A final vote in the Senate ended up making a reality this Wednesday what seemed unimaginable just over two years ago: the Mar Menor is already the first ecosystem in Europe with legal personality, just like people or companies. The new law approved in Spain not only draws attention for introducing a very innovative approach in the legal system, by recognizing its own rights for this Murcian lagoon, but also for the way in which it has occurred. After a first attempt from the City Council of Los Alcázares that was stopped in the regional Parliament of Murcia, this legislative milestone in Spain was born from the collection of signatures among citizens, through a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) promoted by Teresa Vicente, Professor of Philosophy of Law at the University of Murcia.
If it is already difficult to obtain the half million support necessary to bring a proposal to the Spanish Parliament, especially in the midst of a pandemic, it is even more difficult to overcome the parliamentary process so that it finally becomes law. Until this Wednesday, it had only happened in 2013 with an ILP to, paradoxically, regulate bullfighting as cultural heritage, and with another from 1998 and 2013 that ended up subsumed in another initiative or modifying an article of another law. In the case of the rights of the Mar Menor, the parliamentary journey could not have been faster and calmer, finding the support of all parliamentary groups, except Vox (which in its veto attempt in the Senate has criticized that this proposal “ departs from the most basic concepts of Spanish law and Western legal tradition” and is contrary to “the central position of man in nature”).
The approved law recognizes the legal personality of the Mar Menor and creates a system of legal guardians in charge of its representation. It remains to be seen whether defending the rights of the lagoon in court can really stop the serious deterioration of this unique ecosystem, which currently suffers from serious problems of eutrophication due, among other impacts, to discharges from agriculture. Undoubtedly, this critical situation and the indignation that this provokes in the riverside population and in Spanish society in general has had a lot to do with the very high support for this initiative, which obtained more than 600,000 signatures to reach Parliament and was later found with the majority support of their lordships.
According to a compilation work from September 2021, there are already examples of recognition of the rights of nature on almost all continents, such as the Constitution of Ecuador, the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers in Orange County (in Florida, USA), the Te Urewera forest in New Zealand, the national law in Uganda or the rivers of Bangladesh. However, until now none existed in Europe. The law of the Mar Menor has preceded other citizen initiatives on the continent that, from different approaches, seek similar consideration for the North Sea in the Netherlands, the Loire River in France, the Rhône in France and Switzerland, or for nature in general. in Derry in Northern Ireland.
This is what different Spanish and European jurists think about the law of the Mar Menor and the rights of nature:
“We are learning”
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Jérémie Gilbert, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Roehampton in London:
“There are not a few initiatives on the rights of nature that are beginning to germinate in Europe, but they are not as advanced as that of the Mar Menor in Spain. The different approaches we are seeing are interesting, with the Loire River there are people who want to create a Parliament, with the North Sea there is an embassy… I think we are looking for the best model to represent nature. All this is very recent and in Europe we are learning from what has been done in other places. In the case of Ecuador, the rights of nature were recognized in its Constitution in 2008 and last year the Constitutional Court stopped a mining project in the Los Cedros forest, considering that this ecosystem had the right to exist and live. This shows to what extent these approaches have real effects. As a jurist, I think that this supposes a supplementary protection for nature, suddenly it has the right to be protected, not only are human interests”.
“This law is going to place Spanish legislation at the forefront”
Rubén Martínez Dalmau, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Valencia and member of the United Nations expert group on the rights of nature.
“We are facing an evolution of law that not only has no technical problem, but is also the current trend. This construction dates back a long time, because when the right to animal protection appeared in the 1970s, non-human rights were already being recognized. This new law [de reconocimiento de personalidad jurídica del mar Menor] It will place Spanish legislation at the forefront of the latest transformations of law. It places us before a real possibility of seeing nature from you to you, since it is the first time in the Spanish legal system that the ownership of rights of a natural entity is recognized. This introduces Spanish law within the framework of ecocentrism, where it is understood that nature and human beings form part of the same unit. And in a world in which we are fighting against the crisis of climate change and in favor of the environment, this type of ecocentric conceptions are extremely important”.
“We are trying to invent the wheel”
Ana Barreira, lawyer and director of the International Institute of Law and Environment.
“We are trying to invent the wheel, which is already invented. We do not need more environmental regulations, what we need is that the ones we have are complied with. This whole rights of nature movement comes from a 1972 publication titled: Should trees have standing? We are talking about a few years in which there were really no environmental protection standards. But, of course, we are in 2022, there has been a very important evolution. The problem now is that the rules that already exist are not being applied. this new law [del mar Menor] will it facilitate the application of the rules? Well I do not know. It strikes me that those who have failed to apply the rules for the protection of the Mar Menor are now going to be part of that group that will act as guardian or tutor. A lot of effort is being put into it and I don’t really know if it’s going to work. I believe that what needs to be done is to provide the Administration with more resources and train the judiciary to enforce what already exists”.
“The only thing we judges are going to do is execute it and apply it”
Ascensión Martín, magistrate and spokesperson for Judges for Democracy:
“This is totally new, there are no precedents in Spain. And, we, the judges, the only thing that we are going to do if it is approved is to execute it and apply it. We support it. It is a legislative novelty and, as such, it is welcome, we highly respect the separation of powers. Those who do not agree to go to court. This law will allow the representatives of the Mar Menor to defend their interests, regardless of political parties. Today we are all more aware of the defense of the environment. All of society in general and also the magistrates who are part of it”.
“This is a historic step”
Carolijn Terwindt, jurist, anthropologist and artist at the North Sea Embassy, a project that seeks to give this ecosystem a voice in Dutch politics
“The recognition of the rights of the Mar Menor is very unique and very important, it is a historic step that we in the Netherlands are observing with great interest. Until now, Europe was the only continent where this concept of rights of nature did not yet exist in law. We believe that apart from taking this step of the imagination within the framework of the law, it must also be taken culturally. We are building a network in Europe that seeks that in 2030 citizens can imagine emotionally, culturally, politically and mentally that nature has a legal personality, as well as a voice and the ability to participate.
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