RIVERS Behind the Scenes: Something with Rivers

A Master’s student’s experience as a research intern in the ERC RIVERS team

By Stella Terjung

What are you doing in Madrid, something with rivers?’ This was the usual questions when I was asked back at home why I was heading to Madrid. Fair enough, given that I am studying Human Rights Studies in Lund, Sweden. Maybe the link between rivers and human rights is not directly obvious.

The MA Human Rights Studies programme at Lund, however, requires a research internship or field trip for its third semester. Being a human rights scholar in a geological epoch derogatively named the “Anthropocene” comes with challenges and responsibilities of its own. Thus, as it began to loom large in my mind that a shift in human rights ontology is urgently needed with the notion of anthropocentric individualistic human rights evidently not being enough, I developed a research interest about the intersection of human rights and ecology. I wondered; how can a human rights ontology that puts into focus the individual and isolated human being be granted universal truth, all the while ignoring the knowledge of many indigenous peoples around the world? Lieselotte, Principal Investigator, and the RIVERS team seemed to have the answers to my questions, or at least, be working on them.

My visiting stay at RIVERS was characterised by getting to know all the team members and a steep personal academic learning process at the same time. My tasks included English language proofreading, writing a blog post on hydro-extractivism, creating a library on indigenous research methods, contributing to the project’s social media, creating posters and organising a webinar. Besides, I felt like being in a very stimulating environment to work on my own research or improve my academic Spanish.


From the first week, I knew I had landed in a fascinating collective, full of amazing individuals. I really appreciated the support of Digno, Marina and Camille who were warm and welcoming, both inside and outside the institution. Moreover, even the team members who were working remotely for RIVERS made me feel welcome in the team from day one: Ximena, Carolina and María Jacinta. The weekly team meetings were a good occasion to get to know everybody and their work and it was fascinating how much energy was transmitted through the screen to Madrid. It was encouraging to see that we have reached a day and age where it is possible to have a research team spread across two continents, allowing to bring together this diverse knowledge base. The most memorable experience of this collective learning and knowledge-creating process was the internal reading seminar that the team holds regularly. Like university students, everybody was ambitiously reading and preparing the many texts for this seminar, getting ready for an intense two-hour session on hydro-extractivism. It was amazing to see so many experiences and opinions merge and it helped me familiarise myself with debates around water ontologies and some of the less obvious issues around extractivism. A few weeks later, Lieselotte went on a field trip to Guatemala with half the team to gain first-hand insights to the themes we had been discussing. For me, this was an opportunity to focus on my own research for my Master’s thesis, all the while being provided via WhatsApp with an interactive second-hand experience of the field trip: I received photos of the researchers literally (!) jumping into lakes and rivers, and the occasional call whenever support from far was needed.

Over the course of the four months, I also had the pleasure to plan and organise RIVERS 2nd Webinar for Young Researchers “La Naturaleza y sus Derechos”, together with Digno. This experience showed me that academic work can be both productive and fun at the same time. We put together a Spanish and English bilingual webinar and created a space for what is called in Spanish a ‘diálogo Norte-Sur/Sur-Sur’, with contributions on Earth System Law, transitional justice, women’s rights to land, the Rights of Nature movement, social leaders in Colombia, and a forest obtaining legal personality in New Zealand.

Looking back at my internship at RIVERS, I realise that it was a constant learning process, at the end of which I find myself having gained a lot of experience. In hindsight, little did I know about the reality of 5 year research projects funded by the European Research Council, known as ERC projects. It was challenging at times to understand the team dynamics, find a place in the project and a workflow, but it was an extremely inspiring environment which allowed me to further develop my own research interest and get familiar with ontological debates on extractivism, water and human rights, but also about the shortcomings of western law, power structures, the subjects of rights and the implementations of court sentences. All of the RIVERS team members have such interesting experience to share and I was grateful whenever we could meet and chat over a coffee, in person or virtually. It has been an inspiring and thought-provoking environment which allowed me to develop my personal research interest and set me off on a good path towards my Master’s thesis, for which I will research on extractivism, human rights and nature rights in Northern Sweden. And last but not least, my Spanish experienced a revival with RIVERS working in both languages, English and Spanish. I hope that we will continue to talk about water, ontologies, decolonising human rights, but also about Gabriel García Marquez, Yoga and travels


About the author

Stella conducted a research internship at RIVERS ERC in autumn 2021. She is a Master‘s student of Human Rights Studies at Lund University, Sweden, with a research interest focusing on human-nature relationships, collective human rights and the rights of nature.

daniel vera