Science magazine reports on a bit of Indigenous philosophy that’s become a legal strategy for environmental protection. After nearly 640,000 citizens signed a petition supporting the idea, the Spanish senate has passed a law declaring Mar Menor, Europe’s largest lagoon and an important breeding ground fan mussels and other endangered sea life, a person under the law:
The lagoon is the first ecosystem in Europe to get such rights, but this approach to conservation has been gaining popularity around the world over the past decade. The Ganges and every river in Bangladesh have been granted personhood, for example; elsewhere, concepts in some Indigenous communities have helped drive the trend. “It’s taken off like wildfire,” says Catherine Iorns Magallanes, an environmental law expert at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).
The clearest success story, scholars say, is the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was given legal rights by an act of Parliament in 2017. Like a person, the river and its catchment can sue or be sued, enter contracts, and hold property. In that case, the aim was not to stop pollution but to incorporate the Māori connection between people and nature into Western law. “The river and the land and its people are inseparable,” Niko Tangaroa, a Māori elder of the Whanganui Iwi people and a prominent activist for the river, wrote in 1994.
Spain’s environmental ministry recently started to act, committing nearly €500 million over the next 5 years to address pollution in Mar Menor. This summer, workers removed large masses of algae from the lagoon to help prevent anoxia. Upstream, government agencies are destroying illegal irrigation canals to prevent some fertilizer from reaching the lagoon. But conservation advocates hope the new legal framework will bolster these efforts.
Now, any citizen can sue to protect Mar Menor, for example from too much fertilizer. The legal guardians, consisting of representatives from government and citizens who have yearslong appointments, can suggest legal and other actions on behalf of the lagoon. The scientific committee will gauge ecological health, for example by establishing healthy ranges of salinity, oxygen, and other variables. It will also identify new threats and advise on restoration measures. A monitoring commission will include representatives from environmental organizations, fishing and farming industries, and other stakeholders.