Online lecture Rivers, Territories and Power. Water Justice Movements and Counter-mapping to Bridge River Struggles

The faculty of Italian Studies and Environmental Humanities at the University of St.Gallen is pleased to invite you to its Spring 2024 guest lecture:

Rutgerd Boelens: Rivers, Territories and Power. Water Justice Movements and Counter-mapping to Bridge River Struggles

Tuesday, May 14, 12:15 – 1:45 pm CEST
Online lecture: please register in advance here:

Mega-damming, pollution and depletion endanger rivers worldwide. Modernist imaginaries of ordering ‘unruly waters and humans’ have become cornerstones of hydraulic-bureaucratic and capitalist development. They separate hydro/social worlds, sideline river-commons cultures, and deepen socio-environmental injustices. However, myriad new water justice movements (NWJMs) proliferate: rooted, disruptive, transdisciplinary, multi-scalar coalitions that deploy alternative river–society ontologies, bridge South–North divides, and translate river-enlivening practices from local to global and vice-versa. In this guest lecture, Rutgerd Boelens presents a collective framework that conceptualizes ‘riverhood’ to engage with NWJMs and river commoning initiatives. It suggests four interrelated ontologies, situating river socionatures as arenas of material, social and symbolic co-production: ‘river-as-ecosociety’, ‘river-as-territory’, ‘river-as-subject’, and ‘river-as-movement’. Boelens further examines the Traveling Rivers initiative, linking grassroots activists, engaged academia and river commoning struggles through counter-mapping. Making rivers actively travel among six river conflict arenas in Colombia and Ecuador, the initiative seeks new grass-rooted understandings capable of strengthening ‘rivers of resistance’ that break away from river grabbing and imposed status quo river governance.

WUR events highlight River Commons and Travelling Rivers

On 6 March 2024, PhD Carlota Houart had the opportunity to present the River Commons project at the ‘Wageningen Impact for Sustainable Futures’ event, which brought together several outstanding projects at Wageningen University that have been awarded INREF grants. These projects stand out for their transdisciplinary approaches, integrating academia and society in innovative ways and multiple areas of knowledge. In her speech, Carlota highlighted how the River Commons project has been building transdisciplinary bridges between academia and social movements, environmental organisations, artists, and activist groups to work together to defend rivers. She also highlighted some of the key strengths of the project, such as the use of alternative and creative methodologies to co-create actionable knowledge with grassroots initiatives around rivers for social and environmental impact.

Carlota Houart presenting the River Commons project

Also on 8 March, post-doc Daniele Tubino represented the Travelling Rivers initiative (part of the Riverhood and River Commons projects) at the WUR Research Award in the Transdisciplinary Research of the Year category. In her pitch, Daniele highlighted how the Travelling Rivers initiative follows a radical transdisciplinary path by building entirely on the ideas and knowledge of riverine communities. Travelling Rivers makes ideas about rivers travel and does so through counter-maps created with the help of local artists, that represent alternative visions that can heal our rivers. As she highlighted, these maps integrate diverse knowledge, connect movements around the world, and amplify their power by enabling new transnational networks of solidarity that can influence the creation of new policies for rivers.

Daniele Tubino representing the Travelling Rivers transdisciplinary initiative

The International Meeting “Rios en movimiento”: interweaving riverside communities, social movements and academia

By Ana Arbelaez Trujillo

The global nature of the dynamics that affect rivers, bringing many of them close to ecological collapse and provoking political, cultural and socioeconomic crises, makes it essential to scale up and broaden place-based river struggles. Therefore, the international meeting of the Riverhood and River Commons projects was a space to exchange learnings about the problems of rivers worldwide, the main struggles, care practices and demands of those who inhabit them.

This meeting aimed to approach the rivers and their movements from different perspectives and provide a space for conversation, allowing close interaction among riverside communities, social movements, and academia. To this end, diverse art expressions played a central role. We used diverse methodologies for weaving conversations during the event, including audiovisuals, artistic pieces, river walks, alternative cartographies, songs, and academic presentations. Furthermore, we had a permanent art exhibition with the work of the collectives “NaaK Memorias del Agua”, “Entre Ríos” and “Orika” at the creative gallery Bestiario.

During the event, we also visited several of the micro-watersheds of the Kumanday bio-geo-territory: Cuenca Taguambí, Cuenca Quebrada Olivares, and Cuenca Río Chinchiná. These territorial visits were an invitation to understand the river as much more than a continuous stream of water flowing into the sea and an opportunity to learn about the work of local collectives such as Eco-finca La Soledad, Senderos de Luz, Líderes Alto del Castillo, Comunativa, Huerta Urbana NAKSI, and Tierra Libre.

The International Meeting “Rios en movimiento” was organised as one of the knowledge exchange activities of the Riverhood and River Commons research projects and had the support of Alianza Justicia Hídrica, Universidad de Caldas, Centro Cultural Universitario Rogelio Salmina, Corporación Nodo – NaaK Memorias del agua, Movimiento Socio-ambiental Kumanday, Natural Seeds Alliance, Tejido de Colectivos Unitierra Manizales y Suroccidente Colombiano,  Tejinando Sentipensares (Tejido de pluriveresidades de a pie), Asociación Broederlijk Delen y CENSAT Agua Viva.


Los ríos sirvieron de afluente para su defensa y cuidado en Manizales

The “Ríos en Movimiento” International Conference that took place in Manizales, Colombia, from 12 to 15 March 2024, bringing together academics and river activists from all over the world, was widely publicised by the Colombian media, check out the article entitled “Los ríos sirvieron de afluente para su defensa y cuidado en Manizales”, published by the newspaper “La Patria”.

Ríos en movimiento convocó a organizaciones, universidades y grupos de investigación que trabajan alrededor del agua, de su cuidado, de verla como ríos comunes, en movimiento e, inclusive, como movimiento político y como movimiento vivo.

En total participaron representantes de 12 países, incluido Colombia, provenientes de América, Europa y África. Ellos realizaron tres salidas de campo a la quebrada Olivares, al río Chinchiná y a la cuenca Taguambi para compartir experiencias y analizar los procesos realizados en esos sectores.”

Check out the full article here!

Todas las luchas, todos los ríos, todas las vidas

The International Conference “Ríos en Movimiento” has been organised as one of the knowledge exchange activities of the Riverhood and River Commons research projects. The meeting took place in Manizales, Colombia, from 12 to 15 March 2024. Check out the article “Todas las luchas, todos los ríos, todas las vidas” about the event, published by the Popular Training Institute.

By Daniela Sánchez Romero, 19 march, 2024

Entender el río como cuna ecosistémica, como bien común, como movimiento, como territorio o como un sujeto poseedor de derechos, han sido algunas maneras en las que organizaciones sociales, académicas y comunidades reconocen el papel de los ríos en los ecosistemas. 

Por eso, más de 100 organizaciones y entidades académicas de países como Colombia, México, Ecuador, India, España, Suráfrica y Zambia, tuvieron un espacio de diálogo y encuentro de saberes en el evento internacional Ríos en movimiento, impulsado por los proyectos de investigación Riverhood y River Commons.

A través de diálogos desde un enfoque de ecología política y justicia hídrica, estos proyectos de investigación tienen como propósito motivar conversaciones y ejercicios de reflexión alrededor de los movimientos por la justicia del agua para una gobernanza equitativa y sostenible, y el apoyo a iniciativas de cogobernanza fluvial y sistemas fluviales socioecológicos sostenibles.”

Click here to check out the full article!

“Diary of Travelling Rivers” has won the international Impact Docs Award

The “Diary of Travelling Rivers” has won the international Impact Docs Award. The Impact Docs Awards are part of the prestigious Global Film Awards family and are an international awards competition designed specifically for documentary filmmakers. Its focus is to recognise and promote documentaries that address pressing global issues and engage audiences through compelling storytelling.

