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Water/human rights beyond the human? Indigenous water ontologies, plurilegal encounters and interlegal translation

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - RIVERS (Water/human rights beyond the human?Indigenous water ontologies, plurilegal encounters and interlegal translation)

Período documentado: 2022-05-01 hasta 2023-10-31

RIVERS engages with one of the most pressing questions of this century: the relationship between humans and “Nature”. A global water crisis is threatening our planet, but RIVERS does not take for granted what water is. Indigenous communities are mobilising against the neoliberalisation of nature, demonstrating alternative ways of knowing, being and living embedded in a radically different human-nature relationship. These indigenous human-water-life relationships unveil competing political and legal water realities that interrogate key modern assumptions, which have organized dominant understandings of the modern world and everyday power relations affecting law, natural resources, development and territory. These water conflicts across the world are bringing to the fore fundamental challenges regarding the anthropocentric boundaries of the human rights paradigm. At the same time, since 2017 there is a legal hype in the world of international law world, when in a short space of time New Zealand, India, and Colombia granted legal personhood to rivers in ground-breaking legal decisions. Indeed, there is a now fast-growing interest in the international legal world regarding the possibilities which the attribution of legal personhood to nature and its elements can offer to combat the environmental crisis the world is facing. SiAgainst this background, RIVERS’s overarching research question is: To what extent can international human rights law come to grips with plurilegal water realities?
RIVERS recognises the existence of a plurality of ways of knowing and relating to water and aims to engage in broader epistemological and ontological disputes among mainstream legal perspectives and indigenous knowledges about human/nature relationships in order to reconceptualise human rights (to water) from below.
Through the lens of legal pluralism, decolonizing human rights and political ontology, RIVERS wants to build a legal ethnographic landscape about human-water-life relationships within the context of large-scale natural resource exploitation projects (extractivism), which have destructive effects on local livelihood and water sources.
RIVERS has two intertwined core objectives: 1. Analysing different ways of knowing and relating to water and life among indigenous peoples and their understanding of its (potential) violation by extractive projects;
2. Discussing the contributions, challenges and pitfalls of interlegal translation of differing water natures in plurilegal encounters at domestic and international levels.

RIVERS research design is structured around two interrelated research streams (RS) and four mutually reinforcing work packages (WP). The empirical research contexts are: Guatemala, Nepal, Colombia and the universal human rights protection system – United Nations. RS-I seeks to demonstrate that dialoguing with ontologically different concepts of water will pave the way for rethinking the human right of water and human rights more broadly. As international human rights law is developed and reinforced by the UN human rights system, RIVERS aims in RS-II to empirically scrutinise encounters of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic understandings of the human right to water and human rights broadly within this universal protection system. RIVERS is an innovative interdisciplinary and bottom-up empirical research project that seeks to critically elucidate possible ways forward for an urgent paradigm shift beyond the dominant modern culture/nature and human/non-human assumptions of the human rights framework.
The progress accomplished in these first 30 months of the project has been severely marked by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, RIVERS has made an important effort to cope with this unexpected situation, trying to find innovative solutions, and has obtained academic progress despite the inevitable delay in the fieldwork. RIVERS has performed work in four key activities:
1) The development of empirical grounded theoretical/methodological framework: The team organized 15 internal reading seminars to discuss diverse academic production on key concepts. The team engages with literature and research experiences from different disciplines and continents: Law and Anthropology, International Law and Human Rights, Cultural Anthropology, Theoretical Anthropology, Critical Legal Theory, Earth Jurisprudence, and Science and Technology Studies.
2) Fieldwork: ethics issues and protocols, mapping stakeholders, establishing academic networks, digital turn to ethnography and subcontracting local researchers
3) Academic publications: * Viaene, Lieselotte, Indigenous Water Ontologies, Hydro-Development and the Human/More-Than-Human Right to Water: A Call for Critical Engagement with Plurilegal Water Realities, Water 2021, 13(12), 1660; as part of the Special Issue “The Politics of the Human Right to Water”.
*González-Serrano, María Ximena, Digno Montalván-Zambrano y Lieselotte Viaene, 2022, Hacia la descolonización del régimen extractivo: patrones y límites de la judicialización en conflictos mineros, Íconos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 72: 97-116. English: Towards the decolonization of the extractive regime: Patterns and limits of judicialization in mining conflict as part of the Special Issue “Extractivismo minero en América Latina: la jurisdificación de los conflictos socioambientales”
*In July 2021, a Call for Papers “Transitional Justice and Nature: a curious silence?” for the 2023 Special Issue of the top journal International Journal of Transitional Justice which the PI is co-editing was published.
4) Dissemination and communication activities: RIVERS (co)-organized 12 international seminars (Spanish and English) and 2 cine-foro hosted at the National Anthropology Museum in Madrid. The team presented research progress in 20 international academic seminars, workshops and conferences organized by European, Asian, USA and Latin American academic institutions (mainly online).
The RIVERS objective is to produce ground-breaking knowledge, from an empirical, interdisciplinary and dialoguing perspective, about the contentions and challenges intrinsic to reconceptualising human rights with different ways of understanding and relating to water and "Nature". This unique bottom-up and interdisciplinary research critically elucidates possible ways forward for an urgent paradigm shift beyond the dominant modern culture-nature and human and non-human assumptions of the human rights framework.

One of RIVERS main concern is to understand at the grass roots level of indigenous communities the impact of extractivism beyond the extracted resource, to the whole territory and its existence, and therefore broader range of ontologically different concepts needs to be considered. RIVERS analysis has unravelled further unacknowledged, theoretical-practical blind spots within these emerging debates in the fields of human rights and environmental law and also tensions and stark conflicts with indigenous peoples’ rights and practices that urgently needs to be addressed. The implementation of the delayed fieldwork in will offer the necessary innovative and unique insights in order to promote new practices of “bottom-up co-theorizing about human/water beyond the human” (Viaene 2021) in the fields of international law, human rights and environmental law.
Principal Investigator Lieselotte Viaene
RIVERS Logo
RIVERS graphic roadmap 2021 elaborated during "rivers to RIVERS" 3 hybrid meeting march 2021
RIVERS graphic roadmap 2021 elaborated during "rivers to RIVERS" 3 hybrid meeting march 2021