Connecting the “academia bubble” with the “policy bubble” through audiovisual media – RIVERS experiences

Connecting the “academia bubble” with the “policy bubble” through audiovisual media – RIVERS experiences

As we celebrate World Environment Day (June 5), I am thrilled to announce the launch of the RIVERS project’s first Audiovisual Newsletter. In this blog post, I’ll delve into the reasons behind and the methods of our project’s engagement with audiovisual media.

Since the start of the RIVERS project in 2019, the call to challenge anthropocentric perspectives within international human rights and environmental law has become stronger. New eco-legal developments like Rights of Nature and Ecocide are gaining policy and norm-making traction, responding to the challenges posed by our extractive age, marked by the accelerated extraction and use of natural resources driving anthropogenic environmental disasters. At the same time, Indigenous approaches to coexisting with nature, rooted in harmony and interconnectedness, are emerging as pivotal counterpoints to conventional Western ideologies of environmental interaction. These advancements have brought forth a myriad of theoretical, methodological, and practical questions and challenges, underscoring the complexity of transitioning from human-centered to eco-centered paradigms.

Though, during our interactions with our non-academic stakeholders in the UN, Colombia, Nepal and Guatemala, the RIVERS team frequently heard about significant knowledge gaps regarding the complex socio-cultural realities of the local-national power structures in which these new eco-legal developments are taking place. There is a critical need to share innovative empirical data on these gaps that can inform legal practitioners who are involved in norm-making and policy making about the role of law in human-nature/environment relationships.

Indeed, the definitions of “environment,” “nature,” and “ecology” have become battlegrounds for political struggle over knowledge and meaning, carrying significant legal implications, as we have observed in our Editorial piece for the Special Section “Transitional Justice and Nature: a curious silence” in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, co-written with my colleagues Peter Doran and Jonathan Leljiblad.

The inherently politically engaged nature of the RIVERS project acknowledge that our role as researchers extends beyond traditional scholarly research; it includes engaging with and influencing the broader socio-legal and political landscape. Since it start, the RIVERS team has fostered participatory principles through active collaborations with different non-academic stakeholders in Colombia, Guatemala, and Nepal the project in a highly polarised political academic context. As our active collaborations with these stakeholders have evolved over the course of our project, we have co-developed several new ideas for multimedia outreach and outputs which can help communicate our research findings in a more poignant way, such as blog posts, podcasts, documentary films and story maps.

It is essential to recognize that despite the wealth of knowledge generated within academic institutions, much of this information remains confined within the ‘academia bubble,’ inaccessible to those in the ‘policy bubble’ who shape decisions impacting our societies. With the RIVERS project, we actively explore the potential of audiovisual media as a powerful solution to bridge this disconnect, providing dynamic and engaging ways to translate complex academic research into actionable insights for policymakers involved in norm and policy production concerning nature, environment, and humans.

Convirtiendo el problema de la COVID-19 en una oportunidad: diálogos en línea Sur-Norte-Sur y creación de un podcast académico.

Our first experience of integrating audio visual media production in RIVERS academia-policy dialogues occurred during our hybrid Symposium “Indigenous Peoples, Water and Human Rights: Dialoguing Encounters” (October 2022). The event featured prominent figures such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Indigenous litigator Juan Castro from Guatemala, and Binota Dhamai, the former Chair of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  The Symposium opened with the screening of the short-Muu Palaa, la abuela mar, co-directed by Colombian Indigenous documentary makers Olowaili Green Santacruz and Luzbeidy Monterrosa.  It ended with the screening of the short film Voices of Teesta, of Minket Lepcha, India, presented at the 2018 World Water Forum.

Turning COVID-19 problem into an opportunity: online South-North-South dialogues and creating academic podcast

One of the key goals of the RIVERS project is to foster interdisciplinary and empirical South-South Dialogues (connecting Central/South America and Asia) as well as South-North dialogues (linking Latin America, Asia, and Europe). These dialogues explore the intersections and divergences in Indigenous life-water-human ontologies and law across these geographical regions. However, our first three years were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which put all planned fieldwork on hold indefinitely. This challenge pushed the RIVERS team to innovate with digital solutions, leading to new forms of collaboration and communication. Our efforts pivoted towards digital ethnography at the United Nations, developing an academic podcast and organizing online South-South and North-South academic seminars that brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners and scholars.