Walking Along Rivers, Feeling Through Infrastructures

“Walking Along Rivers, Feeling Through Infrastructures” is a blog written by Laura Betancur Alarcón (Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems-IRI THESys at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) and Ana María Arbeláez-Trujillo (Water Resources Management Group at Wageningen University and Research), published by Engagement, the anthropology and environment society.

On her way to the La Miel River banks, Isaura walks across the mountain. Lying down as tree steam, she sees the 6-kilometer pipe that transports the river waters to the powerhouse of the hydroelectric plant. She can’t swim in the river anymore: a large tube carries a large part of its water, diminishing its flow. Also on foot but in the riverbanks of a dry forest valley, Pedro looks for a possible port to embark on the “piece of river” they have left. It is a 14-kilometer stretch of the Magdalena River left between two large dams. While he searches, the river expands and retracts with the rhythms of the energy power plants. Isaura and Pedro seek the rivers’ current in territories fragmented by infrastructure.  Following their footsteps, we travel along the banks and valleys of two rivers in the Colombian Andes. Ana walks with Isaura through the upper part of the La Miel River in the town of Bolivia, department of Caldas. The journey takes place around the influence area of the run-of-the-river hydroelectric project ‘El Edén’ -built in 2013- which partially diverted the river’s waters. Laura walks with Pedro along the upper Magdalena River, where the Betania Dam (1987) and the El Quimbo Dam (2015) were built in the department of Huila.  Large physical transformations caused by hydropower on rivers have been the focus of academic inquiries. But what about those daily experiences in the territories inhabited by ribereños and campesinos? How do they feel about those transformations?

Tiny pieces of water -in the form of fog- cover the mountains in the East of Caldas and linger over the landscape for a few hours. Photo by Ana María Arbeláez-Trujillo.

Check out the full text here.

Coordinator for the creation of a doctoral network

Check out this job offer!

Eucor – The European Campus is a trinational consortium of five universities in the Upper Rhine region, which is a border area between Germany, France, and Switzerland. Its purpose is to build a scientific space without walls or borders and with international influence (www.eucor-uni-org). In this rich academic environment, an interdisciplinary doctoral network in the field of river landscape management is currently being established. We are looking for a coordinator for this project.

Main activities:
The coordinator will support the steering committee in:
• Strengthening interdisciplinary methods and solutions for the transfer of science to the political sphere;
• Designing, organizing, and documenting cross-border workshops in cooperation with local partners;
• Coordinating the drafting of a proposal for a European doctoral network.

Associated activities:
• Supporting activities aimed at strengthening international scientific collaborations on sustainable development of hydrosystems within the framework of the EUCOR Chair “Water and Sustainability”.

Fixed-term contract: 14 months

Start: as soon as possible
Statut: Contractual Agent

Corps: Ingénieur d’études (Research Engineer)
Contact(s) for information about the position: Prof.Dr.Karl Matthias Wantzen –

For more info, please click here.

Weaving connections between Wageningen students and Andean communities

By Susana Zavala

The Environmental Justice in Practice course at Wageningen University proposes an approach that involves students in practical cases of competition for natural resources. In this sense, together with Sebastian, we will look at the case of the Páramo (highland) communities and the Licto (lowland) communities, who use water from the Páramo to irrigate their lands, without any retaliation or sense of reciprocity. Six students therefore set out to develop strategies to rebuild relations between the highland and lowland communities, addressing the complexities and dynamics of the case.

Conversation with students of the Environmental Justice in Practice course.

With the brief introduction we gave in the first meeting about the “twin rivers” and their actors, the paramo communities integrated in the ASARATY association (upper zone) and the irrigation communities that make up the Guarguallá Licto Irrigation Board (lower zone), the students drew up a report and presented the case as they understood it. Throughout this process, we held discussions to provide additional information and clarification. These dialogues focused on crucial aspects such as: the essential characteristics of the páramo ecosystem, its population and family livelihoods, which are based on alpaca breeding; the history of access to irrigation water; the initial relationship between the communities of the lower and upper zones; the changes in production resulting from the introduction of irrigation in the beneficiary communities; and the acquisition of land in the Molobog community.

However, we believe that these meetings with the students could be enriched with a complementary approach, specifically through interviews with the leaders of the organisations present in the upper and lower communities of Chimborazo, Ecuador.
In this context, we took the initiative to establish communication with the leaders of both the moorland communities (high zone) and the irrigation communities (low zone). The communication process began with the exchange of respectful greetings such as “Good morning, comrade” and responses such as “Good morning, miss”. It is worth noting that in this effort to connect, we received calls even in the early hours of the morning, demonstrating the time difference and the dedication of our colleagues to communicate and hear their voices.
Despite these minor setbacks, we were able to successfully schedule interviews with three key leaders in the context studied: Alfonso Guamán, head of the Molobog community and Licto parish; Galo Bonilla, president of the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation Board; and Rafael Ushca, head of ASARATY, the representative organisation of the Guarguallá marshlands.

The first interview took place on Tuesday with Mr Alfonso Guamán. We took advantage of the internet connection to remove geographical barriers and allow instant communication. Although the students were able to meet Alfonso, they needed the support of Catalina (a student from Wageningen) to overcome the language barrier. The interview started with a general question: “This gave Alfonso the opportunity to express himself freely and share information about life before the arrival of the irrigation water, the process of land acquisition, and the changes the community experienced with access to water and land. This first approach made it possible to introduce the dynamics of the relationship with the highland communities.

Alfonso noted that at the beginning of the irrigation project there was a positive relationship between the communities. However, he noted that this relationship had deteriorated over time due to constant changes in leadership and the assumption of roles by individuals unfamiliar with the irrigation system and the struggle for water. Despite this deterioration, Alfonso was optimistic that there is a good chance of reaching harmonious agreements and rebuilding the relationship between the upland and lowland communities.

The following day, the students met with Galo Bonilla, who enriched the process with his experience and knowledge as the current president of the Junta de Riego. They then met with Rafael Ushca, who provided a unique perspective on environmental management in the páramo. It is important to highlight and express our sincere appreciation for the time given to the three leaders, as their contributions were fundamental in enriching the understanding of the case.

The colloquia and interviews with leaders have given the students in the Environmental Justice in Practice course a broad perspective on the history, dynamics and breakdown of inter-community relations between the highlands and the lowlands, and the challenges of managing their natural resources. This insight is reflected in the first outline of the students’ proposal, which consists of a collaborative timeline of the history and relationships between the two communities. They also plan to develop an exchange plan between the communities to deepen their mutual knowledge of their respective territories.

Moreover, this active and collaborative dialogue extended to other instances, as we presented and discussed the case with Masters students at Wageningen University, and they showed a marked interest in engaging with the issue.

Meeting with Master students from Wageningen University.

Tacit and meticulous or less orderly steps?

By Juan Sebastian Silva

The tacit and the meticulous are not the main characteristics of Ecuadorians. Phrases such as “more or less” and “approximately” are used every day to justify delays that are common and deeply normalised. Ecuadorian life revolves around less orderly steps, which has shaped its own culture to which we are all accustomed.

Walking through the streets of Riobamba is a daily challenge that we overcome with cunning. Every dawn means a world of unexpected possibilities that make us accumulate experiences in which there has never been a lack of eventful situations, whose catastrophic consequences are avoided by the prayers and blessings of a devoutly religious city.

This disorganised daily life has not prevented the various local communities from developing their practices and organising their various relationships at a more or less slow pace. In the case of water, these same logics dominate long meetings, extensive discussions and debates that end up giving shape to discourses of resistance, mixed with one or another particular interest.

