KU geographers win defense grant to study Central American communities

Jerry Dobson, professor of geography at Kansas University.

Too often, Jerry Dobson says, the U.S. military has found itself in trouble because it didn’t know enough about the parts of the world where it fought.

Now Dobson will help with an effort to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

Dobson, a professor of geography at Kansas University, is the lead researcher on one of 14 projects to win grants this year from the Minerva Research Initiative, a U.S. Department of Defense effort to learn more about other parts of the world through social-science research. He and other researchers will receive about $1.8 million over three years to study indigenous communities throughout Central America, with a possibility to apply for renewal and receive a total of $3 million over five years. The grants were announced last week.

“There are too many instances where misunderstanding of other areas has cost us,” Dobson said. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, the United States may have fared better in many of its conflicts over the past half-century with more knowledge about the culture and politics of other parts of the world.

Dobson’s project will be a collaboration between KU and the American Geographical Society, of which he is president.

He and his partner on the project, KU geography professor Peter Herlihy, will continue work they’ve already begun in Honduras.

It’s part of the American Geographical Society’s Bowman Expeditions program, which Dobson helped create in 2005. The program sends researchers to spots around the world to learn and spread information about other countries, both in scholarly journals and popular media outlets.

“An informed public is essential to democracy,” Dobson said, “and when it comes to foreign policy, we do not have one.”

For this project, Dobson and Herlihy will aim to learn about communities of indigenous people in the seven Central American countries. Many of those areas are racked with poverty and crime, but not all of them. And they want to find out why.

“We just don’t understand these areas that well,” Herlihy said, “and those are areas where you often have a lot of violence.”

They’re especially interested in the role of land ownership. In some of those spots — and, really, much of the world outside of North America and Europe — there is no formal system of land ownership that allows people to claim areas as their own.

“Very little of the world has the kind of secure land ownership that we do here in the United States,” Dobson said.

Their hypothesis is that in indigenous communities where securely owned land is more common, things are more stable.

And in Honduras, where they’re already doing similar research, they’re helping to make that possible. Dobson and Herlihy work with students from KU and from the indigenous communities they’re studying to map out those areas, with help from the residents who know them well. Those maps can make it easier for them to stake a claim to the land they’ve lived on for centuries.

The researchers hope to learn if asserting those rights can help native populations alleviate poverty, crime, distrust of government and other issues.

“In the end, it goes to these much broader, deeper questions about how societies function,” Dobson said