By Alyssa McMurtry
OVIEDO, Spain (AA) - Spain officially granted legal personhood to the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon on Monday, a unique ecosystem threatened by environmental collapse.
The new legislation gives the lagoon the legal rights to “exist and evolve naturally,” stop any activities that threaten to degrade it further, be restored where it has been harmed and conserve its natural environment.
This law marks the first time in Europe that any ecosystem has been granted such rights and legal status. According to the law, the lagoon will be represented by groups of local politicians, citizens and scientists.
The Mar Menor is Spain’s largest lagoon. Separated from the Mediterranean by a thin 22-kilometer (14-mile) sandbar, it was both a popular tourist destination and critical habitat for birds and marine creatures like seahorses.
But after decades of overdevelopment and contamination from fertilizer, heavy metal and wastewater runoff, many local species are on the verge of disappearing.
In recent years, the Mar Menor has suffered two major mass death events. In 2019 and 2021, thousands of tons of dead fish washed up on the lagoon’s shores. They died of asphyxiation because the pollution gave rise to algae blooms that sucked oxygen from the water.
Shocked by the environmental disaster, citizens came together in waves of protest to protect and restore the ecosystem, which also sustains their way of life.
The citizen group ILP Mar Menor led the initiative to grant the Mar Menor personhood status. Their campaign was backed by 640,000 people and passed through the Spanish parliament in September.
While this is a first for Europe, the concept of environmental personhood has been applied elsewhere.
In New Zealand, a national park, river and mountain have been granted legal personhood. In India, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers are also considered legal persons. The US, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Canada have also passed similar protections.
In the preamble to the Spanish law, the government argued that recognizing the rights of ecosystems is a means of fulfilling international commitments such as the Paris Agreement and dealing with the demands of the Anthropocene, period during which human actions have become the main driver of global environmental change.
It also argues that granting rights to the lagoon strengthens the rights of the people who live in the area and are threatened by ecological degradation.