For me personally, this normality has suffered a “shock” when I have jumped over a large body of water (the Atlantic Ocean) to reach distant lands. A KLM flight, which emits less CO2 and whose drink containers promote sustainable environmental practices, would take me to a neo-cultural meeting where this walk is more sequential and the times strictly controlled.

For me, the Dutch movement, its people and even its waters represented the adoption of other logics. Singular marks on the asphalt dominate, without voice, the citizen’s walk, while I get disoriented trying to follow the direction of the sun in northern countries, what a mistake! The winding streets are far from the rectangularity of the spatial distribution of my country. The precision of check-in and check-out coincides with the near-perfect timing of public transport, where I quickly became dependent on the NS app to relearn mobility. Everything seems deeply planned, and the breaking of canons is surely viewed with disbelief in a community that marches at a pace controlled by the accuracy of its daily schedule. But strangely, as I walk between the canals, the autumnal landscape inspires me to reflect on how these distant practices, customs and reasoning can contribute to inspiring ideas and facilitating bridges that connect and travel the Ecuadorian rivers, their communities and their people.

Cycling between challenges: My experience in a contrasting environment

By Susana Zavala

Finding a small bike in a society where the average height is 1.75 metres has proved to be a real challenge. In Ecuador, I live in an environment characterised by irregular topography, where the dominant presence of mountains defines visual boundaries. This geography also reveals a society marked by various disparities, whether in terms of gender, education, social status or other manifestations of inequality. The Netherlands, on the other hand, is a flat landscape where the view stretches as far as the eye can see.  From the moment I stepped off the plane, I could see the differences and challenges ahead: language, cycling, climate and pace of life. However, I have always been willing to adapt to changes and challenges.

I was eagerly awaiting the day when I would get to know Wageningen University, and when the long-awaited Monday arrived, a new challenge was unleashed: cycling to the site in cold weather that penetrated my clothes. It is worth mentioning that I had only recently learnt to ride a bike, which made it difficult to keep my feet on the pedals. At times I lost control and, to make matters worse, the rules of the road were very strict. However, with the help of tips from friends in Wageningen and despite a few mishaps, I managed to make it to the first meeting with the students of the Environmental Justice course.

There were six students waiting for us in the classroom, and here was another challenge, the language. Fortunately, Meike (a friend from Wageningen) helped us with the translation. Without much difficulty we were able to present the case of the above mentioned communities in the highlands and the lowlands. At the end of the presentation, several questions were asked by the students, showing their interest and curiosity about the case.

At the end of the academic days, in the middle of the darkness, I have to cycle along a road characterised by opaque street lamps and trees shaken by the wind, whose fallen leaves form a carpet that rustles when it comes into contact with the wheels of my bicycle. This scenario reminds me of a scene from a horror film. However, my conscience recognises that the Netherlands has high safety standards. Nevertheless, my subconscious allows a feeling of apprehension to creep in and keep me on my toes throughout the ride.

So far, the need to move around has improved my cycling skills, at least I am pedalling with more dexterity than before. As a result, I am now struggling to keep my balance in this new environment. In addition, I now live in two different landscapes and cultures, which intertwine to form a new mosaic rich in diversity.

Following the water footprints in Vorden: the imaginary of a recreated nature

By Juan Sebastian Silva

After a few cold and somewhat rainy days in Wageningen, a sunny Sunday awaited us. Early in the morning we set off for Vorden, a picturesque little town where you can feel the warmth in the middle of the streets. On this short visit, we were accompanied by Rob, a Dutch friend who, with great passion for his work, would guide us between the 17th century castles that once belonged to the aristocratic families of the time. His explanations in fluent Spanish, the result of personal experiences in Latin America, immediately connected us with history and took us back in time through a book full of photographs that would act as a mirror of today’s landscape seen through the eyes of yesteryear.

As we walked through several states (similar to the “haciendas” of the Ecuadorian Andes), the water from some canals circulated between the imaginary of extinct swamps and non-existent mills. The latter were used to evacuate water from old communal lands that were perhaps considered unusable for human interests, becoming the infrastructural solutions of the time to control nature. As a result, many wealthy families have taken possession of these properties, some of which are maintained as private property, while others are managed by civil society initiatives.

At present, these reconstructions of nature are imperceptible and we learned about them through a journey in time that showed us how a landscape has been reconfigured, where hiking trails are now opened in the midst of forest plantations that are confused with primary forests and water canals that recreate a unique landscape beauty. As I walked through this enveloping nature, I thought about how some rivers in my city, Riobamba, are trying to be restored through similar strategies, where man tries to make decisions based on his knowledge and technology.

Feeling a nature built and planned by human decisions made me internalise several questions in my feeling-thinking. Undoubtedly, what my senses perceived influenced what my mind understood and defined. My eyes, fascinated by the shades of colour; my ears, enveloped by the rustling of the autumn leaves; my touch, caressed by the slow and non-turbulent flow of the local waters; and my sense of smell, sweetened by pristine aromas, make me want to return to such a peculiar place. However, this seemingly perfect functioning probably hides other not so benign stories that have raised personal and moral questions about what I long to see in my daily landscape.

In Ecuador, the flow of many waters has been diverted and even suppressed to satisfy different interests and needs. In some cases, the lack of housing and the absence of a clear public policy have led to river spaces being co-opted by impoverished social groups to provide the shelter that the habitat could not. In other cases, opulent initiatives have seen the opportunity to increase the size of their private property, reducing them to small ditches that overflow every time it rains, causing new devastation in the cities affected. In other words, the presence of streams and rivers has been uncomfortable in many ways.

Now I ask myself: what does my environment need? some rivers and streams have been reopened and seem to have recovered? A new nature, reconfigured by political and technical decisions, plagued by populism and demagoguery? or a pristine and romantic nature? but at what price?

From Andean moorlands to autumnal landscapes: A story of collaboration between Andean communities and Wageningen University.

Hello, I am Susana Zavala, Ecuadorian, student of Anthropology at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, Ecuador. I am currently visiting Wageningen University, The Netherlands. My presence in this educational institution is mainly to share my knowledge and experiences about the communities of the Páramo (highlands) and the communities of Licto that are supplied with water by the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation System (lowlands), in the context of water justice. At this moment, I would like to recall and share my journey from the Andean moors to the land of autumnal landscapes.

It all started when my thesis supervisor recommended a book about the peasant communities of the Licto community and the Guarguallá-Licto irrigation system in Ecuador, the same place where I wanted to do my Master’s thesis. I also come from the community of Molobog, which is part of the irrigation system. I immersed myself in the search for information about the author and, after confirming his relevance, I decided to contact Rutgerd Boelens by e-mail. We started communicating, exchanging information and news about Licto.

One day, unexpectedly, I received an invitation from Rutgerd Boelens, the principal investigator of the Riverhood and River Commons projects, to participate in the selection of a river in Ecuador to carry out a counter-mapping exercise. This exercise was carried out in Colombia by the Ríos Viajeros team, linked to the aforementioned projects.  Although the Nagsiche River in Cotopaxi was initially considered for this project, the possibility of carrying out the exercise on the Guarguallá River, with which I was already familiar thanks to its irrigation system, was raised. The information gathered would be an integral part of the seminar ‘Rivers, territories and power: political cartography and alternative hydro-social representations’, which took place in the city of Riobamba, Ecuador. So I accepted without much hesitation.

In this preliminary phase, Meike (from Wageningen University) and Sebastian (from the Central University of Ecuador) joined us, people whose names were unknown until then. Together we formed a team and set off on this journey. The aim of the previous visit was to establish dialogue with local actors who had knowledge of the river area. This would allow us to understand the relationship between the population and the river, analyse its uses and conflicts, and assess the feasibility and relevance of the mapping process. In the course of planning our trip, we exchanged information and news about the controversies surrounding the supply of drinking water to Riobamba. In this context, the importance of the Alao River was identified and highlighted, and we decided to include it in our pre-visit.

