Editors' Note: The articles in this special issue of FOCUS on Geography were written by Bowman Expedition scholars whose field research was sponsored by the American Geographical Society.
The Why, What, and Where of Bowman Expeditions
Article first published online: 10 DEC 2012
Copyright © 2012 by The American Geographical Society of New York
Focus on Geography
Special Issue: Bowman Expeditions
Volume 55, Issue 4, pages 117–118, Winter 2012
How to Cite
Dobson, J. E. (2012), The Why, What, and Where of Bowman Expeditions. Focus on Geography, 55: 117–118. doi: 10.1111/foge.12000
- Issue published online: 10 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 10 DEC 2012
Human geography is presently one of Washington, D. C.'s hottest topics among analysts and administrators in agencies concerned with foreign policy, foreign intelligence, and military strategy. Sadly, their belated interest comes from hard lessons in recent wars. Pundits and politicians openly agonize over Iraq and Afghanistan asking, “How did we get it so wrong?” But, it's not just those dismal failures. It's Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, and more. After half a century of storied victories in World Wars I and II, the second half of the 20th Century and first decade of the 21st have seen more quagmires than victories. Quite literally, America abandoned geography after World War II and hasn't won a war since. Sometimes, we lost because geographic ignorance drove the initial decision to choose war over peace, sometimes because it led to poor intelligence, strategy, tactics, and diplomacy.
American interests at home and abroad have been severely damaged by geographic ignorance. “We the People” made uninformed choices about going to war (Vietnam, Iraq). We sent troops into battle unprepared for what they faced culturally (Iraq, Afghanistan) and physically (hostage rescue attempt in Iran). We misjudged the national will of adversaries (China crossing the Yalu River in 1950, the worst land warfare defeat in U. S. history). We failed to account for deep-seated hatreds among cultures (Sunni vs. Shia in Iraq). We underestimated the commitments and capabilities of adversaries in such places as Vietnam, Beirut, Mogadishu, and Afghanistan. We alienated allies (Europe regarding Iraq). We ignored clear warnings by prominent geographers (Isaiah Bowman on Vietnam, Harm de Blij on Saddam Hussein's intention to invade Kuwait). Occasionally, warfighters embarrassed our country, hurt national interests, or died because they did not understand foreign cultures, customs, and sensitivities (Iraq, Afghanistan). Occasionally, analysts misused or failed to use geographic technologies with tragic results (bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade). Most recently we failed to understand North African societies sufficiently to anticipate the Arab Spring.
Conspicuously missing in every case has been the kind of understanding that geographers spend their careers developing and teaching, even in introductory classes. In each case, some wise people in government–geographers and others–warned decision makers, but there was practically no public debate over alternative actions and consequences until after the damage was done. In each case, there was no public constituency to support those in government who did understand. An informed public is essential to democracy, but, when it comes to foreign policy, the U. S. doesn't have one. That applies to voters, journalists, analysts, policy makers, and politicians.
Like millions of Americans, I have a vested interest in the outcome. Both current wars touch my family because our son and daughter–in–law are medical doctors in the U. S. Army. Major Nicole Dobson served in Afghanistan as head of the Intensive Care Unit at Bagram Airbase Hospital. Major Craig Dobson served in Fallujah, Iraq and more recently at FOB Bostick, Afghanistan, five miles from the Pakistan border. They are loyal soldiers who will go wherever America chooses to engage. We the People owe it to them and their fellow service members to make informed decisions, especially about war and peace. We owe it to our allies as well and to people all over the world who might have been our allies if only we had known them better.
To a geographer like me, the answer seems simple. Revive the model that worked before. Send geographers to the field worldwide, and charge them with informing the American public about foreign lands and peoples. That is the rationale behind Bowman Expeditions.
Impatient with the nation's dawdling response, I proposed a grassroots effort to send geographers all over the world to improve U.S. understanding of foreign places and peoples and their understanding of us as well. AGS has sent Bowman Expeditions to build a comprehensive multi–scale GIS for each region, build lasting relationships among American and foreign scholars and institutions, conduct geographic research on issues of national interest to the U. S. and host countries, train a cadre of regional experts, disseminate GIS data freely to the public, publish our results in scholarly journals and popular media, and revitalize world regional geography in the age of GIS. We researched and spent more than four years in Mexico, two years in the Antilles Region, and one year each in Colombia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, and the Borderlands Region (All countries surrounding the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea). They involved many institutions and different topics–land reform in Mexico and the Borderlands Region, violence in Colombia, property rights in Jordan, and transportation in Kazakhstan.
