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

ERC Grant H2020 Research project of the UC3M


To produce innovative knowledge of human rights in relation to 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?

RIVERS analiza la relación entre el agua y los derechos humanos de los pueblos indígenas

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 clues about future paths towards re-conceptualising human rights”, explains lead researcher, Lieselotte Viaene, from the Department of Social Sciences of the UC3M.

To do so, two large interrelated research streams are designed. Firstly, they will analyse the different ways the indigenous people have of knowing and relating to water, as well as studying the potential violation of the right to water on the part of 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 level.

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 which 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 the 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 challenge these ways we understand and relate to water. For example, rivers in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, India and New Zealand have recently obtained the status of living entities with legal personhood. In addition, worldwide 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 increasing recognition of indigenous people as subjects of individual and collective rights. “Ultimately, the main question of RIVERS is to what extent the international human rights law can come to grips with these plurilegal realities of water”, emphasises Lieselotte Viaene. RIVERS also interacts with key space of international human rights norm production of the United Nations - such as the Human Rights Council - with the aim of researching the encounter 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 as diplomats of inter-cultural knowledge, for example the the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

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.


RIVERS project website


中文翻譯 (Chinese translation)