The Alao and Guarguallá rivers originate in the Andean highlands and, although separated by a hill, follow parallel courses until they meet and form part of the Chambo River. Despite these similarities, each river has its own dynamics and actors, which is why we call them “twin rivers”.

In this context, we informed the Travelling Rivers team, which led to a virtual meeting with Rutgerd, who showed interest in our case. During this virtual meeting I had the opportunity to put a face to a person with whom I had been corresponding for several months. Unexpectedly, when I introduced myself, he discovered that I belonged to the Molobog community and that my mother had been part of the Guarguallá-Licto irrigation project 25 years ago. This project brought irrigation water to peasant communities that had been historically marginalised and exploited by landowners, the church and mestizos. It not only changed the geographical landscape, but also represented a significant social construction in the communities. A few days later, their response was positive, and at the end of June they would visit the rivers and their actors.

As part of this project, I took on the logistical responsibility and direct contact with the actors involved in river management, using my knowledge of the area. Over the course of two days, we travelled through the páramo and along the riverbanks, making contact with the users. Although exhausting, these days were an enriching learning experience.

On the third day, the counter-mapping exercise took place, which marked a significant milestone by bringing together the leaders of the páramo communities (upper zone) and the irrigation communities (lower zone), who had not met for more than a decade. This collective approach projected the territory as a single entity without borders, underlining the interconnectedness and interdependence of the communities. It also highlighted the challenges and problems faced by these communities. These included mining, hydropower, non-compliance with projects, agrochemical abuse and migration.Our commitment was to return the “Community and Solidarity Water Management Map between upper and lower communities”, a tool designed to reflect the reality and shared aspirations of the upper and lower communities.

Rios Viajeros” team with the leaders of the organisation ASARATY and the Páramo Guarguallá, Chimborazo.

After almost two months of counter-mapping, we reopened a channel of communication with the communities of Licto and those of the Guarguallá páramo. The message focused on the return of the product of their work, the map. This approach provoked a series of reactions: “I thought they had forgotten us”, “where did you come from”, “thank you for inviting us”, and similar reactions. The mistrust of community organisations towards the institutions is notorious, due to bad experiences, because in some cases they are only the object of studies and subject to the extractivism of information and knowledge.

The Junta de Riego Guarguallá-Licto offered us a space where we could officially hand over the map, the fruit of our collective work. Before the meeting began, we placed the map in a place where it could be seen by all, attracting the attention of our fellow farmers. Intrigued, they approached to observe and identify their localities, while others said that their territories were not there, noting that the landscape was even more complex and extensive.

Elaboration of the map with the peasant companions of the Guarguallá páramo (high zone) and users of the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation System (low zone).

Peasants from the Guarguallá páramo (upper zone) and the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation System (lower zone), observing the “Community and solidarity-based water management map between upper and lower communities”.

The handover was well received by the farmers. In my case, I experienced an emotional sense of belonging, and the most gratifying thing was to hear the leaders express the possibility of initiating dialogue between the upper and lower communities in order to re-establish inter-community relations. This was an important gesture, given that some 25 years ago these communities had a relationship that had weakened over time to the point of disengagement.

Delivery of the map to the communities of the high and low zones.

The handing over of the map to the highland and lowland communities took place in a context that aims to be a turning point, in a way that points towards new relationships and collaborations between communities and academia, promoting justice and equity. In this sense, Rutgerd invited Sebastian and me to share our knowledge and experience of the Twin Rivers and their actors, the Páramo and irrigation communities, with the students of the Water Justice course in the Netherlands. This news filled me with enthusiasm, as it offered the opportunity to immerse myself in the reality of the communities, to amplify the voices of fellow farmers and to explore a new environment. So I landed in the Netherlands, immersed in an autumnal landscape.

Alboretum of Wageningen, Netherlands.

River reconnection: counter-mapping the Guargualla River to bring upstream and downstream waters closer together

My name is Sebastián, I was born in Riobamba, a small city in the country of Ecuador. For several years I have been working with rural communities that I have connected through water. When I was a child, I lived with my father near the countryside, the land and the water. We saw lush grasslands around our snow-capped mountain, Chimborazo. But when I was 10 years old, I left that world and began to live among the grey asphalt of the city.

After a few years I obtained the title of agronomist and my first job was in the government institution in charge of water management, the National Ministry of Water. There I got to know many peasant and indigenous organisations, their forms of water management and their problems. But I also fell in love with their stories and understood their struggles and loss of memory.

These water disconnections and reconnections are often between individuals and social groups, as happens around the Guarguallá River. Although I live close to the river, I had never had any contact with it or the communities around it. But that changed a few months ago when Riverhood and River Commons researchers asked me to approach the communities in their watershed to make contact with their leaders, to map their differences and express their hopes.

We found many outstretched arms and several open doors that welcomed us without hesitation. In the lower basin, several irrigation communities coexist, while in the upper basin there is an organisation of mountain guardians called “cuidadores del páramo”. They are geographically close, they are related to the river and they say they know each other, but they don’t have a close community relationship.
The construction of the map was an opportunity to bring them together around the same canvas, sharing the same images. These would give shape to the traces of small streams, endless grasslands “pajonales”, lush landscapes and constant threats. But this collective construction was also the moment to express their needs and demonstrate their emotional distances, which exceeded the kilometres that separated them.

What’s more, these reunions were not just about people, but also about communities, researchers, activists, academics and artists, who were able to get to know each other and establish relationships as a result of these friendly spaces. These relationships, mediated by a sensitivity to water injustices, are also scenarios that, since that moment, have sought to be strengthened through exchanges and collaborations to build deep and supportive ties.

Last October, the new links created by Ecuador’s rivers aroused interest in taking their problems to new, distant lands. The cordial communication gave shape to an enveloping daily schedule that would take me to the canals, rivers, cities, nature and people of the Netherlands to explore possibilities and provoke new initiatives.

I now understand that counter-mapping was not only a methodological exercise and an instrument of rebellion and resistance, but also a way of thinking about building new bridges and creating spaces to reconnect the distant communities of the “paramo” and the “happy communities” of Licto, who enjoy the benefits of irrigating their land with the well-tended waters of the Guarguallá River.

De Berkel river Encounters: Relations about biodiversity, mapping and cyanotypes

by Catalina Rey-Hernández & Laura Giraldo-Martínez 


On the 22nd of September, 2023, a citizen science event (De Berkel Home River Bioblitz) was hosted in the re-meandered area of De Berkel River next to the village of Almen, Netherlands. 

De Berkel Home River Bioblitz was realized as part of Catalina Rey-Hernández’s PhD project (Wageningen University of Research) and as part of the wider project “The Home River Bioblitz” ( 

A Home River Bioblitz is a global citizen science initiative documenting animals, plants, and fungi living in and around rivers. It is a collaboration among citizens, scientists, naturalists, river enthusiasts, and volunteers of all ages to conduct a field study of biodiversity over a short period of time to show the importance of free-flowing rivers as hosts of much of the world’s biodiversity. 

During this Bioblitz students from Wageningen University, Hogeschool van Hall Larenstein, ecologists from the Rijn en IJssel waterschap, historians, and other researchers, connected and explored the biodiversity of the Berkel River through the identification of species, participatory mapping, and creating ‘portraits of the river’. 


Biodiversity identification 

At the start of the day, we documented the biodiversity in and around the river through a digital tool called “iNaturalist”. 

iNaturalist an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other to learn about nature. This app helped us to identify plants and animals in the river to generate data for science and conservation. At the same time, by sharing our observations through this app, we were able to connect with the species of the river and to understand and sustain biodiversity through the practice of observing wild organisms and sharing information about them. 