In November 2019, Indigenous judge Belkis Izquierdo of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in Colombia issued a groundbreaking decision recognizing Territory as a victim of the armed conflict. This sparked many legal debates both nationally and internationally. Since 2017, Belkis and I have shared many concerns, particularly regarding whether human rights and transitional justice—rooted in Euro-Western colonial and racist conceptions—can truly accommodate the cognitive and conceptual openness required to embrace Indigenous perspectives. As part of our ongoing dialogical relationship—personally, professionally, and spiritually—we co-organized an online “Talking Circle: Reparation of the Territory and Nature as Victims of the Conflict” in August 2020, coinciding with the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. This event featured Latin American Indigenous lawyers and political and spiritual leaders from Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Ecuador. They shared their knowledge and experiences on: 1) the importance of Territory and Nature for their peoples; 2) the dynamics of violence and the main damages they face; and 3) their recommendations for repairing Territories and Nature.


The RIVERS project aims to rewire the relationships between social scientists, key policy stakeholders, and the broader public. To facilitate the planned South-South knowledge dialogues during the COVID-19 pandemic, two RIVERS PhD researchers and lawyers, Digno Montalván and Maria Ximena González-Serrano, proposed creating a podcast featuring Indigenous academics, filmmakers, lawyers, and journalists from around the world. Through in-person and online interviews about their visions about water, law, their professional field, we crafted scripts that evolved into five episodes weaving together knowledge (academics), rights (lawyers), realities (diplomats), stories (communicators), and visuals (documentary makers). The podcast “Weaving Waters,” available in Spanish and English on Spotify, represents our attempt to create “insurgent” academic knowledge, borrowing the term from anthropologist Ian Cook, author of the book “Scholarly Podcasting” and one of the participants in our podcast’s international launch last November. Through these Episodes, we aim to create digital channels to listen directly to diverse Indigenous visions and experiences

The production of a documentary series “Human rights beyond the human” – Colombia and Nepal

In the original RIVERS research design (2018), the project envisioned producing two community collaborative documentaries on Indigenous water knowledge, living, being, and human rights—one focusing on Latin America and the other on Asia. These documentaries were intended as vehicles for collective counter-hegemonic knowledge production and intercultural translation. Initially, we planned to collaborate with visual anthropologists, but this approach evolved to collaborating Indigenous filmmakers and documentary creators in our research contexts.

Our first engagement with Indigenous audiovisual media production occurred in March 2022 in Guatemala City. The project organized a cine-foro in collaboration with the Indigenous Colombian cine collective Daupará titled: “Reflections in the water. Indigenous audio-visual dialogues Guatemala-Colombia”. In March 2023, RIVERS embarked on a collaboration with Catalan filmmaker Mariona Guiu, engaging in multiple creative sessions to shape the approach, articulate the main statement, and develop the narrative. Our objective is to present an audiovisual journey that not only portrays struggles across different regions but also cultivates a sense of transformative inspiration within our audience. We prioritize a cinematic language that captivates and emotionally resonates, aiming to ignite motivation rather than simply provide information.

During one of these sessions, we reflected on what each documentary aims to convey. Through an exercise, we identified a series of themes and issues key to the RIVERS research topics, which helped shape our mission statement:

“In various parts of the world, the Eurocentric legal framework is being challenged through the defense of Indigenous ways of being/existing”

In June 2023, we conducted a pilot shoot in Colombia. The teaser highlights the spiritual and legal journey of Arhuaca judge Belkis Izquierdo, who has produced groundbreaking legal decisions in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in Colombia, such as recognizing Territory as a victim of armed conflict. This 25-minute documentary, produced in collaboration with Choclo Productions, is currently in post-production.

Meanwhile, we are launching the from the first shooting phase in April this year. In Nepal, we collaborate with Prassiit Staphit’s team at Fuzz Factory Productions. The narrative – still in full development – is intimately related to our research, aiming to understand the cultural/ontological, socio-political, and power issues at stake when the continuous flow of the Marsyangdi River is blocked, and transmission lines are constructed on the surrounding fertile lands. A second shooting phase is planned for October this year, with the documentary expected to enter post-production by January next year.

In conclusion, the RIVERS journey with audiovisual media has been a transformative journey so far. From podcasts to documentaries, we are learning about the capacity of audiovisual storytelling to bridge the gap between academia and policy, amplifying diverse critical perspectives. As we navigate these new avenues for communication and engagement, we invite fellow researchers, policymakers, and advocates to join us in the next endeavour of identifying meaningful outreach activities that engage with diverse audiences.


Lieselotte Viaene – Principal Investigator ERC RIVERS Project (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)

Ana Garcia