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Examining knowledge and epistemic justice in the design of nature-based solutions for water management

  • Johan Arango-Quiroga ,

    Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Software, Validation, Visualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America

  • Alaina Kinol,

    Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Software, Validation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America

  • Laura Kuhl

    Roles Formal analysis, Methodology, Supervision, Validation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliations School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America, International Affairs Program, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America


Over the last decade, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for water management have gained traction as triple-win options for climate action due to their ability to address social, economic, and environmental challenges. Recent developments in the literature of NbS have resulted in a body of work addressing questions about knowledge and justice. In line with these developments, this paper proposes the Knowledge and Epistemic Injustice in NbS for Water Framework (KEIN Framework) to identify the production of epistemic injustices in the design of NbS for water management. The KEIN framework draws on questions about knowledge and power raised by Avelino and five mechanisms that lead to epistemic injustice based on work by Fricker and Byskov. We apply the framework to examine a proposal presented to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) that included both NbS for water management and Indigenous People in South America. Rather than being an analysis of the project or the GCF per se, the goal of this analysis is to demonstrate the utility of the framework to analyze proposals during the design stage. We argue that proposals submitted to the GCF are reflective of a broadly held international environmental logic. We also identify indications that knowledge was organized and treated in a way that favored external actors at the expense of local actors. Our analysis also revealed prejudices against people’s epistemic capacities, with potential implications for how the generation of local knowledge is adopted on the ground. The framework illustrates how the design of NbS may minimally disrupt power relations due to the influential role of some actors in generating knowledge. This study contributes to the operationalization of epistemic justice in designing NbS. Through the application of the proposed framework, the study contributes to future work advancing the construction of epistemically just NbS.

1. Introduction

Over the past decade, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for water management have gained traction as triple-win options for climate action due to their ability to address social, economic, and environmental challenges. NbS can be designed or adopted, however, in ways that reinforce existing inequalities or unsustainable practices through, for instance, the promotion of monocropping in place of traditionally-held local agricultural practices or the creation of a carbon trading system that does not consider locally lived experiences, relies on the land marginalized people have historically managed, and vindicates big fossil fuel polluters [1,2]. Unjust NbS are likely to result from a failure to account for differences in power and knowledge among people involved in and affected by NbS [3].

Water is a critical and non-substitutable resource for resilience and sustainable development [4], but water access, safety, and security are increasingly driving vulnerabilities for many communities [5] as climate change unevenly dries and floods regions. Simultaneously, vulnerable communities experience the dispossession of water resources by more powerful interests through water grabbing for mining, hydropower, energy, and urban water supply [6]. Due to these dynamics, water management interventions, in particular, have been historically unjust, especially because decision-makers often exclude Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK) and other types of relevant knowledge in decisions and project design [7,8].

This paper is motivated by the limited attention that justice has received in the NbS literature [9], particularly epistemic justice. Despite recent literature analyzing knowledge and justice in NbS [3,1012], epistemic justice remains a marginal topic. In line with these recent articles examining power and knowledge in NbS, this article examines the potential for NbS design to promote epistemic justice and identifies mechanisms through which epistemic injustices can take place. To facilitate greater analysis of these issues and better understand how actors involved in the design of NbS might commit or reproduce epistemic injustices, we propose a framework (the KEIN Framework) inspired by the empirical questions that Avelino’s research raises about power and knowledge [13] in conjunction with Fricker’s and Byskov’s mechanisms that lead to epistemic injustice [14,15]. Avelino’s questions address how knowledge is treated and used during the design stage, which allows us to identify the types of knowledge included in NbS and their underpinning ideologies, normativities, and assumptions while examining how power relations impact the generation, organization, and management of knowledge. The five mechanisms by which epistemic injustices occur, based on the work by Fricker and Byskov, link questions about power and knowledge with the presence of, or the potential systemic conditions that can lead to the reproduction of, epistemic injustices.

While motivated by the desire to increase epistemic justice in NbS, the framework focuses on the identification of epistemic injustices, because analytically, it is easier to identify injustices rather than the presence of justice. We apply this framework to a proposal to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) that included both NbS for water management and Indigenous People in South America. Rather than being an analysis of the GCF as a fund or the specific project, we use this case to illustrate the potential utility of the framework. The KEIN analytical framework can help detect and combat epistemic injustices when they occur during the framing of the problem, design, and other stages of the NbS. It enables users to critically engage with questions including: how are the different types of knowledge treated, organized, or used in proposals for NbS seeking to build climate-resilient water management practices? Is the knowledge held by outsider actors, such as international institutions who play a key role in the development of NbS, favored at the expense of local knowledge in the design of NbS? Are prejudices against local people’s epistemic capacities present in the design of NbS? And, do proposals of NbS projects provide indications that ILK are excluded from the collective body of knowledge?

The KEIN framework seeks to explicitly embody the inherent political and contested nature of knowledge and its role in designing NbS. It can also help draw conclusions as to whether the NbS in question is upholding two key elements of a successful NbS–people and biodiversity [1]–by benefitting the people most impacted by the intervention in a just, equitable, and sustainable way while creating a plural knowledge system that allows the integration of different ways of relating to nature.

2. Background

2.1 Nature-based solutions for water management

NbS can contribute to efforts to address climate change and achieve sustainable development goals if they are implemented justly [16]. The International Union for Conservation of Nature definition of NbS reflects the interconnectedness of climate and societal challenges. NbS are defined as “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges (e.g., climate change, food and water security or natural disasters) effectively and adaptively, [while] simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits” [17, p. 2]. NbS for water management refers to practices that use natural processes to improve water availability, water quality, and/or reduce risks from and vulnerability to weather-related events such as floods and droughts [18]. Some of these solutions include riparian buffer strips, the construction or restoration of wetlands and/or mangroves, reforestation, green roofs, dry toilets, and soil management practices that improve moisture retention and water recharging capacities [19,20].

Human activities and climate change represent major threats to water availability, biodiversity, and social prosperity. About half of the global population lives in places with a high risk of water insecurity [21]. The main human activities driving negative impacts on global water availability are irrigation, agricultural expansion, and urbanization [22]. Land-use activities disrupt landscapes and the waterflows and water resources, which ultimately impacts water availability and local ecosystems [23]. Biodiversity loss in water ecosystems is also a major concern. Freshwater populations have higher rates of loss compared to terrestrial ecosystems and fish vertebrate populations, including fish and amphibians, have fallen by 69 percent between 1970 and 2018 [24]. These challenges are compounded by powerful actors controlling and diverting water resources for their own benefit at the expense of local communities [25].

