Social Sciences Spain , Madrid, Monday, November 11 of 2019, 16:34

RIVERS analyses the relationship between water and the human rights of indigenous people

ERC Grant H2020 Research project of the UC3M

UC3M/DICYT To produce innovative knowledge of human rights in relation to the different indigenous ways of conceiving water. This is the objective of RIVERS, a Starting Grant scientific project by the European Research Council (ERC) that has been presented today at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) which intends to analyse the following issue: To what extent can the international law of human rights tackle the plurilegal realities of water?


The RIVERS project adopts an interdisciplinary approach, crossing the fields of human rights and legal anthropology. “This project intends to address new ways of thinking about water, beyond the modern division between nature and culture, providing evidence of future ways to re-conceptualise human rights”, explains lead researcher, Lieselotte Viaene, from the Department of Social Sciences of the UC3M.


To do so, two large interrelated lines of action are considered. Firstly, they will analyse the different ways the indigenous people have of knowing and connecting to water, as well as studying the potential violation of the right to water on the part of certain extractive projects. And secondly, they will discuss the main challenges, difficulties and interlegal translation contributions of the diverse natures of water at national and international conferences.


In this sense they will develop a multi-situated analysis, including empirical case studies, in three contexts: Colombia, Nepal and the United Nations system of human rights protection recognised water as a human right in 2010. “RIVERS focuses on Colombia and Nepal as both countries are perceived as the regional examples with the most legal development in terms of human rights protection of indigenous people. In addition, on a local level in both countries, indigenous communities are faced with the successive dispossession of land and systematic violations of human rights by internal armed conflicts and extractive projects”, explains Lieselotte Viaene.


To what extent is our way of understanding and relating to water important? According to the researchers, water has traditionally been viewed in two ways: as a natural resource within a neo-liberal economic model or as a human right that should be legally protected. At present, conflicts over water around the world and the climate emergency are emphasising the way we understand and relate to water. For example, some rivers in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, India and New Zealand have recently obtained the status of living entities with legal status and legal implications. In addition, some indigenous people are mobilising against the neo-liberalisation of nature, claiming alternative ways of relating to it.


The international law of human rights has given an ever increasing acknowledgement of indigenous people as subjects of individual and collective rights. “Ultimately, the main question of RIVERS is to what extent the international law of human rights can encompass and understand the plurilegal realities of water”, emphasises Lieselotte Viaene. RIVERS also interacts with key production spaces of the United Nations’ human rights rules - such as the Human Rights Council - with the aim of researching the convergence between the indigenous knowledge and complaints with respect to water and the dominant legal visions of human rights (with Eurocentric liberal and positivist roots). In addition, the project will examine the impact and limitations of the work of the indigenous international experts such as diplomats of inter-cultural knowledge, for example the order of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur of the human rights of indigenous people.


The current rapporteur attended the presentation of the project that took place last Friday in the Aula Magna on the UC3M’s Getafe Campus, in which various indigenous researchers and leaders from Colombia, Nepal and Finland took part. The RIVERS project (Water/human rights beyond the human? Indigenous water ontologies, plurilegal encounters and interlegal translation), is provided with finance of, approximately, one and a half million Euros and will be developed between 2019 and 2024. The ERC finances the Starting Grant aids within Horizon 2020, the European Union’s Programme of Research and Innovation. The objective is for young researchers (with post-doctorate experience of between 2 and 7 years) with innovative ideas, to become leaders of research groups whose activity is on the knowledge border of any subject.