Role of Geographers

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México Indígena


Bowman Expeditions:

The role of digital regional geography in advising government

The first Bowman Expedition of the American Geographical Society (AGS), called México Indígena (MI), has renewed the society’s commitment to inform the public and the government about world geography. The AGS is sending expeditions to gather geographic information and conduct place-based research, naming them in honor of the 20th century most renowned geographer, Isaiah Bowman. The prototype project, led by a multinational team of Latin Americanist geographers, focuses on the geography of indigenous populations in Mexico. Free to choose its primary topic, the research team is studying changes in Mexico's property regime brought by the gargantuan land certification and privatization program called PROCEDE. The MI team has developed a multi-scale GIS database, using traditional, archival, and humanistic methodologies, developing a truly participatory GIS, using participatory research mapping (PRM), GPS, and ArcGIS to portray the digital cultural landscape. The Bowman Expedition evokes reflection on the foundational scholarship and sense of duty held by kindred geographers during the developmental stages of the discipline in the United States.




Excerpt from June 2006 preliminary report

Click here to download entire introduction (pdf)

In 2005, University of Kansas geographers Jerome Dobson and Peter Herlihy began an international collaboration with the American Geographical Society, the US Foreign Military Studies Office, and the Mexican Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí (UASLP) to bring together students and faculty from four universities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to create a comprehensive national-level geographic information system (GIS) database that focuses on how neoliberal changes in Mexico’s property regime will affect indigenous culture and land use. The project represents the initial step in a much larger concept of reviving a tradition of research by university scholars providing “open-source intelligence” on different parts of the world.

Project PI Jerry Dobson conceived the broad idea of the project because he, like many others, was troubled over US intelligence failures and related conflicts around the globe. Most of the missing knowledge is not secret, insider information that should be classified. Dobson, who is President of the American Geographical Society, says, “What’s missing is open source geography of the type we teach routinely in regional geography courses, and it’s based on the type of fieldwork and data analyses that geographers do routinely in every region on earth. I firmly believe the only remedy is to bring geography back to its rightful place in higher education, science policy, and public policy circles.” The prototype research project, called México Indígena, is directed by Co-PI Herlihy, and demonstrates how good old fashioned regional geography can be re-tooled with digital technologies and humanistic methodologies. Dobson’s notion was embraced and supported by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) in nearby Fort Leavenworth from the start.
Since the start of the project, Herlihy and Dobson have been joined by Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) geographer Derek Smith and KU geography doctoral student John Kelly. By far the most important collaboration has been with the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí (UASLP), the university of San Luis Potosi state in north-central Mexico. UASLP’s Miguel Aguilar Robledo has presided over the creation of the fastest-growing university academic department in Mexico that includes anthropology, geography, and history. Herlihy and Robledo have forged a link between the University of Kansas and the UASLP, which includes the sharing of equipment and office space, the exchange of ideas through seminars and conferences, and most significantly, the committed activity of graduate students and faculty from both institutions. Other team members have included KU grad student Mauricio Herrera, and Kansas State grad student Vicki Tinnon-Brock.
Four UASLP graduate students (including incoming KU doctoral student Aida Ramos Viera) have supervised much of the participatory research in the Huasteca Potosina, the project’s first case study region. The Huasteca, where the easternmost ranges of the Sierra Madre Oriental meet the Gulf Coastal Plain, includes the most northerly remnants of humid tropical forest in the Western Hemisphere. The region is populated mainly by smallholder farmers growing corn, citrus, sugar cane, and raising cattle. Ethnically, there is a mix of Nahua speakers (descendents of the Aztecs), Teenek speakers (related to the Maya of Yucatan, Chiapas, and Guatemala), and Spanish-speaking mestizos. Land tenure systems include “ejidos” (post-Mexican-Revolution communal land grants), “comunidades agrarias” (indigenous communities with a variety of settlement pattern traditions), and private properties.