Through a couple of hours we were able to identify 74 different species with 145 collective observations. 

Photos: Laura Giraldo y Carolina Cuevas, 2023

Graph: Species identified during De Berkel Home River Bioblitz, source:


Participatory mapping 

After collecting these observations we represented our findings through a participatory mapping activity where we spatially located the identified species and at the same time we reflected on other elements such as infrastructures, contamination, land use, human activities, agriculture, etc. And through that exercise we were able to re-construct connections and interactions between these different elements, understanding that the river is not only the water and its ecosystem but also its history and connection with other actors that are constantly interacting with it.    

This map also allowed us to share knowledge among us, co-creating a visual representation of De Berkel to understand the different river-territorial insights that each participant had about the river. The main objective was to co-create an eco-political map based on alternative visualization of spaces usually not represented by official state agencies. To do so, we gather around an initial canvas where we discuss, explain, and draw ecopolitical relations, landscape interventions, and territorial transformations. 

Photos: Laura Giraldo, 2023

Cyanotypes workshop with water from the Berkel River 

To conclude the day we did a special activity carried out by researcher Laura Giraldo based on a methodology created by the Colombian photographer Fernando Cruz in the Bogotá River Project developed by the entre—ríos network. With this method, we created portraits of the river using the same water samples. With that, we revealed images made in situ without a camera using the water of the Berkel. This workshop is a variation on the traditional way of making cyanotypes or blueprints. 

What is a cyanotype or “blueprint”? 

The cyanotyping (or blueprinting) process consists of reacting ultraviolet light to a chemical mixture. This mixture consists of ferric ammoniacal citrate and potassium ferricyanide diluted in water. The sun-printing process is produced by the incidence of the light against the negative. And the light that reaches the cyanotype through the translucent areas is what causes the photosensitive reaction showing those Prussian blue tones. 

Photos: Laura Giraldo, 2023

Finally, we closed with some discussions and reflections about the activities of the day. 

Seven women defenders of four rivers of the Magdalena-Cauca macrobasin shared their dreams and struggles in a threeday meeting in Medellín, Colombia

Aiming to amplify and support local voices around river defence, Riverhood co-organized the three-day event “Encuentro de Saberes: Mujeres, Montañas y Ríos”, which took place in Medellín from September 7 to 9, 2023.

This encounter was the launch of the project “Pensar con los ríos la Paz Ambiental: Estrategias comunitarias para la defensa de cuatro ríos de la macrocuenca Magdalena-Cauca en Colombia”, supported by the Colombo-German Institute for Peace and executed with research partners in Colombia.  You can read a short-report of the event here.

Voices of the Piatúa – a campaign to protect a free-flowing river in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Voices of the Piatúa – a campaign to protect a free-flowing river in the Ecuadorian Amazon

By Carlota Houart, September 2023

The Piatúa River is born in the Llanganates Mountains of Ecuador and runs through the Amazon rainforest. It is thought to be millions of years old and home to a vast diversity of animal and plant species, some of which have not yet been scientifically identified[1]. It is also one of the last free-flowing rivers of the Ecuadorian Amazon to have so far escaped negative human interference (e.g., from mining, pollution, or deforestation)[2]. The Piatúa’s riverbanks have been inhabited by more than twenty Kichwa communities for multiple generations, and there are ancient signs of human presence in the area found in petroglyphs carved on rocks along the course of the river. The river’s stones are, indeed, one of its most striking features: the Piatúa is known in Kichwa as Mayu waka rumi, “the river of sacred stones”, and it is believed by the local Kichwa communities to be a sacred, living being with healing powers, inherent wisdom, and its own guardian spirits[3].

The Piatúa River. Photograph by Carlota Houart

Yet, since 2014 the Piatúa has been threatened by a project from Ecuadorian energy company GENEFRAN S.A. (now called Elit Energy) to build a hydroelectric dam in the river. This project, which was originally approved by the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition of Ecuador, was quickly opposed by members of the Kichwa communities of Santa Clara (who have intimate cultural, historical, and spiritual relationships with the river); activists and environmental organizations; and other river lovers (such as practitioners of water sports like kayaking and rafting). Members of the communities denounced the project as having been pushed forward without their free, prior, and informed consent[4]; and complaints were raised against the environmental impact assessment conducted by the company, which was found to be very inaccurate by different scientific experts[5] and – according to local activists – actually based on data from a different river altogether[6]. The hydro dam would have significant impacts on the river, leading to the loss of an estimated 90% of its water volume and creating flood risks in adjacent rivers; seriously threatening its precious biodiversity; and putting at risk the livelihoods of the local Kichwa communities, as well as their spiritual and cultural ties with the Piatúa[7]. Furthermore, although the project is apparently part of Ecuador’s “green transition” plans, local activists claim that it is actually linked to existing plans to build a new oil extraction zone in the region (Block 28) and a new mining site in a nearby community, thereby constituting a source of financing for these extractive activities[8].

In response to the threat to the Piatúa, an activist group called Piatúa Resiste was formed in 2018, mobilized by young activists from Santa Clara and composed of Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies. Operations for the dam construction began in 2018, but they were instantly faced with peaceful resistance by the activists and members of the communities, and the case was taken to the courts. Making use of Ecuador’s constitutional chapter on Rights of Nature, the lawyers in support of the communities and of the river argued that both the rights of the Kichwa people and of the Piatúa itself were being violated.

Counter-cartography map of territorial conflicts in Santa Clara, Pastaza. Author: Darling Kaniras. Source:

The court case was permeated by political tensions and struggle, including the arrest of the judge originally responsible for denying an action of protection in favour of the communities and of the river, who was found to have taken bribes in order to push the hydro dam project forward. In connection to this event, the Provincial Court of Pastaza temporarily suspended the project, instructing the energy company to redo its environmental impact assessment and to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of the Kichwa communities of Santa Clara. Nevertheless, political elections in early 2023 saw the mayor of the municipality who originally paved the way for the hydro dam re-elected, causing renewed concern among the activists and opposers of the dam that the project might still be pushed forward.

Their latest strategy, in a combined effort between Piatúa Resiste and PONAKICSC (the official organization of the Pueblo Originario de la Nacionalidad Kichwa del Cantón de Santa Clara) has been to organize a campaign to self-declare the Piatúa as Cultural Heritage of Ecuador. The river defenders are now preparing a camp that will take place along the banks of the Piatúa, involving several of the local communities, from October to December 2023. Riverhood Project’s PhD researcher Carlota Houart, who is studying the topic of multispecies justice in the Piatúa (and in the river Maas, in the Netherlands) will be joining the camp as part of her fieldwork.

The campaign to declare the Piatúa cultural heritage of Ecuador. Source: PONAKICSC

The self-declaration by PONAKICSC of the Piatúa as Cultural Heritage of Ecuador is seen as one of the strongest possible strategies to ensure protection of the river and effectively halt the hydro dam project.

For more information on the Piatúa river case, you are invited to watch the short documentary “Piatúa Resiste”, by Indigenous Amazonian filmmaking group TAWNA:

Fieldwork in the Piatúa River. Photograph by Jessica Grefa









From outside to within

I’m Ilaria Carbellotti, an Italian master student in Organic Agriculture at Wageningen University. I’m currently doing fieldwork for my thesis in La Mata and Sempegua, two little fishermen villages of the Ciénaga de Zapatosa, the biggest wetland of Colombia.


When I arrived in the fieldwork area of La Mata it was quite a powerful experience.

The first day we went to visit the place where some women, “las componedoras,” clean the fish just brought to the shore by the many fishermen in the village.

