The Mar Menor lagoon, on the south-eastern coast of Spain, has been granted legal status as a person by parliament, informs The Guardian. The move should help to stop its environmental degradation.
One of the largest saltwater lagoons in Europe, the Mar Menor has a surface area of 135 km2 and is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a 22 km sandbar. The lagoon and surrounding area have great ecological value and different parts are afforded protected status. The Mar Menor is also a Ramsar site and a Specially Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance (Barcelona Convention).
It is, however, a highly threatened ecosystem that has been the scene of several environmental disasters in the past few years. Intensive agriculture and tourism development are the main pressures. In 2016 massive algal blooms killed thousands of fish, making the general public aware of the magnitude of the problem. Eutrophication episodes have continued to happen, as agricultural discharges high in nitrates end up in the lagoon. Illegal irrigation wells in the area extract high salinity water, which is then desalinated by furtive small scale desalination plants, and the brine waste is then dumped without any control.
The move to recognise the lagoon as a legal person was the result of a campaign that collected the signatures of more than 640,000 people to take the initiative to parliament as a “popular legislative initiative”, where citizens can propose a law and gather half a million signatures to have it voted on parliament. The new legislation recognises the lagoon’s right “to exist as an ecosystem and to evolve naturally”. An area of about 1,600 kilometres including the lagoon and neighbouring coastline will be represented by a group that includes local officials, local citizens and scientists.
There are examples where the rights of nature have been legally recognised in almost every continent, such as the Constitution in Ecuador, the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers in Florida (U.S.), the Te Urewera forest in New Zealand, rivers in Bangladesh or national law in Uganda. This is the first example in Europe, where citizen initiatives are underway to recognise the rights of the North Sea in the Netherlands, the Loire River in France, the Rhône River in France and Switzerland, or nature in general in Derry (Northern Ireland).