Climate change, additionally, can disrupt water resources and ecosystems with social implications. Researchers have found that changes in precipitation patterns cause streamflow changes that have a more severe impact on future water crises than previously thought [26]. Due to sea level rise, saltwater intrusion makes land inadequate for farming, thus influencing social choices, such as migration [27]. Extreme weather events, e.g., flooding, droughts, and continued glacier loss, are major disruptors in hydrological flows [22]. Higher precipitation in shorter periods of time or longer periods of drought contribute to the destruction of the natural resources that provide communities with livelihoods and social meaning [2830]. These examples illustrate the important role that NbS for water management play in simultaneously responding to climate change, human well-being, and biodiversity.

2.2 Nature-based solutions and indigenous and local knowledge

NbS are not only technical solutions but also social and politically contested interventions. Depending on who and whose knowledge is accounted for during the design of NbS, these interventions can contribute to unjust outcomes, the unjust judgment of people’s epistemic capacities, unfair denial of knowers’ rights and their knowledge, and the exacerbation or continuation of their historical marginalization. This leads to a moral and ethical imperative to engage all relevant actors in the creation and adoption of NbS that “foster ownership, empowerment, and wellbeing of the local stewards” [1, p. 1521, 31].

ILK refers to “the knowledge and know-how accumulated across generations, which guide human societies in their innumerable interactions with their surrounding environment” [32, p. 69]. It is widely recognized that ILK is valuable for NbS. Global institutions critical for the advocacy and deployment of NbS recognize ILK as a disseminator of practices that build sustainability and resilience [3335]. Indigenous People and local communities (IPLC) have historically used their knowledge to manage and steward land and water resources while protecting global biodiversity [3638]. ILK has been critical in responding to drastic changes in precipitation by enabling the development and adoption of practices that decrease water inputs [39]. Including ILK is crucial for supporting stewardship, improving adaptive capacity and management, incorporating equity, creating meaningful opportunities for empowerment, and enabling longevity [1] (Table 1). Despite the recognition of its value, ILK has not always been integrated into the design of NbS.

Table 1. Value of indigenous and local knowledge for nature-based solutions for water management.

The hegemonic position of western worldviews in environmental governance [48] has contributed to framings of nature that exclude different “ways of knowing and relating to nature” [3, p. 3]. As a result, the inclusion of reciprocal relations in NbS, which are crucial to ILK, are limited [49,50]. However, employing these reciprocal approaches can help bridge the current knowledge gap in designing and planning NbS with a more eco-centric focus [51]. Framings of NbS that relegate ILK to the sidelines also impact how nationwide climate policies structure NbS in ways that do not support or promote Indigenous self-determination [50]. Other challenges include: 1) gaps in the literature in which ILK assessments from the Arctic are overrepresented relative to Latin America and other regions in the Global South, 2) insufficient resources to assess ILK, and 3) lack of policy engagement with multiple knowledge systems [52]. It is not surprising, therefore, that the integration of different ways of knowing in NbS and their contribution to outcomes that go beyond incremental change has been limited [3].

2.3 Epistemic justice

The treatment of knowledge has important implications for creating just NbS and mitigating or preventing epistemic injustices. Epistemic justice occurs when an individual or a group of people are treated equally as knowers, whereas an epistemic injustice occurs when an individual or epistemic group or community’s knowledge is unfairly valued based on prejudices about that individual [14,15]. Epistemic injustices include sexism that excludes women from scientific research or decision-making processes, racism that discounts Indigenous or marginalized groups’ knowledge, and climate colonialism [5355]. For NbS, there is a danger of not treating local communities as agents who have rich local knowledge, capable of exercising choice and decision-making, or of labeling them as backward, ignorant, or incapable of being at the driver’s seat of NbS projects [1,56]. Building on Fricker’s and Byskov’s work [14,15], Table 2 defines five mechanisms through which epistemic injustices can occur. Given the importance of context in NbS, prejudiced or exclusionary framings of ILK limit the treatment of lived experiences as knowledge that provides “insight into patterns, common behaviors, challenges, and barriers among individuals who share similar experiences” [57, p. 2].

Table 2. Five Mechanisms through which epistemic injustices can occur.

2.4 Implications of epistemic justice for other dimensions of justice

Epistemic justice is inherently intertwined with four dimensions of justice: distributive, procedural, recognitional, and restorative [58,59]. Epistemic justice contributes to distributional justice in terms of the credibility given to actors in relation to each other [60]. Epistemic justice also requires the just distribution of educational goods and services that enable people to access information, learn, and generate knowledge [61]. Building more epistemically just NbS can contribute to the fair allocation of rights, duties, risks, hazards, and harms. Conversely, the unjust distribution of credibility can have adverse distributional effects. The Flint Water Crisis that particularly affected Flint, Michigan’s Black residents is an example of the connection between epistemic justice with clear distributive impacts, where the community’s knowledge about the presence of lead in their water was not given credibility by officials [62].

Epistemic justice also contributes to building procedural justice. This dimension of justice is enhanced when the design of NbS incorporates relevant knowledge, treats individuals with dignity, is perceived as trustworthy, and is applied without prejudice to all individuals regardless of their identity [63,64]. NbS that are locally apt and co-produced by partners include multi-level governance, and particularly IPLC, who together negotiate ethics, values, needs, and ontologies to overcome existing power imbalances and have the potential to contribute to broad, long-term visions of just processes of social change [6567]. Even when procedures claim to be just and neutral [63], questioning the discounting of knowledge and lived experiences during the various stages through which NbS come to fruition is crucial. When participation is just a formality where boxes are ticked [1] or where consultation and informed prior consent take place after key decisions have already been made [12], NbS risk failing to meaningfully include people who have been traditionally marginalized, such as IPLC.

