the Antilles, Colombia and Jordan.


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Zoltan and Renee of the Indigenous Peoples' Specialty Group (a part of the Association of American Geographers) put this together. There's some excellent guidelines at the bottom on ethical approaches to working with Indigenous communities.

"After sitting and thinking on this for several days Zoltan and I are compelled to call upon the membership to forge a document/statement regarding the larger issues involved here. Many people have been affected/effected by the whirlwinds of controversy this has generated on many listservs. Those of you that responded to my initial email have posed some serious questions that no doubt should be answered.

However, the IPSG is not the authoritative body best suited to judge individuals' research projects. Institutional review processes are the fairest venues to address violations of research ethics while giving researchers a forum to defend their work. In focusing only on an individual geographer as such, we may not be changing the overall research process and instead limiting ourselves to an episodic, tit-for-tat conflict.

We feel that best way to go forward is not to focus only on this situation, but to rise above it and use it as a teaching and learning opportunity about the larger and lasting lessons of the controversy. We would like to inform as many geographers as possible that this situation is NOT NEW to Indigenous communities around the world. (In fact, similar controversies often happen with other academic researchers doing field research in politically marginalized communities.) We also would like to discuss the larger political/economic context of any research project--especially in volatile times and places--and point toward positive models of respectful cooperation between researchers and indigenous communities.

Zoltan and I are willing to work with anyone interested in writing a formal statement, and have drawn up the following notes to help begin a subcommittee's discussion:

1. Research ethics in indigenous geography
• Free Prior and Informed Consent (UN Declaration Article 11/2)
• Indigenous Methodologies (L. T. Smith)

2. Use of research
• Emphasis not on intentions but on effects of research
• Unintended consequences
• Data used by government forces or corporate interests against Indigenous
• Geopiracy
• Geoproperty—-privatization, “stability” concepts, etc.

3. Larger political/economic context
• Indigenous role in government change (Bolivia, Ecuador) and rebellions against globalization (Chiapas, Oaxaca, etc)
• Extreme government repression of indigenous (Colombia, Oaxaca, Peru)
• US military aid to government militaries, as US military studies indigenous
• Targeting of indigenous movements as against “democracy,” lumped with insurgent/terrorists in “war on terror”

4. Positive research models
• Approach communities with capabilities; but community determines research priorities
• Linda Smith—serving indigenous communities’ survivance
• NMAI report, "Guidelines for Research with Indigenous Peoples"
• AAAS Science and Human Rights—proactive, support indigenous
• Don’t avoid working with indigenous due to sensitivity; honest mistakes can be forgiven
• If you assume you’re a guest, you may be welcomed. If you assume you’ll be welcomed, you’re no longer a guest.
• Principles of Reciprocity
• Looking at hearts of researchers , not only minds.

Please let us know if you can help us put together this statement for our website prior to the Annual Meeting in Mar 22-27."

Zoltan and Renee,

Co-chairs, Indigenous Peoples' Specialty Group (IPSG)
of the Association of American Geographers (AAG)

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