Human Terrain System Video News: John Stanton, and the AGS Bowman Expeditions in Mexico

Posted on 3 June 2010 by

While still small, the number of YouTube videos that pertain in some way to the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System  (HTS) is growing, and one can find a neatly arranged selection (which for some reason bears the exact title of one of my articles), on the World News Network. I will focus on only two, having myself created and presented some of the others that are available and that already appeared in past posts.

John Stanton on the Human Terrain System

The first features our co-blogger and independent journalist, John Stanton, on Episode 9 of Russia Today’s Alyona Show, from 10 November 2009. This is the abridged version, focusing only the U.S. military and the Human Terrain System, and particularly this excellent interview with John. Take note of how Alyona introduces the Human Terrain System: she perfectly ridicules it as one of the latest in a series of “ridiculous” military projects designed to give the U.S. Army that extra little edge in battle, one of a number expensive projects manifesting “sheer stupidity,” a “useless” project, with its little colour-coded maps. Almost laughing out loud, she dismisses the notion of HTS as saving lives, and generally finds the use of anthropologists in battle zones to be preposterous. Brilliant.

Indigenous Peoples Against the Human Terrain System

The second video is very important indeed–indigenous peoples studying us, or specifically the Human Terrain System, anthropologists involved in supporting counterinsurgency, and the Bowman Expeditions of the American Geographical Society, in particular the México Indígena (Indigenous Mexico) project. The video is entirely in Spanish, consisting of a press conference, and I have provided an English translation of the complete video immediately below it, along with a good number of significant supporting links. It is especially important when we understand how both knowledge and fear of the Human Terrain System is spreading worldwide, the degree to which indigenous communities will hold us to our ethical promises, and the articulate opposition to the use of social science as part of a U.S. neoliberal and counterinsurgent strategy.

Preamble: 19 February 2009 — Press Conference of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez (Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez [UNOSJO]) in which the “México Indígena” geographic project is discussed. This project took place in Oaxaca and San Luis Potosí, México, from 2005 as part of the Bowman Expeditions of the American Geographical Society (AGS) financed by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) of the U.S. Department of Defense. The press conference deals with the following themes: research ethics; the ideological project of the Bowman Expeditions; the importance of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) in the choice of Oaxaca for study; and the ties between the Human Terrain System as a counterinsurgency strategy aiding the U.S. Army.


The theft of the traditional knowledge of the Zapotecas about their lands and territories, that we at UNOSJO have termed geopiracy, is part of a project called Mexico Indigena carried out in the Sierra Juárez. That project has unleashed an international debate on the ethics of social scientists intervening in indigenous communities. The words used in the aboriginal languages to name places, are part of the cultural and geographic knowledge of the land that our peoples have accumulated for thousands of years. The U.S. project, Mexico Indigena, indicates to us that the Americans understand the value of this knowledge, gathered by the aboriginal cultures, and for this reason they are so interested in researching human knowledge of the terrain, in Mexico and the rest of the world, as part of their foreign policy design.

After the publication of our first report in newspapers, magazines, and fora around the world, various discussions began on the question of ethics, primarily among U.S. academics, mostly anthropologists and geographers, who fear damage done to their discipline as a result of the actions of their colleagues at the University of Kansas. Point F of the Code of Ethics of the American Geographical Society (AGS) states: “No information will be acquired through deception or misrepresentation.” Point H states, “Sources of funding for AGS-sponsored expeditions will be made publicly transparent.”

We once again affirm that the people of the communities where the mapping project was undertaken, were not informed of the funding for the project by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), which belongs to the U.S. Department of Defense, nor were they informed of the managerial involvement of the private military contractor, Radiance Technologies. Also, the people did not know of the monthly reports on the research on their communities sent to the FMSO, which are only available online, on the Internet, and in English. This was also confirmed to us by the ex-President of the Commission of the Commonwealth of [San Juan] Yagila who served from 2006 to 2007. The team of geographers used the names of the community dwellers in Yagila–these–to illustrate how the location and distribution of individual parcels functions. In a paper written by [Jerome] Dobson, as a reaction to our aforementioned report, even he affirms that the people of Yagila expressly demanded that their names not be published.

However, they [Bowman Expedition] continue to use them in their presentations [he points to the screen], which they make public in different parts of the country and the world. In a recent publication of the AGS, of photos of the people in the communities, including some members of UNOSJO, and thus we have a clear violation of the Code of Ethics of that very same society. They did not ask us for permission to use these photos in their presentations [see links].