Each expedition used different methods and techniques. One preferred technique is participatory research mapping (PRM), featured in one of the articles in this issue, which combines the tools of geography with local residents' expert knowledge of their own environments. We develop a multi–scale GIS from the national level stepwise to the local level, where PRM is especially useful. Geographers teach their hosts to represent their knowledge in sketch maps and GIS databases. We conduct workshops, train fieldworkers, and help with fieldwork. Ultimately local people produce a community map of their own with the kind of information needed to protect themselves; defend their rights in court; and, if they choose, to offer the world a better understanding of themselves.
What kinds of insights and perspectives can geographers learn abroad and bring back to inform the public at home? Just two weeks after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, I received an insightful manuscript by an American geographer, an expert in the Central Asian Region, speculating on whether the revolt might “follow the Silk Road,” across Asia. While public discourse focused on Egypt's next door neighbors, here was a geographer looking farther afield with wisdom born of a lifetime of research including years of fieldwork.
Most Americans view illegal immigration solely from their own vantage points at immigrant destinations here in the U. S. and that myopic perspective dominates public discourse. In contrast, geographers often observe and learn to understand the root causes of emigration at its sources. Peter Herlihy and his México Indígena team, for example, went to Mexico to study the country's massive privatization program, PROCEDE, which permits indigenous occupants of communal ejidos to obtain outright ownership of land, thus reversing a key provision of the Mexican Constitution of 1917. When our project started in 2005, U. S. public discourse ignored PROCEDE and its implications. Eventually, PROCEDE surveyed 100,000,000 hectares of land in more than 28,000 communities, and now one must ask: If occupants can sell their land, how many will do so? Our Bowman team has shown that land sale and consolidation is indeed underway, even in the indigenous communities they focused on. Will those who sell their land remain in the community or seek fortunes elsewhere? If they leave the community, where will they go? Will they remain in Mexico or head across the border? Ultimately, what policies must the U. S. and Mexico enact to accommodate new migrants? Thus, Herlihy and his team came back with insights that are, at once, more sympathetic and more realistic than the American and Mexican publics had expressed before.
Most Americans were caught off guard when the recent wave of violence swept across Mexico, but those of us who had studied there were not surprised at all. Similarly, most Americans routinely call it a drug war, and it is that but also an ethnic confrontation that reveals much about the potential for similar clashes throughout Latin America. Latin America has not undergone the kind of civil rights movement that changed the U. S. in the 1960s. Indigenous people are among the region's poorest, and such inequality will not remain unchallenged for long. What policies must the U. S. and Latin American governments enact to foment change while avoiding bloodshed?
I have given you the why, what, and where of Bowman Expeditions. Now the expedition leaders and co-investigators will tell their stories. The prototype Bowman Expedition to Mexico, led by Peter Herlihy, has been widely reported and presented; here Derek Smith and co-authors Herlihy, Aida Ramos Viera, John H. Kelly, Andrew M. Hilburn, Miguel Aguilar Robledo, and I, discuss PRM as a special, methodological component of the prototype. For the first time, we are publishing a collection of experiences from other Bowman Expeditions in the Caribbean and Colombia. Thomas Klak discusses the experiences and responses of banana farmers and other rural stakeholders in the Commonwealth of Dominica during an externally-driven downturn in their industry that began in the 1990s. Russell Fielding and Kent Mathewson assess the prospects of the Caribbean island of Nevis to become again the “Queen of the Caribbees,” through revival of food gardening and artisanal fishing. Amy E. Potter and Andrew Sluyter investigate land use and development decision-making on Barbuda with emphasis on the roles of identity, sense of place, communal land tenure, and transnational community. Holli Drummond, John Dizgun and David Keeling explore the remarkable rebirth of Medellín, Colombia.