Epistemic and recognitional justices are also entwined. NbS that prioritize recognitional justice meaningfully account for knowledges and lived experiences of all relevant actors, acknowledge IPLC institutions, the provision of resources to marginalized groups, and the fairness of government-to-government relations [68]. Promoting epistemic justice can help recognize IPLC’s ability to withstand, respond, and adapt to the imperialist, colonialist, and capitalist systems imposed on them [69]. In situations of epistemic justice, equal respect does not depend on conforming to the norms of the dominant group or the majority [70]. Instead, it involves completely recognizing diverse sources and streams of knowledge contributing to constructing pluriverse systems of knowledge [71]. When prejudiced views of non-western epistemologies prevent understanding the contexts in which IPLC have endured lengthy and continued marginalization and subordination [72], NbS can fail to build both epistemic and recognitional justice and reinforce paternalistic dynamics.

NbS that build epistemic justice can help answer the three foundational questions of restorative justice: who has been harmed, what those who have been harmed need, and who is responsible for meeting those needs [73,74]. NbS that build epistemic justice can also contribute to restorative justice by providing guidance on how to create the substantive means necessary for people to have prosperous lives by, for instance, paying reparations, giving land back to Indigenous Peoples and those who have been displaced from their homes, or establishing grievances mechanisms [17,75]. Without including ILK in the design of NbS in ways that intend to redress harms, these solutions risk being perceived as illegitimate.

2.5 Power and knowledge

Knowledge is inherently intertwined with power, so it is necessary to understand how relevant or related knowledge is utilized [13]. Knowledge is not independent of context, time, or location [71,76]. Relations are factors that shape the production of knowledge. Actors in dominant positions use “narratives, rhetoric and argumentation” to shape and establish meanings as the prevailing “truth” [77, p. 1252]. This process, referred to as the legitimization of knowledge, together with regulation, force, and market dynamics, represents a form of power that enables the exclusion of particular groups from accessing water and land resources [78].

This knowledge can “be (ab)used to exercise power in/over” [13, p. 440] decision-making processes where these projects are designed, funded, implemented, and monitored. For instance, multi-stakeholder partnerships have been found to favor professional knowledge that tends to disregard the social burdens created by NbS [10]. In stormwater management projects, favoring hydrology and landscape disciplines comes at the expense of biodiversity and ecology whereas in the creation of urban green spaces, local community knowledge is excluded to favor international consultants [12]. These examples show how the organization and control of knowledge is “an important dimension of power” where “the diffusion of new ideas and information can lead to new patterns of behavior and prove to be an important determinant” of policy development and coordination [79, pp. 2–3]. These cases are also exemplary of how the legitimation of some knowledges facilitates the exclusion of others [77]. That is why even when ILK is considered in proposals, concerns remain about whether ILK is understood on its own terms [80] or treated narrowly in terms of participation and inclusion, potentially overlooking the quality of engagement and incorporating ILK at the right time [10,12].

To ensure NbS embrace just processes, those involved in framing, designing, and implementing NbS must recognize that avoiding epistemic injustices requires building social equality. To accomplish this, NbS should prevent “new patterns of unequal power,” where “reasonable efforts and avoid[ing] bad faith” will not suffice [81, p. 4]. That is why valuing, incorporating, and centering the experiences of those knowers who have been, and remain, marginalized is critical to building locally-led NbS that redistribute power such that communities gain control over their own environment [82]. NbS that foster epistemic justice necessarily move away from technocratic solutions to place more emphasis on individual and social learning [83]. This is especially important for NbS projects that are meant to be heavily based on “providing human well-being” [17, p. 2].

Avelino’s framework for studying power is a helpful approach to examine how knowledge is treated and whether those leading NbS are (ab)using knowledge to exercise power [13]. One section in Avelino’s framework addresses the interrelatedness of power and knowledge to propose a set of empirical questions (Table 3). Using these questions to analyze NbS is appropriate for two reasons. First, NbS are an example of a process of social change and innovation. As opposed to more traditional gray infrastructure and technology investments, NbS are often considered an innovative approach to sustainable development [8486] and framed as political interventions with an explicit goal of addressing social challenges [59]. Second, using the specific questions Avelino raises about power and knowledge can serve as a basis to draw connections between the treatment of knowledge and the mechanisms through which epistemic injustices occur. Without an explicit identification of these types of injustices, they might remain concealed, preventing the development of mechanisms to combat them.

Table 3. The role of power and knowledge in the design of NbS.

2.6 The knowledge and epistemic injustice for NbS for water (KEIN) framework

In this study, we propose the Knowledge and Epistemic Injustice for NbS for Water Framework (KEIN Framework) (Fig 1). The KEIN Framework aims to improve our understanding of 1) how knowers and their knowledges are treated and 2) how epistemic injustices impact the contribution of ILK to NbS. More specifically, the KEIN framework uses Avelino’s questions on power and knowledge to analyze epistemic justice in the design of NbS. Table 3 introduced these five questions regarding: kinds of knowledge, co-evolution with power, organization, change, and mobilization. These questions help reveal how the different mechanisms lead to epistemic injustices during the design of the NbS. For instance, analyzing kinds of knowledge allows for the identification of when ILK and other types of knowledges are framed in ways that implicitly or explicitly underlie prejudices against ILK and marginalized people. The KEIN framework intersects these questions with the mechanisms that lead to epistemic injustices (Table 2) to provide structure for the analysis of how injustices compromise the different values of ILK for NbS: stewardship, adaptive capacity and management, equity, empowerment, and duration (Table 1). Prejudiced views against ILK, for instance, impact whether people’s expertise about their own agricultural practices is included in the design of NbS with potential implications for stewardship and duration. By employing the KEIN Framework, our aim is to find opportunities to build epistemic justice. This can be achieved through actions like recognizing the importance of integrating diverse ways of knowledge or implementing innovative strategies that break away from previous unjust practices.

Fig 1. The Knowledge and epistemic injustice for NbS for water framework—KEIN framework.

The KEIN Framework uses questions connecting knowledge and power (columns) to articulate how each mechanism of epistemic injustice (rows) devalue Indigenous and Local Knowledge for NbS (in bold and italics). The examples included in the intersections of this table are not exhaustive. These examples are representative of multiple ways that the KEIN Framework can help highlight how epistemic injustices can occur while compromising the different values of ILK for NbS.

3. Methods

We demonstrate the potential value of the KEIN framework through a case study of a project proposal submitted to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Our aim is to use this case study as an illustrative example of how the KEIN framework can be used to determine epistemic injustices being committed as well as identify actions that contribute to promoting more epistemically just NbS.

