This saltwater lagoon is legally a person

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Mar Menor, Europe’s biggest saltwater lagoon, sits on the coast of southeastern Spain.
But one of them had a new idea to protect the lagoon: what if it was given the same legal rights as a person?
Three years later, following an intense campaign, Mar Menor became the first ecosystem in Europe to be designated legal personhood rights.
Today, Vicente was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize – an annual award given to six grassroots environmental leaders, each working in a different continent.
It was these examples that inspired Vicente to do the same for Mar Menor.
Less than two years after the legislation, Mar Menor has not miraculously recovered.
The process will take time, but now the lagoon has the right to conservation, protection and remediation of environmental damage.
“Right now, Mar Menor is in intensive care,” she says.


Editor’s Note: Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series devoted to covering both the problems and solutions related to environmental issues that confront our planet. In order to raise awareness and educate the public about important sustainability issues and motivate constructive action, CNN and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative have partnered.

Situated on the coast of southeast Spain is the largest saltwater lagoon in Europe, known as Mar Menor. The 52 square mile region is divided from the Mediterranean by a sandbar, which creates warm, shallow waters and alluring beaches that draw lots of tourists.

However, in the last few years, the once-fresh and salty aroma of these pristine waters has given way to a foul stench of decay as algal blooms have caused murky waters and dead fish mounds to wash up on the shores.

The local population was left incensed, house prices in the area plummeted, and tourism income declined. However, one of them came up with a novel idea to save the lagoon: what if it were granted the same legal protections as individuals? What if it was allowed to exist and was shielded from harm?

These queries were initially posed in 2019 by Teresa Vicente, a philosophy of law professor at the nearby University of Murcia. The first ecosystem in Europe to be granted legal personhood rights was Mar Menor, which happened three years later after a vigorous campaign.

Vicente received the esteemed Goldman Environmental Prize today. Six grassroots environmental leaders, each operating on a different continent, are recognized with this award each year. Her legal approach, which gives people the ability to take action for the environment, has received praise for establishing “an important precedent for democratizing environmental protection and expanding the role of civil society in support of environmental campaigns.”. “.

ecological catastrophe.

The 61-year-old Vicente grew up in the Murcia region, and she has had childhood memories of the lagoon. She reminisces about her teenage beach parties, playing in shorts and t-shirts, and the clear water. “The lagoon was everything to me,” she says to CNN.

However, a few decades ago, things began to change. There was a boom in development (high-rise apartment complexes now line the sandbank dividing the lagoon from the ocean), a rise in plastic pollution, and a significant expansion in intensive agriculture. When a new canal opened in 1979, it brought irrigation to the area and contributed to its transformation into a farming powerhouse. With over 2.5 million tons of fruit and vegetable exports annually, including everything from lettuce and broccoli to lemons and artichokes, Murcia now supplies 20% of Spain’s total fruit and vegetable exports.

When coupled with waters that have warmed due to climate change, this created a recipe for ecological catastrophe. Extreme eutrophication—the buildup of algae that depletes the water’s oxygen—was brought on by runoff from fertilizers containing nitrates that had entered the lagoon. Three massive die-offs of fish and crustaceans, a collapse in mussel populations, and the loss of 85% of the lagoon’s seagrass have all occurred since 2016.

Vicente was forced to take action following the 2019 die-off, which resulted in an estimated three tons of dead fish washing up on the shores. She had been on a three-month fellowship at the UK’s Centre of Justice and Climate at the University of Reading when her students in Murcia called to inform her of the situation. “I started putting the theory into practice right away, so I went back,” she says.

existence right.

Though it has been discussed for a while, the idea of granting “rights of nature” has only recently gained traction. The past ten years have seen the legal personhood of ecosystems like the Whanganui River in New Zealand and the Atrato River in Colombia.

Vicente was motivated to act in the same way for Mar Menor by these instances. She points out that the lagoon was officially already covered by a number of international agreements, including designations as a Special Protection Area for Wild Birds and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. However, none of them appeared to be shielding the lagoon from the dangerous pollution. According to her, “we knew that we needed to do something that goes beyond all of these protections.”.

By writing an article for a local paper, she began to spread the word about the campaign and, in spite of some initial resistance, she was able to win over the riverbank communities, who were furious about the pollution right outside their door. More than 600,000 signatures were gathered by Vicente by 2021—more than she required to put the bill forward. Before the Spanish senate passed it into law in September 2022, there were public protests, meetings with government representatives, and media appearances.

Mar Menor has not miraculously recovered less than two years after the legislation. Although it will take some time, the lagoon now has the right to environmental damage repair, conservation, and mitigation. Although the lagoon may not be able to speak for itself, any citizen may now file a lawsuit on behalf of Mar Menor, according to Vicente, who also notes that three new legislative bodies made up of local residents, scientists, and government representatives have been appointed to oversee enforcement.

Vicente is optimistic that the new justice model will protect the lagoon from additional harm and help “cut the poison” that is entering it—that is, the nitrates from intensive agriculture. After that, she thinks that the area can begin to be restored using natural methods.

She states, “At this moment, Mar Menor is receiving intensive care.”. It might not return to how it was when I was younger, but at least it will live a dignified life. “.

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