Spanish lagoon gets "human" rights"

28 October, 2022

The shallow saltwater lagoon Mar Menor on the Spanish east coast is given legal protection, as if it were a human being. It gets, just like a human being, the right to exist, develop and be preserved – according to law. The Mar Menor is the first natural area in Europe to receive such protection.

– I am very excited, this new law has many innovative and powerful legal elements, says Ignacio Bachmann-Fuentes, senior lecturer in constitutional law at the Universidad de Pablo de Olavide, to the journal Science.

The protection is much better than what the rest of nature currently has.

Environmental disaster led to 640,000 signatures

Just a few years ago, there was a small, but robust population of the endangered metre-long fan mussel in the Mar Menor. But in 2016, the lagoon suffered a massive algal bloom caused by heavily leaking fertilizer from nearby agricultural fields. The ecological disaster nearly killed the fan clam, along with small seahorses, crabs and much of the other marine life in the lagoon.

At the time, there was already a Spanish law that protected the mussels, but it proved totally toothless when the disaster was a fact. Thousands of fish landed dying on the beach, the lagoon stank, house prices plummeted, tourists stayed away, the economy suffered and the locals had enough.

With inspiration from, among others, New Zealand, 640,000 signatures were collected to try to get upgraded legal protection. The action was successful and now the Mar Menor becomes the first ecosystem in Europe with a legal protection almost as good as that of a human.

– Now we have a tool to give the lagoon protection, says Teresa Vicente Giménez, philosophy professor and one of the initiators of the law, to Science.

– This represents a monumental leap.

The ecosystem has the right to exist, develop and be preserved.

One can now liken the legal status of the lagoon to a minor who has a guardian – in the form of a scientific council. If the lagoon is again affected by large discharges, the guardian, or really anyone, can bring charges against, for example, farmers who fertilize too much. The ecosystem in the lagoon now has the right not only to exist, it has the right to also develop and be preserved as it is.

It is the first time in Europe that an ecosystem has received such legal rights, but it exists in many other parts of the world. Like all the rivers in Bangladesh, like the Ganges in India and perhaps the most famous example; the Whanganui River in New Zealand.

With “human rights” also come obligations – the question is what the lagoon’s obligations are. If it is a matter of attracting more tourists to the area or if it is enough that the ecosystem works as it should?

Text: Lena Scherman
Graphics: Lena Scherman

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