We consider their numerous violations of their own Code of Ethics are sufficiently grave and prejudicial to the interests of the indigenous villages and communities of Mexico, and that therefore the work of Mexico Indigena project of the AGS must be suspended, and they must withdraw, in order to be in compliance with their own principles.

From our organization, we issue a call to the indigenous villages and communities that they decide on the manner and nature of the investigations that are conducted, or not to be conducted, on their lands. They must ascertain who is doing the research, what the methods and objectives are, so that they do not continue being the object of study of arrogant researchers who in their supposed affinity for scientific research have lifted traditional knowledge from our communities in order to publish it with aims that divert from the interests of the indigenous villages and communities.

A team of geographers arrived at Oaxaca in the spring of 2006, to begin their research. This is the same time that the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) was being formed. APPO is mentioned in the reports sent by the AGS Mexicon Indigena team to the FMSO. Also noted in the reports is that the people in the communities of Sogochi [?] and Yarabila [?] suspended their cooperation with the team of geographers, with the support of some APPO sympathizers.

If we look at the relationship between the FMSO and counterinsurgency, it does not therefore seem to be a coincidence that a team from AGS-Mexico Indigena arrived coincided with the emergence and growth of APPO in Oaxaca. This is especially alarming when we remember that the U.S. says that Mexicos is “unstable” and could be ripe for a U.S. intervention.

Other instances where we find the Bowman Expedition is in places where insurgency exists, and where the U.S. has strategic interests, such as Colombia, Kazakhstan, and Jordan. The FMSO Latin America expert who supervises the Bowman Expeditions–Geoff Demarest–has written on the privatization of lands in Colombia and Cuba, proclaiming that any country that does not formalize land ownership is opening itself to violence and tyranny. Demarest, a graduate of the School of the Americas, has a 23-year long military career, and he sees the question of land ownership as a key point in a strategy of counterinsurgency.

The research objective of AGS-Mexico Indigena focuses on the PROCEDE process of privatizing communal lands. In its PowerPoint presentation [behind him], they indicate that Oaxaca is one of the last enclaves in Mexico that has failed to enter the privatization process (PROCEDE). The data produced by PROCEDE shows that only 30% of Oaxaca has entered this program of privatization, while in other areas we can see that almost all have entered the program. Thus, Oaxaca is a place of high interest for those studying this subject.

The ideological project of the Bowman Expeditions, as we mentioned previously, consists of the privatization of communal lands as part of a strategy of neoliberalism and counterinsurgency, on a scope going beyond Mexico and other countries.

Our mention of the Human Terrain System, a counterinsurgency strategy of the U.S. Army, caused a lot of noise in media around the world, and contributed to the debates especially between U.S. anthropologists, debates that were already taking place around this theme. The idea behind the Human Terrain System consists of employing social scientists, and especially anthropologists, who can also process geographic information, to improve the efficacy of U.S. Army efforts. For their work, Human Terrain Teams use a global database called the World Basic Information Library (WBIL), which is located in this place [points to map]. The WPIL was created in 1997 to serve the FMSO, the U.S. Army, and various intelligence agencies with analyses of the political, military, and economic structures of any country in the world.

While we are not claiming that the Bowman Expeditions are part of the Human Terrain System, we do argue that the information gathered by the Bowman Expeditions is supplied to the WBIL. The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain Teams could then access this information in order to plan military operations or enter into public policy planning. The Bowman Expeditions themselves are funded by the FMSO. This same agency manages the WBIL as it also manages the Human Terrain System, which we assume to be an integral part of the same strategy.

If the Bowman Expeditions wish to continue insisting that their project has nothing to do with the Human Terrain System, then we demand that the FMSO demonstrate the data gathered by the expeditions in the Sierra Juárez will not be furnished to the WBIL, and thus that they open the WBIL to us so that we can have access [and monitor if this information has been supplied]. In addition, we ask for a detailed list of all the institutions and corporations that have access to the data gathered by Bowman’s Mexico Indigena project.

Thank you for your kind attention, we will now take your questions.


  • PowerPoint presentation, parts of which appear in the video of the press conference above:
    PDF slides , original PPT

News articles resulting from the press conference:

  • JORNADA (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México): 28 March 2009, “Geopiratería militar,” by Silvia Ribeiro

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