The project relies on participatory research, especially mapping, to develop its understanding at the local level and there after to “scale up” the interpretation from the individual parcels of indigenous farmers, to the community, study area, Huasteca region, state, and finally national levels, studying over 300 different variables in a GIS to show how new the new land titling program (called PROCEDE ) has impacted indigenous life in Mexico. By definition, participatory research is a methodological approach through which crucial research functions, as well as its practical goals, are carried out by trained residents of the study area communities -- without the academic researchers being present. The research team has been incorporating the data from this grassroots approach into the GIS, and using it to analyze changes in land tenure practices.
From 1994 until March of this year, the Mexican government has conducted the massive PROCEDE effort to survey, register, and eventually privatize every parcel in every ejido and comunidad agraria, although some communities have participated more thoroughly than others. The influence covers nearly half the area of the country and over 90 percent of the social properties under Mexican law. The México Indígena project research team is tracking changes in land use, biogeography, migration, and violence connected to these radically new property regime developments, trying to see, as many predict, if they will lead to the death of the ejido.
The research team’s two goals were: 1) to develop a prototype for obtaining, interpreting and presenting current geographic information on a country from open source, publicly-available GIS data of all kinds; and 2) to determine, develop, and further research a topic having a significant connection to security and defense issues. Indigenous land tenure and radical neoliberal property regime changes are the specific topic the project team has explored while constructing a broader GIS of Mexico.

The prototype combines traditional field research and archival study with participatory research, especially mapping, to collect and construct the data sets for analysis in ArcGIS 9.0. The project team is clear, on the one hand, that no single template can reflect the differences existing between the research conditions found in one country and those in another. On the other hand, the team believes that their experiences in implementing the first FMSO global GIS place-based field research project can provide useful guidance for structuring future projects, helping insure the success of the broader FMSO program to extend these projects around the globe. It truly is worth the investment!
Preliminary project results from México Indígena have been outstanding to date. The project team has structured the collected field, archival, digital, internet, and other spatial information, including hundreds of variables, into geospatial information layers and statistical data sets. The team has produced maps and written documents which begin to illuminate the diverse ways which indigenous people in Mexico negotiate the transition from communal land systems toward the neoliberal regime envisioned by the promoters of the PROCEDE program. While there are clear benefits to a standardized property system, the social, economic, and environmental implications of these changes will be enormous; one government authority calls the program “the certification of misery.” The project team is now initiating a careful analysis of the collected data, which will be supplemented by comparable fieldwork in the State of Oaxaca, where indigenous life and land tenure practices show important contrasts to those of the Huasteca. While the team has presented the preliminary work in many conferences and papers, more definitive results will be detailed in journal articles, theses, and dissertations.

Prototype Project in Mexico

The México Indígena is a multi-scale geographical analysis and contextualization, a political ecology, of indigenous land use patterns in Mexico, focusing on the country’s new property regime and the PROCEDE land certification program. In our development of the project, the research team has come to envision its role in the development of both a prototype of the AGS/FMSO design on the one hand and, on the other hand, we are deliberate in our development of a model for a new digital regional geography that combines modern technologies with humanistic approaches. We do not expect other projects to follow our model exactly, but the overall general characteristics should be considered.

We are demonstrating how to do digital regional geography. Geographers need to rethink how we do our studies in a complex, interrelated, and “globalized” world using new and appropriate methodologies and digital technologies. As a prototype, we demonstrate the use of different scales of geographical information to form a multi-layered GIS analysis, moving from village case studies of indigenous Teenek and Nahuatl communities, to the state and Huasteca regional level, and then to the national level of information, as detailed below, using a political ecology approach. As a model, the research team selected a diverse methodology including archival, traditional, and participatory research approaches. We tie our on-the-ground field observations for bettering understanding and classifying information collected and field research results.
Traditional field research and archival study coupled with participatory research mapping to collect and construct the data sets for analysis using ArcGIS 9.0 software. We build the GIS from the bottom up, beginning at the individual farmer parcel/plot level, then moving to the population center polygonal, to the municipality, state, regional, and national levels. Most of the digital spatial and statistical information is available through unclassified government, NGO, academic, and (in some cases) commercial sources. These provide a large portion of the data for our research, and to these sources we add the more spatially restricted but highly significant original field data derived from our field research, as detailed in this report. These field results, from both traditional and participatory research (that incorporates local investigators into the data collection process, especially through mapping); have been instrumental in developing our understanding of the country’s new property regime. In essence, our field observations, which include data from individual rural parcels, train our understanding of indigenous property regime conditions, enabling our ability to structure the national level GIS. Our understandings derived from the local level research temper and direct our use, application, and interpretation of statistical and cartographic data at the community, regional, state, and national levels.