Sitting on the ground, with very confident gestures they held the live fish in their hands, cut off their fins, and finally removed the entrails. I still remember the smell, and the sight… all too strong for me, especially as first thing in the morning. After five minutes of staring at them and feeling like a complete outsider, I started doing the typical thing any tourist would do: taking pictures and filming that scene so far from my reality.

After a week or two of living with the community and getting used to my new reality, I went fishing with Omaida and Marisol, two extraordinary fisherwomen. It was incredible. I did everything that one normally does here for a living, such as rowing, setting the trammel net at sunset and pulling it back at dawn, and taking the caught fish out of the net. Also, once back in La Mata, I found myself sitting on the same ground as the first day, learning how to gut fish and joking with those women whose hands were 100 times faster than mine. It felt normal to be all dirty, covered in fish guts, and a little sunburned. The funny thing was that this time it was me who was recorded by some locals. I think it was the first time for them to see a foreigner doing what I was doing.

The most precious thing about this place, about these villages, is that the inhabitants live in nature and can create a deep connection with the Ciénaga and with the people themselves. In fact, all the people I talked to, even those who sometimes don’t have food, told me that ‘la vida es sabrosa’ i.e., life is tasty. This makes me think that in these fishing villages, despite the many contrasts and difficulties, there is a lot of potential in terms of quality of life. In La Mata and Sempegua I found two very united villages, where people help each other in times of need, exchange products (such as fish and plantains), and are happy to open their doors to a foreign girl who speaks very ‘funny’ Spanish and comes from such a different reality. I am happy to say that I have many new families there, and the next time I visit Colombia I will know who to come back to.

PS: I have become so accustomed to their customs that I sometimes miss their typical breakfast: fried fish (usually bocachico) with arepas or yucca, and a big glass of fresh juice.

The Twelfth National Water Forum, Quito, Ecuador

Finally, the researchers of the Riverhood and River Commons projects and the Travelling Rivers initiative participated in the Twelfth National Water Forum, co-organized with Ecuadorian partner CAMAREN. More than 1000 policy-makers, grassroots leaders and researchers met, to discuss current challenges and possible alternatives for water governance, law and management in Ecuador. During the Forum and through a creative and surprising ‘flashmob’, another massive river counter-map was created: 50 meter long, representing individual but also shared rivers, river perspectives, threats and struggles, alternative river futures, counter-hegemonic visions.

Photo by Catalina Rey

International seminar “Ríos, Territorios y Poder: cartografía política y representaciones hidrosociales alternativas”, Riobamba, Ecuador

The Travelling Rivers workshop series was further complemented by the international seminar “Ríos, Territorios y Poder: cartografía política y representaciones hidrosociales alternativas”, organized by Riverhood and River Commons in Riobamba, Ecuador (1-4 July). Around 40 participants from academia and grassroots organizations met to learn about and discuss alternative hydro-territorial representation practices, concepts and processes (such as the Travelling Rivers initiative) that can support more democratic, fair and sustainable co-governance strategies for rivers.

Photo by Jeoren Vos

Travelling Rivers Initiative in Colombia and Ecuador

From April to June this year, fisher and peasant communities, social movements and activists-artists María Benítez and Vanessa Roa, and researchers from the Riverhood and River Commons projects, engaged in local counter-mapping workshops in four rivers: the Magdalena (case study of PhD researcher Juliana Sandoval), La Miel (Ana Maria Arbelaez), Bogotá (Laura Giraldo), Sumapaz (Sebastían Reyes) and the Guargalla y Alao rivers (Masters researchers Sebastián Silva, Susana Zavala, Meike Klarenbeek). The aim of these collective counter geographies and the Travelling Rivers initiative (coord. Bibiana Duarte, Rutgerd Boelens) was to illustrate and mobilize the knowledges, imaginaries and conflicts around these rivers that are generally hidden, but that are perceived and experienced every day by the communities that inhabit and depend on the mentioned rivers. Through bringing the mapping workshops and the maps themselves from one context to the other, the different experiences and struggles were woven together; connecting stories, concerns, debates and movements. Making rivers travel and promoting transnational solidarity.

To watch the teaser of these actions, click here.

Land of many faces

My name is Pieter van Dalen, and after three weeks in Medellín learning Spanish, I am spending the next few months in Bogotá. This city is known for its altitude (2640 meters), ‘cold climate,’ reserved Colombians, rich diversity of food, music, culture, and unfortunately, traffic problems. Tourists often pass through briefly, and most Colombians swear by Medellín, Cali, and the Caribbean coast. However, I feel at home in Bogotá and believe that the city has a lot to offer, especially if one looks beyond the traffic, climate, and initial impressions.

I have since traveled beyond Bogotá and seen more of Colombia. What strikes me is the incredible diversity and the different faces of this country. This is also the common thread in my first blog. Before I departed for Colombia, it was difficult for me to imagine what it would be like. Yet, you hear stories, research, and are informed by people around you. The perspective before and now provides an interesting view of how I understand Colombia.

NatureTake, for example, the landscape: Colombia has beaches, but also glaciers; rainforests, but also mountains with a unique Páramo ecosystem; urbanized cities, but also vast rural areas. So many different landscapes in one country, which is remarkable and gives this land a lot of character. I have been to the coast so far, where I celebrated Carnival. I lived in Medellín, with its always perfect climate, surrounded by a mountainous landscape and a city intertwined with nature. Additionally, I have seen mountains around Bogotá, but most of my time has been spent in Bogotá itself.

Photo by Pieter van Dalen


Colombia is a country with a long history tied to conflict, violence, and unrest. On the other hand, Colombians are incredibly friendly, kind, cheerful, and bring a warm energy with them. Something that some Dutch people might learn from. This friendliness also goes hand in hand with being attentive to each other, sharing what you have, and protecting each other from danger. Phrases like ‘Todo o nada’ or ‘Todo en la cama o en el suelo’ are sayings I have heard frequently. It basically means sharing everything, everyone gets the same, and we don’t leave anyone behind. At the same time, there are also bad people, and this has often been impressed upon me. It was a huge shock to realize that not only I am at risk in some places, but also the Colombians themselves. I have been warned enough times in different cities about the ‘danger’ that looms if you are in the wrong place and encounter the wrong person.

Photo by Pieter van Dalen


Living in a country where both nice and not-so-nice people reside is still sometimes difficult to grasp. It seems that this dichotomy has its roots in the intense period of conflict but also the enormous class inequality and economic system here. It’s not easy in Colombia to move up the social ladder, and the social hierarchy reinforces that significantly. Here in Bogotá, for example, you can easily live in a completely different world if you have money. You never take the bus, you don’t go beyond a certain street to the south, you go to a private school with a private driver, and you hang out with people from the same bubble. I am fortunate and privileged to be able to live in a good neighborhood and see how wealthy Colombians live. Additionally, I go further south, take the bus, and interact with Colombians who haven’t had it as good. The same applies to the city’s structure. One moment you’re walking in a good, bustling, friendly neighborhood. The next moment, you feel unsafe, the streets are in poor condition, houses are shabby, and there’s garbage on the streets. This is something that continues to amaze me as I walk around in major Colombian cities.

Photo by Pieter van Dalen

The small broccoli revolution

Hi, I am Meike! Normally, I am studying as a MSc student of Wageningen University in Wageningen, but currently, I live and work in Ecuador to execute fieldwork for my thesis investigation. A very special opportunity, as it provides me a chance to learn more about this beautiful country and her people, but also about its enormous injustices in terms of water distribution, and the way in which this affects nearly every aspect of people’s life. For this reason, I would like to take you along in one of the meetings I had with indigenous and rural communities from throughout the Nagsiche river basin (my study site). A meeting that, for me, served as an eye-opener in terms of understanding the everyday impacts of power imbalances in the Ecuadorian waterscape.