3.1 Case study selection

As the largest multilateral source of dedicated climate finance for developing countries, analyzing one of the GCF-funded NbS for water management projects provides an illustrative case of how international climate finance structures NbS in ways that reflect the dominant logics of international development projects. The proposal is publicly available data that provides meaningful information on NbS at the design stage. Established under the UNFCCC framework, the GCF is governed by 12 board members representing Global North nations and 12 board members representing Global South nations. The majority of contributions to the GCF come from countries in the Global North, although there have also been contributions from nations in the Global South, regional governments, and even one city. In 2010, the initial funding mobilized pledges for $10.3 billion dollars; the first replenishment in 2019 gathered $10 billion in pledges; as of July 2023, five countries have pledged $2.7 billion to the second replenishment [87,88]. The GCF supports developing countries with financial resources to implement mitigation and adaptation projects, including projects that utilize NbS. The types of NbS for water that the GCF has supported include wetland restoration, water conservation, river restoration, intercropping, rainfed irrigation, and green roofs [89]. As of August 2022, the GCF had invested a total of USD 489 million in water security projects following two paths: 1) enhancing water conservation, water efficiency, and water re-use, and 2) strengthening integrated water resources management [90].

Proposals submitted to the GCF are reviewed and approved by the board based on six criteria: potential for a) impact, b) paradigm shift, and c) sustainable development; d) the needs of the recipient; e) country ownership; and f) efficiency and effectiveness [91], which have important connections to knowledge and epistemic justice. Impact determines the project’s contribution to achieving GCF’s mitigation and adaptation goals through quantitative and qualitative information such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions or the number of direct and indirect beneficiaries. For epistemic justice, who and whose knowledge and lived experiences are included in these indicators can have important implications for how, for instance, rights, harms, participation, and decision-making power are justly distributed. Paradigm shift determines the project’s potential for knowledge generation and learning. As part of this criterion, knowledge is characterized as a vehicle to innovate, replicate, and upscale solutions at sub-national and national scales [89,91]. The needs of the recipient are defined in terms of the state of vulnerability of a country’s population, which is relevant for the knowledge and lived experiences of vulnerable populations that may be excluded from collective understandings of vulnerability. Country ownership considers local institutions’ capacity to engage with relevant actors and partners, which has important implications for how knowledge is collected, managed, and organized. Across these criteria, scholars have argued that the dominant logics of science and the market have shaped the GCF and marginalized the normative and political aspects of vulnerability [9294]. These dominant logics can also limit the possibility to articulate the normative and political aspects of knowledge.

Our case study is a project in the region of La Mojana, Colombia (FP 056: Scaling up climate resilient water management practices for vulnerable communities in La Mojana). This project proposes climate-resilient water management practices for water availability and quality because flooding and droughts are major concerns in this part of the country. This region sits in a deltaic plain in the north of Colombia and, due to climate change, is projected to become increasingly drier. Increasing dry periods create vulnerability that is exacerbated by forecasted increased precipitation in upstream regions [95]. The project is an intriguing case as it advocates for prioritizing participation, which marks a departure from previous experiences where government-led initiatives failed to involve diverse actors, such as IPLC, in the development of regional resilience and disaster risk management programs. This approach is presented to the GCF as an innovative element that enables a paradigm shift.

This proposal includes three NbS for water management including rainwater harvest technologies, a wetland community restoration plan, and the creation of climate-resilient agroecosystems. The proposal also includes the improvement of 96 existing micro aqueducts (installing filters and replacing current pumps with solar-powered ones), the provision of training to community members, and efforts to improve the existing early warning system.

3.2 Analysis

The analysis is based on the project proposal that is publicly available on GCF’s website [96]. The proposal was coded by two coders using our proposed framework in NVivo software. We analyzed the coded text through content analysis first to systematically identify instances of the five mechanisms that lead to epistemic injustice. For each instance of a mechanism, we then applied the framework to code how considerations of power and knowledge can inform understanding of epistemic injustice, with attention to how the epistemic injustices compromise the value of ILK.

4. Results

4.1 Overview of the findings

In this section, we analyze the evidence that epistemic injustices are present in the case study using our proposed framework (Fig 1). Our results are organized around each of the five mechanisms through which epistemic injustices can occur (the columns in the framework). In each sub-section, we highlight the connecting power and knowledge questions that helped us relate our findings to the five mechanisms. We used the framework to reveal how epistemic injustices can prevent ILK from contributing to the stewardship, adaptive capacity and management, equity, empowerment, and duration of the NbS.

Our case does not encompass all the epistemic injustices included in our framework, but the proposal does contain textual evidence illustrating how each mechanism can lead to injustice. Fig 2 illustrates where we found evidence of potential injustices (indicated by cells with red fill), which we discuss further in the text below. Stakeholder and rights-holder and expertise exclusion and structural injustices were particularly relevant mechanisms we identified in the proposal, with multiple considerations of power and knowledge represented. We also found that the kinds of knowledge and organization questions were particularly relevant. A single proposal is not expected to provide for every consideration. Rather, the case illustrates how the framework organizes the analysis of epistemic injustices in the design of NbS. This case study is particularly interesting due to its intention to include diverse actors in the design process. Some findings are not necessarily egregious examples of epistemic injustice. Our case illustrates that as an analytical tool, the KEIN Framework is valuable even in a case study where there is an explicit intention to be more inclusive. The Framework also provides a lens to reflect on the structural constraints that shape how project proposals are structured and implemented. The KEIN Framework would also be applicable in case studies where there are more problematic treatments of both knowledge and knowers.

Fig 2. KEIN Framework applied to GCF Proposal FP056: Scaling up climate resilient water management practices for vulnerable communities in La Mojana.

4.2 Marginalization

To examine the marginalization mechanism, we drew heavily from the kinds of knowledge and organization questions to: 1) identify the different types of knowledge included in the proposal and their underlying discourses, ideologies, and normativities, and 2) illustrate for and by whom some types of knowledges are organized.

Kinds of Knowledge: This section considers whether ILK is favored or treated equally as the knowledge held by outsider actors, such as international or government institutions that play a central role in adopting NbS. Mostly referred to as traditional practices or traditional knowledge in the proposal, the quote below illustrates how ILK is framed in terms of productivity (i.e., practices used in small-scale and livestock production).