The project collaborates with the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí in Mexico. The 2005-06 field study was in the Huasteca region, the ancestral lands of the Teenek and Nahua peoples at the northern limits of tropical rain forest in the Americas. The project has two overlapping phases, one for field work and data collection and processing in Mexico, and a second phase for data compilation and analysis that can be done in the United States. The data collection phase was continuous during June, July, and August 2005 with a large team of researchers, students, community representatives, and support staff involved. Since September 2005, the project has consisted only of the PI, Co-PI, and one graduate research assistant on site in the Department of Geography at the University of Kansas. Additional field work in Mexico occurred with other members of the research team during October 2005 and January 2006.

To date, the project results have been outstanding. The research team demonstrates what a small group of well-trained and high-committed geographers with a limited budget and time frame can do anywhere in the world to learn about foreign lands. The field, archival, digital, and other spatial information collected and compiled includes hundreds of variables that we structured and entered into geographic information layers and statistical data sets. Results display indigenous life in Mexico, and show how the PROCEDE land certification has been implemented in over 90 percent of the agrarian communities in Mexico, with social and economic implications that may mean the death of the ejido communal land system. This is a discomforting situation for rural peasant and indigenous populations, who are now only beginning to feel the impacts of this gargantuan neoliberal land certification program that one government authority calls “the certification of misery.”

In its first year, one of the greatest successes of the project was at the same time one of its limitations: the large amount of data generated. We created a huge GIS database containing over 9 gigabytes of information through: (i) tracking down, processing, and compiling publicly-available spatial information; (ii) converting information in paper form into a digital format; (iii) converting non-spatial quantitative and thematic data into a GIS format; and (iv) collecting different types of new primary data for our study region. Consequently, we produced far too much digital material to analyze within the first year of the project. Indeed, the existing information will undoubtedly serve as the basis of dozens of research papers and graduate student theses. The participatory, community-based field research component of the work has provided an important understanding of the local social, cultural, economic and political processes that underlie and are manifest in the quantitative and spatial patterns. This local knowledge has been fundamental for developing sound analyses that do not fall prey to false assumptions, misleading statistical simplifications, untenable predictions, or harmful recommendations.
In this report, we present key research guidelines that we consider basic to the AGS Global GIS Prototype and the success of México Indígena. How these guidelines are applied depends on the research teams and themes. Our application of these principles goes beyond the general guidelines presented here; we aim at defining “Participatory GIS and Digital Regional Geography.” We do recognize, however, that appropriate methodologies and procedures will be influenced by each distinct research topic, coupled with the particular experiences and skills of the research team, and the distinct conditions in each different country of study. It is our hope that other teams working in other places will benefit from the general guidelines, methods, and GIS structure and content descriptions we present in this report.
The research team has operated with the understanding that their work is not simply an isolated exercise, but rather a demonstration of how to develop and implement an appropriate methodology for open-source intelligence of foreign lands and peoples; that is, a 21st-century version of what we call “good, old-fashioned regional geography.” Readers of this report should realize that the research team is composed of a truly remarkable, multinational group of highly trained geographers with areas of expertise that complement one another, including pioneers in GIS and participatory research mapping. We have been deliberate in this report to share significant lessons in the design, implementation, and analysis of our project, ranging from general methodological approaches to specific technical procedures for possible future implementation in other parts of the world. While attempting to develop a prototype and model for this type of research, it must be kept in mind that the type of available information, the expertise of team members, the pre-existing relationships, and other personal and professional factors that facilitated the research in this prototype example would not likely always be available for other endeavors. We have tried to offer a model that others will want to emulate and improve on. Finally, we want everyone that follows to know that it is not an easy task, but for us it has mostly been a pleasurable and rewarding one.



Isaiah Bowman in the field with indigenous people, Peru, 1922
from Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru, by Hiram Bingham
Director of the Peruvian Expeditions of Yale University and the National Geographic Society. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.