Mar Menor is one of the largest seawater lagoons in all of Europe. It is located in the Spanish province of Murica. At first glance it seems like an idyllic place, with an abundance of birds like flamingos and cormorants flocking to the waters of the Lagoon. However, if one lingers near Mar Menor it is impossible to miss the overwhelmingly putrid stench emanating from its waters. A smell so rancid it indicates that something is gravely wrong with the ecosystem of Mar Menor. This is the problem that locals of the area are trying to solve by granting the lagoon extended rights and protections in the form of having it legally declared as a person.
The local government has confirmed that there is a ‘grave ecological imbalance’ in the lagoon, but activists say the situation has progressed from being an imbalance to outright ecocide (a crime against an ecosystem and all those, human or animal, who live inside it). Locals of the area charge the agricultural industry with this crime.
Extreme eutrophication, which is a large growth of algae, was caused by nutrient and nitrate rich pollution from the area’s agricultural industry. The massive growth of algae led to 85% of seagrass in the lagoon dying. And, thousands of fish were beached and dead as they were unable to breath in the water due the lack of oxygen resulting from the overgrowth of algae. This degradation of the lagoon’s ecosystem is what caused it to reek.
Vicente Gimenez, a 58 year old, professor of the philosophy of law at Murica University came with a novel idea to safeguard the lagoon from further damage. Her idea is to bestow legal rights on the Mar Menor by legally having it declared a person. She believes that the Spanish legal system is not setup to adequately protect an ecosystem, so the best course of action would be to extend the protections the State owes a citizen to the Lagoon as well.
In Colombia, in 2016, the Atrato River was declared as a legal entity by a constitutional court. A commission of protectors was then established to look after the river and the Ministry of Environment and sustainable development became its protector.
A similar attempt was made in the U.S.A, where the citizens had a referendum and granted that Lake Erie a legal status. This was because, like Mar Menor, Lake Erie too was being polluted by agri-business. However, an agri-business sued the town the very next day and froze the process of declaring the lake as a person. It was only in February 2020 that this lawsuit was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.
.This move will be ‘popular legislative initiative’– an avenue that allows ordinary citizens to propose a law. They will need to gather half a million signatures to have this proposition debated in the Spanish Parliament.
While Vicente Gimenez is hopeful that this is best avenue to protect and restore Mar Menor, other activists feel that a change in legal status alone will not be effective. Some are skeptical that legislation will change the current situation without other initiatives that force the agricultural industry to pollute the lagoon less, like installing waste treatment facilities and maintaining better sewage that does not drain into the lagoon.
This case is certainly an interesting one and it highlights the real effect of climate change. If this legislation helps protect the Mar menor it may set a precedent that other climate activists can use to protect ecosystems under threat in their own countries.