Traditional agricultural practices employed by rural communities (small scale agriculture and cattle ranching) and that are finely tuned to seasonal climate variations have been placed under increasing pressure from prolonged and unpredictable flooding… To ensure that local knowledge, particularly that associated to indigenous groups, is collected and built upon, the service provider will… support directly at least 9 indigenous associations (cabildos) to lead collection of local knowledge and identification of traditional productive practices relevant for climate change adaptation as well as to facilitate… the in-field testing of those production practices in their communities (p. 22).

The quote displays an element of paternalism, in which knowledge is structured in a way that is deemed acceptable (i.e., limited to whatever project proponents find relevant) creating a condition that favors knowledges that are better represented in the collective body of knowledge (i.e., knowledge around markets). This framing represents an epistemic injustice through marginalization because ILK is not understood or interpreted on its own terms [80]. For instance, these practices could also be interpreted in cultural terms that serve as a mechanism to cope with the effects of climate change or as a political tool to guarantee the rights of self-governance [97]. They could also be understood in terms of self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, which are not in alignment with the logic of productivity [98,99]. Similarly, the logic of production can be at odds with the concept of resilience [100]. Instead, this knowledge is only valued when it can be translated into the logic of dominant groups.

The way the proposal frames ILK in terms of productivity also reveals how market-based logics are an underlying ideology throughout the proposal as exemplified by this quote:

Financial viability of the project investments is assured through a combination of elements…include[ing]:…[b]uilding on traditional systems with innovative climate-resilient technologies and best practices, particularly considering the traditional knowledge of use and management of wetlands and natural wetland channels, or the operation of micro-aqueducts and home gardens that will be enhanced with adaptation techniques and technologies, in order to continue to operate these for recurring benefits that will ensure operational and financial viability beyond the project period (p. 67).

The project proponents are in a position of power and dominance relative to the communities that the project impacts, which give them a position to “shape [the] perceptions and preferences” [13, p. 439] of the dominated groups. The framing of ILK in terms of productivity can exclude critical insights on local environmental, socio-economic, and political contexts that impact IPLC’s ability to manage, steward, and sustain natural resources for long periods of time.

Organization: Knowledge held by government institutions that heavily rely on aggregated data can also reinforce the marginalization mechanism. Despite the critical role that aggregated data plays in enabling the adoption of NbS and providing a better understanding of the local community’s high levels of poverty and limited access to water, as illustrated in the quote below, aggregated data can be insufficient to ensure NbS benefits are equitably distributed among highly vulnerable populations [101103].

Over 42% of the population has no access to drinking water, and where water is available, the access is extremely unequal. 20% of the population in Magangué lack access to water. In contrast, more than 80% of the population in Achi and Ayapel do not have access to safe water… 27.8% of the total population and 47.8% of the rural population in Colombia is classified as poor, when measured under the GoC’s Multidimensional Poverty Index. While important gains have been made at poverty reductions, economic development has not spread evenly throughout the country (p. 12).

This particular quote does not represent an egregious epistemic injustice. It represents the project’s intention to address poverty and the lack of access to essential goods that the targeted community needs to prosper. The KEIN Framework, however, allows us to reflect on the implications of the reliance of NbS, and their supporting policies and legal frameworks, on high-level data on vulnerability and how that relates to the marginalization mechanism. Aggregated data has its own limitations. Without ILK, it is difficult to address what information needs to be disaggregated. ILK is essential to address the needs and wants of vulnerable populations. Without ILK, NbS risk not building baselines or tools that capture the effective management of lands (stewardship) or the distribution of benefits (equity) for water management, which could also have implications for how IPLC see these solutions as legitimate, affecting their duration.

Although we did not identify textual evidence of Co-evolution with Power, Change, or Mobilization connected to the Marginalization mechanism in this case, they would occur whenever, for instance, 1) the value of the NbS benefits favors the objectives of the most powerful actors, 2) local beliefs about how power should be redistributed are excluded, or 3) top-down approaches view the lived experiences of local residents as a constraint to drive change through NbS.

4.3 Prejudice

To analyze the prejudice mechanism, we relied on the kinds of knowledge and the mobilization questions to: 1) identify the knowledge, ideologies, and normativities underpinning NbS for water management, and 2) determine how different types of knowledges were viewed as either an enabling or constraining instrument for change.

Kinds of Knowledge: The quote below illustrates a prejudice against ILK because the knowledge generated by IPLC’s needs to be validated in terms of scientific standards.

To ensure that local knowledge, particularly that associated to indigenous groups, is collected and built upon, the service provider will be instructed to support directly at least 9 indigenous associations (cabildos) to lead collection of local knowledge and identification of traditional productive practices relevant for climate change adaptation as well as to facilitate, with GCF funds, the in-field testing of those production practices in their communities. In field experimentation will be led by the cabildos (indigenous associations) in their own communities and fields under the guidance of the service provider (to ensure scientific standards), who will then work to record and systemize the information. Through this effort the project will promote local knowledge as well as provide a forum to rescue traditional adaptive practices and create and opportunity for local communities to define their own adaptive solution (p. 37).

This quote illustrates how IPLC’s capacity as a knower, or as a knowledge producer, is valued less than other kinds of knowledge. The wording “to ensure scientific standards” (p. 37) suggest a lack of trust in the IPLC’s methods of observing or ways of knowing their environments as well as their ability to record these observations as reliable scientific data.

The proposal emphasizes opportunities for IPLC to define adaptive solutions. However, by framing ILK in terms of productivity, NbS are likely to be favored and accepted as valid or suitable for building resilience only if they align with that productive logic, which can have implications for the inclusion of ILK in the management of natural resources (stewardship), limits the ability to genuinely co-create solutions with IPLC (adaptive capacity and management), or leads to designs of the NbS that might not equitably distribute their benefits (equity).

Mobilization: Even though IPLC in this region of the country have limited access to education, the use of the term “educational backwardness” (p. 61) rather than educational attainment or a different wording, is illustrative of prejudiced text. Historically, Colombia’s elite have claimed the communal use of land and land-use practices of Indigenous People represent backward ways, leading them to succumb to a state of under-development [104]. While interpreting textual meaning can sometimes be challenging when proposal writers are not necessarily native English speakers, in this case the Spanish translation also reflects this prejudice.

