Scientists and activists collaborate to bring hard data into advocacy

The idea came from an improbable place. We were in a speed boat on the Sinú river in 2008, in the North of Colombia, the heart of a risky territory that in those times was dominated by paramilitary factions and drug trafficking groups.

“What we lacked here was a hydrologist,” one of the leaders of the campaign against the damming of the river said to me, over the noise of the boat’s motor. The Campaign had ended in failure when, in 1993, the Colombian government built the Urrá Dam.

The leader was referring to the lack of basic information, information that would have allowed activists and those directly affected by the project to anticipate the profound impacts that the dam would have on the culture, economy and the very capacity to survive of the indigenous peoples Embera Katío, who lived around the river. When we went there, fifteen years after the dam had been built, the impacts were painfully visible: a good portion of the Embera had been forcibly displaced by the hunger and the violence that the dam brought in its wake, and so our judicial and social scientific work was limited to documenting those harms and demanding that the government compensate the people.

Flickr/CIAT/(CC BY-SA 2.0)(Some Rights Reserved).

The limitations of what we can do as human rights academic-activists are profound in cases where what matters is a full understanding of the effects.

Although the visits resulted in a book and in a series of judicial actions that helped, in some way, to make these effects visible and palliate them, the words of the campaign leader never left my mind. What remained with me as well was the sensation of impotence. The limitations of what we can do as human rights academic-activists are profound in cases where what matters is a full understanding of the effects—and this depends more on “hard” disciplines such as biology, hydrology, or public health. Examples of such questions include: “What is the long-term effect on the water sources that an open pit mine can have?”; “How clean is the energy produced by a dam?”; or “How serious is the contamination of rivers caused by illegal mining?” Without scientific evidence, all of these critical questions remain blowing in the wind.

Because of this gap, in 2013 I conceived the idea of an advisory group of scientists and created proposal for a pilot version of a Scientific Panel that would support Dejusticia and other organizations by providing independent opinions on issues like those noted above. Thanks to a philanthropic foundation willing to support the experiment, we explored, over two years, what would be the best working model, and we took into consideration relevant experiences elsewhere, such as that of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

After organizing meetings and running a workshop with natural scientists who were potentially interested, three challenges became clear. First, they hesitated to get involved with lawyers and social scientists who were activists, for fear of seeming biased. For several of them, the concern about scientific independence, however, came hand in hand with another opposing concern: the possibility that working with us would prevent them from obtaining contracts with corporations in the future.

"The results of the pilot phase of the panel were not the ones we expected."

Second, several hydrologists, geologists, biologists, physicians, experts in satellite images, and other professionals with whom we met had difficulties in designing a way to produce rapid and cost-effective interventions, such as the ones that are essential in a field like human rights, with its urgent rhythm and limited budgets. The results of the pilot phase of the panel were not the ones we expected, because several scientists insisted that only ambitious studies, costing millions of dollars, could provide useful data to draw conclusions about issues such as the impacts of a mine.

The third challenge is a combination of time and resources. Neither the panel nor Dejusticia can aspire to employ scientists full time, at least for now. Because of this, the Panel depended, in its pilot version, on the willingness of its participants to donate their time pro bono.

The valuable lessons learned from the pilot led to decisions that made the panel viable. The decisive step consisted in turning the three obstacles we identified into challenges of institutional design that we resolved in a working session of small interdisciplinary groups, facilitated by the Human Rights Lab, using methodologies drawn from design thinking.  The parameters of the solutions we sought were that any model for the Panel’s operation guarantee the scientific independence of its members; that it be a cost effective and time efficient initiative; and that it combine pro bono volunteer work with paid work.

The model that emerged has some commonalities with university human subjects review panels. Dejusticia submits projects and cases to the panel, hiring graduate students in the “hard” sciences to produce briefs on the cases summarizing relevant data, highlighting the key scientific issues at stake, and allowing members of the panel to prepare for the panel’s quarterly meeting.  The members of the panel deliberate and offer recommendations about which cases to prioritize, according to their relevance and viability.  They then recommend the type of additional study or small scale and short term intervention, such as expert reports for courts and short scientific reports for diverse audiences (including the media, affected communities and policy makers), that might be useful to answer a scientific question relevant to the case. If one of the members has the interest to take on this task, she or he can volunteer to carry it out. Otherwise, the panel recommends other scientists for the task. In either case, the additional panel-recommended study is paid, as are the hours that the members of the panel dedicate to the meetings.

This format has worked successfully thus far, and the panel is receiving more and more inquiries from organizations throughout Latin America. To date, the panel has participated in a case related to an open pit mine in southern Colombia, in a case about the threat of destruction of swamplands by a highway near the Caribbean Sea, on one related to mercury contamination of one of the principal rivers of the Colombian Pacific, and on the first litigation in Latin America aimed at holding governments to their international commitments to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. In all these cases, the collaboration of experts from the “hard” sciences, social sciences, and human rights advocacy has helped balance out the asymmetries of information amongst actors in the cases. It has also promoted an informed public debate and has provided information directly relevant to the work of Dejusticia and other human rights advocacy organizations.