When a lagoon gets its own rights

“We are the voice of the Mar Menor,” chanted the activists of the citizens’ initiative “Legal personality for the Mar Menor” who gathered in front of the Senate in Madrid on Wednesday. At the Plaza de la Marina, they unfurled banners, some of whom also wore cloth hats decorated with seahorses, to campaign for the protection of Spain’s largest lagoon. They had traveled by bus from the Murcia region to the Spanish capital to watch from the visitors’ gallery in the plenary hall as the Senate finally approved their bill at 4:35 p.m.

The heavily polluted Mar Menor Lagoon, located on the Costa Cálida in south-east Spain and separated from the Mediterranean Sea by only a narrow strip of sand, was this week made a legal entity with enforceable rights. After the House of Representatives had already approved it in April, the law has now also passed the Senate – and could come into force in just a few days. The Mar Menor is the first ecosystem in Europe to receive this status.

Anyone who harms the lagoon can be taken to court and fined.

Last year, 640,000 people signed a referendum to this effect, thereby setting the Spanish legislative process in motion. 500,000 signatures would have been enough to introduce the proposal to Parliament. Now every citizen, even if he is not affected himself, can complain if he sees the rights of the Mar Menor violated. Anyone who harms the lagoon can be taken to court and fined.

Giving the environment enforceable rights is “a revolution that will set limits to the current economic system that is destroying the planet,” said Teresa Vicente, a professor of legal philosophy at the University of Murcia, who was one of the driving forces behind the citizens’ initiative. The new law gives the polluted lagoon the right “to exist and develop naturally as an ecosystem”. A committee made up of representatives from the authorities and society will henceforth oversee the protection, preservation and renaturation of the Mar Menor.

Biologists have been warning for years that Spain’s largest lagoon is on the verge of collapse. The coastal region around the Mar Menor is also known as the “Garden of Europe” because fruit and vegetables are grown there for export. But agriculture has serious consequences for the lagoon: If the fertilizers are washed out of the soil during heavy rains, huge amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and nitrates get into the ecosystem. The oversupply of nutrients leads to rapid growth of algae.

When the algae die, the dead plant matter sinks to the bottom and is broken down by bacteria, which use up so much oxygen that fish and other marine life suffocate. That made the Mar Menor a “death zone” last summer. It was the second massive fish kill in three years: fish and crustaceans tried to save themselves on the shore, where they finally perished. A carpet of dead sea creatures formed on the beaches. Official bodies speak of five tons, environmental organizations even of ten to 15 tons of fish, crustaceans and algae that died in the saltwater lagoon.

The lagoon can recover, but it will never be the same again.

So is there any hope left for the Mar Menor? “Of course recovery is possible, as we have observed this summer and also in the past,” says biologist Pedro García of the Asociación de Naturalistas del Sureste (ANSE). The current situation is much better than in previous years, he told Radio Cartagena in August, as some measures have been taken such as reducing nitrate pollution and eliminating about 5,000 hectares of illegally irrigated land. This proves the Mar Menor’s ability to bounce back in the face of adversity, which is seen as a possibility for its future recovery. “Another question is whether we can restore the Mar Menor from 40 or 50 years ago, which is impossible in many aspects of its biodiversity and landscape,” García told SZ .

With the new law, the future of the lagoon is now also to be secured on a legal level. Similar steps have not been taken in Europe so far. Ecuador is the only country in the world that has made nature a legal subject in its constitution. In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was granted the same rights as a living human being for the first time. And in the US state of Florida, people have sued on behalf of several bodies of water against a construction project. The lawsuit was against a proposed housing development covering approximately 4,000 acres, but was dismissed by a judge.

There are already numerous protective regulations for the Mar Menor, but none of them was able to prevent the disaster last summer. The legislative initiative is “proof of the failure of regional and national politics,” said one of the senators of the Murcia region, Miguel Sánchez López, after the vote: This meant that the population felt compelled to mobilize “to to find a solution to the problem that we politicians have created”.

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