We also found that ILK is contradictorily characterized as both an enabler of change yet also insufficient for building resilience:

The key barriers that have held back climate resiliency in La Mojana include …[l]imited knowledge of traditional and technical best practices and their implementation on wetland dynamics including the practice of climate smart agriculture by local communities, productive associations and the public sector (p. 18).

This treatment of ILK in the proposal discounts ILK’s capacity to be innovative, technologically apt, or forward looking, indicating prejudice against ILK. The assertion that the people of La Mojana have “limited knowledge of traditional and technical best practices” (p. 18) implies that ILK have an enabling role in building resilience but also that the residents have limited knowledge of both traditional knowledge and technical best practices. In other words, IPLC do not have knowledge to move towards climate resilience. However, this treatment of ILK does not carry through to the discussion of the barrier from this quote. Several paragraphs lower, the wording “efforts from the government…to help local communities…have not successfully addressed the need for combining traditional knowledge with climate resilient soft and hard technologies and practices”(p. 23) helps clarify that what is meant by this barrier is that the local people have no knowledge of and have not adopted more technological agricultural solutions, nor have they figured out a way to combine newer technologies with existing ILK. This implies that there is something better about newer technologies because these solutions would lead to improved output and resiliency, whereas the traditional knowledge and practices would not.

Financial viability of the project investments is assured through a combination of elements that builds ownership and the technical, financial, operational and institutional capacities of the national and sub-national governments and local communities to maintain and derive economic, social, environmental benefits from the proposed investments. These aspects include:…[b]uilding on traditional systems with innovative climate-resilient technologies and best practices, particularly considering the traditional knowledge of use and management of wetlands and natural wetland channels, or the operation of micro-aqueducts and home gardens that will be enhanced with adaptation techniques and technologies, in order to continue to operate these for recurring benefits that will ensure operational and financial viability beyond the project period (p. 67).

The quotes in the mobilization section are demonstrative of a discounting of ILK capacity to contribute to building climate resilience, while at the same time disregarding potential concerns around climate-smart agriculture not fully addressing the root causes of environmental degradation, the political issues structuring the food system, and greenwashing [105107].

Prejudices against ILK prevents the design of NbS in ways that redistribute power between local communities and more powerful actors (i.e., empowerment). Similarly, prejudices against IPLC’s epistemic capacities are likely to prevent the co-creation of NbS that facilitate their adaptive capacity and management and stewardship of water resources.

Although we did not identify textual evidence of Co-evolution with Power, Organization, or Change connected to the Prejudice mechanism in this case, it would look like: 1) the inclusion of gender stereotypes that reinforce patriarchal structures, 2) classist views that advocate for top-down approaches to organize the production and dissemination of knowledge, or 3) indications of underlying classism that dismiss the need to shift power relations.

4.4 Stakeholder and Rights-holder exclusion and expertise exclusion

In this case study, it was difficult to distinguish between the Stakeholder and Rights-holder Exclusion and the Expertise Exclusion mechanisms. For this reason, in our results, we discuss these two mechanisms jointly. However, we expect that with a larger set of case studies, there would be examples where it is possible to identify the exclusion of those who are directly impacted by a NbS separately from the exclusion of those who have NbS expertise but are not necessarily impacted by the NbS.

To better understand these exclusion mechanisms, we draw from co-evolution with power, organization, and change questions to: 1) examine how knowledge around NbS co-evolves with power dynamics in the process of change, 2) identify how knowledge is organized, for and by whom, and 3) analyze to what extent knowledge about NbS is changing and whether it involves shifts in power relations.

Co-evolution with Power: The proposal makes it clear that the siting of wetland conservation interventions has already been pre-determined by national agencies and agreed upon with local authorities before conducting consultation with IPLC.

The MADS National Restoration Plan has prioritized the restoration of 121,614 hectares of wetlands in La Mojana… In addition, the NAF has a hydro dynamic model of the wetlands that evaluates flood pulse and flow which has provided further support in identifying strategic areasAgreements have been made with the local environmental authorities and the NAF to ensure complementarity of prioritized areas. Through these processes, wetlands in Guaranda, San Jacinto del Cauca, Majagual and Achi have been identified as areas of intervention… Consultation with the communities in close proximity to the wetlands will be approached to prioritize more areas of restoration on the basis of the environmental services provided to the region and to community livelihoods (p. 31).

This approach illustrates how through the stakeholder exclusion mechanism, epistemic injustices take place. The actors directly impacted by the wetland restoration and actors who have subject knowledge but are not members of the national agencies or the local authorities have been unfairly denied their rights as knowers because their participation was excluded in the early stages of the process during which NbS were shaped. This exclusion has implications for the stewardship, equity, and empowerment of NbS.

Organization and Change: The proposal provided evidence that ILK was organized to identify capacity gaps rather than to co-create the knowledge management system and how the proposal does not involve a shift in power relations. Even if a significant number of actors who are affected or have relevant knowledge are included at some point in the future, if critical decisions have already been made, an epistemic injustice has occurred. The quality of participation also matters. In a study of NbS implemented in cities across Europe and Asia, citizen participation remained restricted to providing feedback or preferences [12]. In our case study, the proposal portrays community participation as a process to identify gaps, as illustrated in this quote:

The solutions are both technical in nature and include systemized knowledge management mechanism and activities that will ensure that the information is shared with relevant stakeholders at a community, rural productive and local planning level thus addressing the information and capacity gaps identified above through active community participation (p. 23).

This quote also highlights how knowledge is expected to be managed by communities despite being produced without their inclusion or input, as government agencies frequently organize knowledge.

The proposal recognizes that knowledge for scaling up NbS (i.e., silvopasture and best agricultural practices for rice production) has been organized for large-scale national producer federations and has not “been adapted to the particular conditions of La Mojana nor have they been adapted to the realities facing smallholders with less than 5 hectares of land who are most vulnerable to climate change” (p. 23). The proposal also states that “technical assistance or rural extension programs [have been] limited to the efforts that producer associations have in the region… These support schemes are based on the needs of each value chain(p. 23). This acknowledgment is one step towards epistemic justice, but it also reveals the limitations of the proposal’s capacity to shift these dynamics within the confines of the climate finance logics that currently guide GCF decision-making [93]. Incorporating measures to tackle this power asymmetry in the early stages of design would be crucial for transforming current disparities in relationships between different knowledge holders. However, this is something that requires action at the GCF in close coordination with local entities, agencies, and communities involved in the implementation of these projects. NbS could serve as a vehicle to change the unjust denial of knowers’ knowledge and their rights to participate in decision-making processes, with potential impacts on stewardship, adaptive capacity and management, equity, empowerment, and duration.