When we arrive to the meeting, in which we intend to discuss the change in rainfall patterns that community members believe to result from the use of chemicals sprayed out over the area by provincial airplanes, it immediately becomes clear that many people have gathered for this discussion. While normally, cars only pass through the river basin sporadically, currently, the street in front of the municipal building is packed with pick-up trucks that seem to have come from all directions. Around all these cars is a crowd that is filled with farmers, presidents of irrigation systems, and indigenous leaders. Once we moved inside, the people barely fit into the meeting room. Soon, all the chairs in the large room are filled, and when the benches on the side are occupied as well, still many people have not found a seat. As the meeting initiates a perfect 45 minutes late, first some other topics have to be discussed. However, when we reach the topic of the “bombarding of the clouds”, I can hear from the noise that comes from the crowd that this is what they have all gathered for. No surprise, if you perceive this from their belief that the agribusinesses in the area charter provincial airplanes to prevent the rain from falling in large parts of the river basin, while so many small farmers in the area suffer from severe water shortages and large inequities in their access to water.

Photo by Meike Klarenbeek

To calm down the tensions surrounding this topic, the provincial government initiated an investigation into the matter, of which the results are presented today. These results leave little to discuss: no known technique exists to stop rain from falling, no materials are found that would suggest that the agribusinesses in the area do have access to such a technique, and no permits have been granted by the airport to execute flights with any other objective than training pilots. Directly after the technician from the provincial water authority reaches the last words of this summation, one thing becomes very clear to me: this meeting is not about bombarding the clouds. Nor is it about technical (im)possibilities. This meeting is about so much more. This meeting, at least for those present here today, is about injustice, about hunger, about poverty. This meeting is about pent-up frustrations of not being seen, heard or helped. And, as we also know in the Netherlands: there is no scientific proof that is strong enough to deny any of these feelings.

As such, three hours of emotional speeches by indigenous leaders, small-scale family farmers, community leaders, and irrigation presidents follow. “While the broccoli-producing companies continue to grow, we suffer evermore. There is no water to support or production. There is not even money to send our kids to school.” “Our small producers die from starvation, while the broccoli companies continue business as usual.” As there are over 300 small agricultural producers in the room, and only one representative of the agribusinesses, the sentiments quickly turn into feelings of anger and despair. Within seconds, the discussion suddenly seems to turn into a small revolution. “The authorities promised to be here today, but where are they now? We are left on our own once again!” “There remains only one option for us: vamos a tomar las brocoleras! Let’s take over the broccoli companies!”

Photo by Meike Klarenbeek

Sara’s fieldwork in Sempegua, Colombia

I am Sara, a Master’s student in Biology and International Land & Water Management at WUR. I am currently writing my master’s thesis in Cienaga de Zapatosa, Colombia. Here, I am studying the impacts of the rhythms of the Cienaga and degradation processes on the village communities of Sempegua and La Mata. Sedimentation is a process that I will study in more detail using satellite imagery.

I am writing this blog from the fisherman’s village of Sempegua, located on a peninsula in Cienaga de Zapatosa, Colombia. As I write, cows, pigs, and chickens walk by. I have been here for a week now and I still can not get used to the slow pace of life. Many children and adults have the afternoon off and are chilling in the streets, while I transcribe an interview I did that morning with a member of the community council. I am here in Sempegua to study the impact of the Cienaga (marsh) on the community, but at the same time, the community has an impact on me.

I live in a house of locals, which is a completely different world from the Netherlands; the doors are made of curtains, and we shower with buckets of water. We wake up at 6 a.m., and shortly after we have a delicious big meal; bocachico (fish) with yucca is my favorite. Then it’s time to do interviews. Today I interviewed a fisherman who is very passionate about his Cienaga. He is part of several community organizations to create more unity in the village.

Since it gets very hot very quickly during the day, physical activity in the afternoon is limited. Lunch here is also much bigger than in the Netherlands. No boring sandwiches, but a huge hot meal. The children always have the afternoon off, so it gets noisy in the village again. There are no afternoon activities planned for them, so they mainly play in the street. It is interesting to see how differently the children are connected to the Cienaga compared to the older people. The elderly used to drink from the Cienaga, play in the Cienaga, and wash their clothes in the water. Now, the water is not clean enough for neither drinking nor washing. And rays restrict swimming in the Cienaga to the deep places that can only be reached by boat.

Franciska’s fieldwork in Zambia

Hello there! This is Franciska Sprong writing here. I am a master student from the program Aquaculture and Marine Resource Management at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Currently I am in Mongu, Zambia, to conduct fieldwork for my master thesis. This thesis is attached to Agness Musutu’s PhD, which is part of the River Commons project. I am investigating the fishermen’s perception of the spatio-temporal distribution of fish in the Barotse Floodplain.

Beginning of April I arrived in Zambia, just after the rainy season. The Barotse Floodplain was still covered in water, although the grass had overgrown most of the water. By now, the water is receding quickly, which leads to changes in habitats (Figure 1).

Today I am going to conduct a participatory mapping and hopefully, if time permits, some interviews as well. We will drive to Senanga, 100km south of Mongu where I am staying. My colleagues from WWF will fetch me, and then we go. They should have been here an hour ago, but that’s how things run here… flexibility is an asset. Oh, there is a car coming, yes, I think there they are. “Hello, good morning, musuhile cwani?” And off we go for a two-hour drive to this focus group of WWF.

We are received at a primary school just north of Senanga, and the people of the focus group were already waiting for us. I introduce myself in Silozi, and explained what we were going to do today. Fortunately, we also have a translator with us, because much more than introductions and greetings, I don’t know this Bantu language. It is amazing how people appreciate and enjoy when you as a white European, try to speak some words in their language. It is really a good start for a conversation, a mapping exercise, or an interview.

I ask them to draw a map of the area, with the river, the floodplain, and so on, during muunda (flood, February to April), and another map during mbumbi (low water, August to October). Subsequently, they can put the fish species they know in Silozi, in the right place in the map. The map helps me to understand their perception of the movement of the fish in the plain, and it gives a clear overall picture of everything going on during the different seasons. It is very nice to see them engaging in discussions about which species belong where, and which ones are the first to move out of the river into the plain when the water level starts rising. Afterwards, I thank them for their cooperation, we take a small break with drinks and snacks, and then I ask the fishers in this focus group (consisting of fishers and fish traders) whether I can interview them. That is fine with them, good! Four more interviews to go, on this very productive day.

After those interviews, it was time to go home, and on the way back, we stopped to buy and try some cassava from a lady selling it on the roadside. Wow, I feel so blessed that I have the opportunity to be in this country and culture as part of my study program. It enriched me so much and I have learned a lot on cross-cultural, academic, and personal levels.

Figure 1: Receeding water in the Barotse Floodplain. Photos taken on 31 May (top left), 14 June (top right), 27 June (bottom left) and 11 July 2023 (bottom right).


Participatory mapping with a focus group of WWF Zambia.


Focus group participating in mapping exercise.


Conducting an interview with a fisherman and the help of a translator.


A fisherman in action on the bank of the Zambezi river in Zambia.


Participatory map of the low water situation during “mbumbi” (August-October – on the left / February-April – on the right).

Travelling Rivers Initiative – counter mapping four Colombian rivers

The Travelling Rivers initiative, part of the Riverhood and River Commons projects, promotes transnational solidarity collaboration and transdisciplinary learning between different riverine cultures. Since April 2023, four Colombian rivers are traveling through María Benitez and mobile maps. María is a fisherwoman from the Magdalena River, a social leader, and an artist. Through the knowledge of grassroots Colombian organizations and river walks, María has been mapping forgotten problems and marginalized local struggles to enliven rivers. The stories and life experiences of the La Miel, Sumapaz, Bogotá, and Magdalena rivers were represented in the participatory counter-maps co-created and intertwined through María. She has mobilized not only the collective mapping but also video messages of the riverine communities, in which they share their efforts to enliven their rivers.