While we did not identify textual evidence of Kinds of Knowledge or Mobilization connected to the Stakeholder and Expertise Exclusion mechanisms in this case, they would look like discourses that explicitly or implicitly view the exclusion of certain actors as a positive outcome (i.e., excluding farmworkers but including large landholders) because their knowledge is viewed as a constraint to creating innovative and effective NbS.

4.5 Structural injustices

To evaluate structural injustices, we draw from the kinds of knowledge, co-evolution with power, organization, and change questions to 1) reveal the knowledges and discourses that underlie the process of change through which NbS take place, 2) examine how knowledge of NbS is co-evolving with power dynamic in the process of change, 3) assess how the generation of knowledge is organized, and 4) the extent to which knowledge is shifting power relations.

Kinds of Knowledge: Based on natural science-based knowledge that government agencies largely generate, the proposal states how extreme weather events and structural socio-economic drivers exacerbate systemic vulnerabilities for IPLC, as illustrated in the quote below.

La Mojana experiences extreme rainfall patterns and higher flood levels. Its delta plain characteristics makes it particularly susceptible to flash flooding during La Nina years. La Mojana was severely affected by the La Niña event of 2010–2011 which coincided with La Mojana’s secondary rainy season… La Mojana is also vulnerable to anomalous prolonged dry seasons particularly during El Niño years. These pose a significant threat to water supply throughout the year. In 2015, and the initial months of 2016, the effects of the El Niño affected all of La Mojana, resulting in a reduction of the wetland areas by approximately 70%. The cumulative economic, environmental, and social impact was significant in the region. During this event, the entire rice harvest was lost resulting in significant food insecurity (p. 12).

The inclusion of vulnerabilities driven by environmental disasters, as illustrated in this quote, is one step towards better understanding the lived experiences of those whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by climate change. Though this is a critical action to build epistemic justice, ILK also requires to be understood through democratic processes that guarantee IPLC have a voice and power to shape projects and decisions.

Co-Evolution with Power: Decades of conflict have shaped power relations that influence how IPLC engage with natural resources. In the quote below, the proposal appears to blame the conflict for the lack of government services in the area.

The armed conflict in Colombia has had an important impact in local governance conditions and has hindered the development of the communities inhabiting that territory. La Mojana’s location as a corridor and connector inside the country has made it the subject of dispute between different guerrilla groups for control of territory as well as a subject of smuggling and drug trafficking routes. Between 1999 and 2012, there were, on average, 4,000 displaced people/year arriving in La Mojana. Poverty and limited access to government support have increased the vulnerability of these populations, making them more vulnerable to climate dynamics (p. 12).

While the country is technically post-conflict, people in La Mojana continue to live in a reality remarkably similar to the one they lived in during the conflict: one marked by uncertainty and violence [108,109]. The conflict was, of course, partially to blame. However, the conflict has been “over” for more than six years and people in the region continue to be underserved by the government (CNMH, 2021), demonstrating that the “end” of the conflict was not the panacea it was marketed as. Ending, or partially ending, the conflict created an opportunity to help IPLC, but the conflict is not, nor was it ever, the only barrier to the government serving these communities. Failure to accurately identify current structures of injustice in the NbS context–i.e. misrepresenting vulnerability caused by insufficient governmental support as due to armed conflict–is unlikely to contribute to equity and empowerment for the community, because the current causes of vulnerability and marginalization are not identified and therefore cannot be addressed.

The proposal also raises concerns around “land tenure conflicts” (p. 32) negatively impacting the long-term sustainability of the project. The proposal plans to become informed of these potential land tenure conflicts by conducting a “sustainability analysis” (p. 32). The proposal also plans to “regularize all the land ownership… at the eleven municipalities in La Mojana” by “build[ing] a multipurpose cadaster” (p. 33). Land tenure conflict and rights are a longstanding issue in Colombia that is intrinsically bounded to water [110,111]. The available evidence indicates that the dispossession of land occurs due to connections between elites and paramilitary groups [112]. Armed actors also have a significant impact on how the land is distributed. Paramilitary-controlled areas tend to have larger landholder schemes, while left-wing-controlled places often adopt smaller landholder approaches [113]. In the proposal, sustainability is predominantly used in terms of long-term sustainability (i.e., permanence). However, there is limited information on what either a sustainability analysis means in terms of methodology or purpose. The same limitation applies to the cadaster. The fact that the sustainability analysis and the cadaster remained undefined and ambiguous raises questions about how ILK is going to be incorporated, potentially impacting stewardship and adaptive management. It also raises questions about how IPLC will be valued and allowed to lead in the generation of knowledge aimed at building the sustainability analysis or the cadaster, with impacts on equity and empowerment.

Organization: The quote below describes how the areas for restoration activities have already been pre-selected and prioritized through “satellite imaging” by one national institution that represents “the research arm” (p. 31) of the Colombian government. The proposal also explains how it plans to develop restoration activities by working with regional environmental authorities and landowners and conducting community outreach to create “formal community agreements”(p. 33). The quote below also outlines how the project proposed to analyze land tenure conflicts:

Spatial identification along with community consultation will be used to prioritize more areas for restoration. Satellite imaging has already identified key areas with potential for restoration…A sustainability analysis will be carried out to ensure…land tenure conflicts do not arise from restoration actions. This phase will include community outreach directed at collecting local knowledge of wetland management as well as establishing community restoration plans and agreements on long term maintenance and commitments to wetland management (p. 31).

The quote suggests that community outreach takes place after key decisions about restoration efforts and the sustainability analysis have already been made. Incorporating ILK earlier in the process would provide people with the services they need in a way that best serves the community’s interests, thus creating space to improve outcomes in terms of equity and empowerment. The proposal explains that the collection of ILK is aimed at building best management practices for wetlands. The collection of relevant knowledges is critical for building epistemic justice in NbS. However, for NbS projects, it is also just as important to build stewardship, adaptive management, equity, empowerment, and duration through clear explanations of how they intend to use ILK responsibly and as part of a larger exchange with IPLC rather than as a token activity or extractive behavior.

Change: In terms of the structural injustices mechanism, the language in the proposal indicates a limitation on the part of the proposal in examining how land tenure conflict arises from the adoption of NbS for water management. This approach risks excluding having a better understanding about prior conditions that impact IPLC’s capacities to both contribute to (i.e., stewardship, adaptive capacity and management, duration) and benefit (i.e., equity and empowerment) from NbS for water management.

We did not identify textual evidence of Mobilization connected to the Structural Injustice mechanism in this case, but injustices can take place when 1) colorblind language is intentionally used to misrepresent or ignore institutional, systemic, or structural racism or 2) when ILK is viewed as unsuitable to bring about change.

5. Discussion

In this section, we reflect on the implications of this case study and analysis for the literature on epistemic justice, as applied to NbS. Water management policies using NbS hold promise in addressing climate and development challenges. However, as their importance grows, it becomes increasingly crucial to ensure they do not worsen existing inequalities and inequities. Our findings align with the challenge highlighted in the literature regarding the control and diversion of water resources by those in power for their own advantage [25]. In particular, the co-evolution of project activities with influential interests limits the potential of NbS to foster stewardship, fairness, and empowerment. As a result, the ability of NbS to effectively address climate change, enhance human well-being, and preserve biodiversity is compromised on a broader scale.

Our analysis revealed that both recognition of the significance of incorporating ILK in NbS implementation, as well as explicit marginalization and bias against ILK exist. This marginalization arises from a restricted perspective that deems only certain forms of knowledge as acceptable and worthy of organizational inclusion. This finding underscores the apparent contradiction within the literature, where institutions acknowledge the importance of ILK for sustainability endeavors [3335], yet simultaneously exclude IPLC and their ways of knowing and engaging in NbS design and implementation [3,1012,49,50].

We identified the presence of all five mechanisms of epistemic injustice in the case study [14,15]. These unjust conditions not only reflect unfair treatment and undervaluation of ILK, but also hinder the achievement of a just NbS [1,56]. Furthermore, this situation highlights how epistemic injustices lead to an incomplete embodiment of other dimensions of justice [16,58,59]. Marginalizing community voices and excluding ILK experts and rights-holders leads to procedural and recognitional injustices [63,64,71,72], while neglecting distributional and restorative justice [6062,73,74]. The analysis demonstrates that the socio-political dynamics underlying NbS designing, planning, and decisions perpetuate patterns of inequality. This finding emphasizes the crucial importance of viewing NbS as arenas where knowledge, legitimacy, truth, and power are contested and negotiated, rather than viewing them as neutral technological interventions in the environment [10,59,77,81].

Our application of the KEIN framework provides empirical support for the theoretical literature on epistemic justice and NbS. Despite the GCF proposal’s recognition of the need to involve a diverse range of actors, our findings reveal evidence of ways that it perpetuates epistemic injustice through all the mechanisms outlined in the framework. Ultimately, we conclude that the application of the KEIN framework can contribute to promoting epistemic justice, thereby enhancing the prospects for NbS projects to effectively foster stewardship, adaptive management, equity, empowerment, and duration.

It is important to acknowledge that the proposal adheres to the logics of the funder and may not fully address the concerns raised in this paper. Our analysis focused on a single case to emphasize the conceptual value of the KEIN Framework, but future research could expand its application to comprehensively investigate how NbS can actively promote epistemic justice for ILK within various contexts. Furthermore, the KEIN Framework can be employed beyond NbS to analyze epistemic justice in different settings.

In this analysis, we recognize a critical avenue for future research: exploring the underlying factors that shape the language used in proposals concerning knowledge and knowledge-holders. This line of inquiry has the potential to provide valuable insights into the extent to which proposal language is influenced by personal biases, funding acquisition strategies, systemic influences, and the awareness of proposal writers regarding the limitations and epistemic injustices embedded within their proposed strategies. Moreover, this research endeavor holds the promise of offering actionable strategies to promote epistemic justice right from the initial stages of NbS design. Further, we recognize that the proposal is only one stage in the project cycle, and numerous opportunities exist to increase epistemic justice throughout the lifespan of the project. Identifying epistemic injustices present in proposals could allow implementing entities to reform the project towards justice during implementation.

6. Conclusions

This paper introduces the KEIN Framework that combines mechanisms of epistemic injustice, considerations of power and knowledge, and valuation of ILK. We then apply the KEIN Framework to the case of a GCF proposal to demonstrate its use in articulating how epistemic injustices occur and how future injustices could be ameliorated. Our analysis also revealed elements that are critical to building more epistemic justice in NbS. This case study was particularly interesting due to its intention to include a diverse number of actors, including Indigenous People, which represented a departure from the traditional ways the Colombian government has implemented regional water management programs. The KEIN Framework helped us identify the production and reproduction of epistemic injustices in the design of NbS through the use of five different mechanisms (marginalization, prejudice, stakeholder exclusion, expertise exclusion, and structural injustices) along with five questions about power and knowledge. We argue that these two elements are critical to build a powerful analytical tool that reveals the inextricable relation between the production of epistemic injustices and the different ways that ILK is compromised in the design of NbS.

Our analysis allowed us to identify how ILK can be viewed both as an enabling or constraining element for designing NbS which has impacts on the ability that IPLC have to steward the land. This examination shed light on how underpinning ideologies, norms, and discourses that reinforced the marginalization of ILK influence the ways in which adaptive capacity and management can contribute to building just NbS. By employing the KEIN Framework, we identified how the logic of the proposals includes elements that reinforce existing power dynamics. The insights derived from the framework regarding the treatment and organization of knowledge in the proposal further highlighted the roles of paternalistic views and influential knowledge producers in shaping the framing and design of NbS. These dynamics exacerbate epistemic injustices that prevent ILK from contributing to more equitable and empowering NbS projects. Epistemic injustices are unlikely to be eradicated, but we hope that this novel framework contributes to identifying these injustices, thereby facilitating the development of effective mechanisms to prevent or combat them.


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