The first Travelling Rivers event took place in April, in Bolivia, a small town in the province of Caldas. During the cartography workshop, community members and members of the Environmental Peasant Movement (MACO in Spanish) reflected on the importance of water and the La Miel River for peasant communities and mapped the territorial transformations that occurred after the construction of the hydroelectric project ‘El Eden’ along the river, in 2017. The same month, members of the La Merced community aqueduct, located at the headwaters of the Bogotá River, highlighted the latest changes in the landscape with regard to the restoration of the paramo and its conservation. In May, the fishermen communities and riverine population of the Magdalena River (south of Bolívar) illustrated the various causes of the disconnections between the wetland systems and the main river. At the end of May, peasant organizations from Sumapaz presented their social struggles and resistance actions to defend their territory against the hydroelectric project, oil exploitation and strict conservationist measures.

The stories and life experiences of the La Miel, Sumapaz, Bogotá, and Magdalena rivers were represented in the participatory counter-maps co-created and intertwined through María. She has mobilized not only the collective mapping, but also video messages of the riverine communities, in which they share their efforts to enliven their rivers.

The Travelling Rivers has been supported and coordinated by Ana María Arbelaez, Laura Giraldo, Juliana Forigua, and Sebastian Reyes (Riverhood and River Commons PhD researchers), Leontien Cremmers, and the coordination team of Riverhood and River Commons projects.

To find out more about this initiative, check out here the photo report illustrating the experiences in these four rivers.

Piquete de río en el Salto de Tequendama convoca a activistas y cuidadores del agua para honrar las memorias y el futuro del río Bogotá

PhD researcher Laura Giraldo-Martínez, who is investigating the materialization of diverse socio-ecological memories in river infrastructures in the headwaters of the Bogotá River through an action research approach, has been engaged in a fruitful collaboration with the entre-ríos collective. During the past months, Laura and the collective have carried out a series of river walks along the Bogotá River, and, more recently, have realized an event.

Inspired by the efforts of various care actions, last April 26, the researcher and the collective met at Tequendama Falls to exchange restorations and reparation experiences. This event marked a significant point in a long-term project which aims to co-create a digital platform using film, podcasts, and publications to tell the stories of inspirational community leaders living and working on the Bogotá River. Click here to know more about what happened that day (in Spanish).

Photo by Gabriela Molano

Día mundial del Agua: de la ONU a nuestra mesa

By Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo for  La Silla Llena. Ana is a PhD researcher in the Riverhood project, Wageningen University.

— Somos agua

Si hay algo que nos conecta como humanidad es nuestra dependencia del agua: todos los días sentimos sed, lavamos y cocinamos alimentos, bañamos nuestros cuerpos, cepillamos nuestros dientes y evacuamos nuestros desechos. A pesar de esta necesidad común, existen grandes brechas sociales en los medios para satisfacerla.

Globalmente, hay al menos 2.000 millones de personas que utilizan agua con heces, siendo el consumo de este tipo de agua la causa de al menos 485.000 muertes al año por diarrea, según cifras de la Organización Mundial para la Salud.

En Colombia, 3,8 millones de personas utilizan agua que no es apta para consumo humano, según el Informe del Sistema de Vigilancia de la Calidad del Agua. Esto representa un 11,8% respecto a la población participante en el estudio, el cual no incluyó datos de 18,2 millones de personas ¿De esta población cuánta no tendrá acceso a agua potable? Además del alto porcentaje que revela el estudio, la falta de información resulta preocupante.

Cifras como las anteriores son ejemplos que ponen en evidencia que, frente a la necesidad común de acceso al agua hay una gran diversidad de realidades y disputas internacionales y locales. Intereses privados se apropian del agua que abastece comunidades rurales, se prioriza el uso del agua para uso comercial (aunque la ley diga lo contrario) y se destruyen los ecosistemas que hacen posible la reproducción y el mantenimiento del ciclo hídrico.

Frente a este panorama es clave abrir espacios de diálogo social, tanto a nivel internacional como local, para crear conciencia sobre las principales amenazas que acechan este bien común y pensar en alternativas para afrontarlas.

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Ilustración: Cristian Olmos Herrera


Día mundial de acción por los ríos: ¿Qué estamos haciendo en Colombia?

By Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo, co-authored by Juliana Forigua-Sandoval and Laura Giraldo-Martínez  for  La Silla Llena. Ana is a PhD researcher in the Riverhood, and Juliana and Laura are PhD researchers in the River Commons project, both at Wageningen University.

El 14 de marzo se conmemora el día internacional de acción por los ríos. El propósito de esta fecha es promover y visibilizar el cuidado y la protección de la principal fuente de agua dulce del planeta e invitar a la ciudadanía a que se sume a los esfuerzos colectivos para defender los ríos.

En Colombia, los ríos están bajo diversas presiones que incluyen intereses de industrias extractivas, hidroeléctricas, contaminación, agroindustria y expansión urbana, las cuales deben entenderse en contextos particulares y teniendo en cuenta las disputas entre distintos actores por controlar el territorio y sus fuentes hídricas.

Al considerar estos retos, en este día de conmemoración de acción por los ríos, queremos resaltar iniciativas y acciones de diferentes organizaciones, comunidades, familias y habitantes de territorios ribereños.

Los esfuerzos colectivos para rescatar, cuidar y defender los ríos brotan en el día a día y conectan diversas experiencias y formas de habitarlos para hacer frente a una visión netamente capitalista y antropocentrista.

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Photo: Fishermen in Ciénaga El Llanito, Barrancabermeja. Laura Giraldo-Martínez.

Revitalizar el río Bogotá: redes y alianzas para su cuidado

By Laura Giraldo-Martínez for the newspaper EL ESPECTADOR. PhD researcher, River Commons project, Wageningen University, Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Asociación Ambiente & Sociedad.

El sistema de ríos y de humedales de la región de Bogotá constituye el núcleo ecológico de la geografía, la historia y la memoria de la ciudad de Bogotá y del departamento de Cundinamarca. El río Bogotá, con 375 km longitudinales, atraviesa el departamento de Cundinamarca de norte a sur, y desemboca finalmente en el río Magdalena, principal arteria fluvial del país.  La región de su nacimiento se encuentra entre 3.250 y 3.400 m.s.n.m., en el páramo de Guacheneque, en un ecosistema de alta montaña ubicado en el municipio de Villapinzón. Doce kilómetros aguas abajo, el río comienza a recibir residuos de curtiembres y canteras, plaguicidas y fertilizantes, así como descargas de las industrias, comercios y viviendas de la Sabana, convirtiéndolo en uno de los ríos más contaminados del mundo. Pese haber sido declarado muerto durante décadas, las personas, comunidades y las alianzas público-privadas, desde su cabecera en las tierras altas pasando por el bosque de niebla del Salto del Tequendama hasta su desembocadura, están proponiendo acciones para su cuidado y recuperación.

En alianza entre la Universidad de Wageningen, en Países Bajos, la Asociación Ambiente & Sociedad y la Universidad Nacional de Colombia, sede Bogotá, se está desarrollando un proyecto de investigación doctoral en la cabecera del río Bogotá, centrado en las formas de gobernanza y las acciones y proyectos que están posibilitando la recuperación de esta red fluvial y en las relaciones comunitarias y alianzas público-privadas que están haciendo posible su restauración, rehabilitación y conservación.

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Nacimiento del río Bogotá, páramo de Guacheneque. Foto: Laura Giraldo-Martínez