Written by Ignacio Martínez Armas

This is the first article of a series of two, where we analyse a new legal approach to protect endangered ecosystems.

A new Spanish Law for Mar Menor has been introduced, that offers a new way for Europe to protect endangered ecosystems: “The time has come to make a qualitative leap and adopt a new legal-political model, in line with the international legal forefront and the global movement for the recognition of the Rights of Nature” (1).. It changes the consideration of the ecosystem from being just a place to becoming a Legal Person who has the right to defend itself. But this Law is not just that, it represents the contemporary beliefs about nature, which does not see our environment as a place to exploit, but as a place to live, in which we, as humans, are emmeshed.

Mar Menor is a salt-lagoon in the southeast of Spain, in the Region of Murcia. It covers an area of 170km2, making it one of the largest salt lakes in Europe. It is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a narrow strip of sand called La Manga, 22km long and between 100 and 1200m wide. This lagoon is home to numerous species such as seahorses (Hippocampus guttulatus), little terns (Sternula albifrons) and the Seba’s underwater grasslands (Cymodocea nodosa) (2). Since the 80’s, the ecosystem has been constantly polluted, causing the death of up to 15 tons of animals and plants in 2021 (3). This article explores how the legal personhood law came up as a solution to these problems.

In the past ten years, all news about Mar Menor had in common the words “ecological disaster”. Even though Mar Menor has been included in several international environmental lists —such as the Ramsar or Natura 2000— to protect it, it has never been enough. The causes of this disaster are numerous, but scientific evidence indicates that the worst is from intensively irrigated agriculture in the surroundings of the lagoon. Murcia, where the lagoon is located, is one of the provinces in Spain with less annual rain. This irrigated agriculture should not be possible and seems to be the cause of the pollution of the Mar Menor.

Recent biography of Mar Menor

The 60’s in Spain was a time of economic growth after years of extreme poverty. Many hydro constructions were being approved, including the 1933 project, “Tajo-Segura trasvase” (4). This project consisted of the construction of huge canal 292 km long that transferred water from the Tajo River to the Segura River, connecting the longest river in Spain to the main river of Murcia. Construction began in 1966 and ended in 1979. It was the beginning of a socio-economic change for all farmers in Murcia, and the beginning of the end for Mar Menor.

An example of this socio-economic change is Torre-Pacheco (10km away from the Mar Menor). By comparing the area in 1971 and 2018, we can see how the whole municipality changed from dry to irrigated farming. In 1971, the region dedicated most of its total cultivated aera (55%) to grain, fodder, legumes and olives. In 2018, 73% was dedicated to vegetables and fruits and 92% of the grain plantations had disappeared (5). The landscape had changed from golden grasslands to polytunnels and lines of green plants.

Mar Menor is mostly threatened by intensive agriculture.

This change was not a natural one, as all the newly-sourced water came from the Tajo-Segura canal to irrigate these plantations. It then flowed somewhere else —into the lagoon of Mar Menor, that became the victim of this change. All the chemicals and fertilizers dissolved in the water were deposited in the lagoon. Yet, Mar Menor had the phytobenthos (plants who live in the lake’s bottom). In the beginning, these plants absorbed the excess nutrient caused by the farm runoff. But, after almost forty years, the phytobenthos weren’t enough and Mar Menor started to suffer what is called a eutrophication —excess nutrient that the usual flora cannot absorb.  These nutrients were now available for other species such as phytoplankton, whose numbers suddenly exploded. The lagoon turned murky and 85% of the phytobenthos population, —which needed light to survive— disappeared (6).

The aquatic plants which absorb the chemicals —specifically nitrogen— from the farms were dying while intensive agriculture was increasing. The plantations of Murcia, often called “Europe’s Orchard”, were taking over the lagoon. Between four and five thousand tons of nitrates were being dumped into Mar Menor each year. Some Laws were proposed by the local government, but the slow process of Justice couldn’t really do anything in time.

On 15th October 2019 the first anoxia —absence of oxygen— occurred. Due to the rain, polluted water from the farms suddenly flooded into the lagoon. What happened then to Mar Menor was a disaster. Thousands of fish swam out the water searching for oxygen, just to die suffocated at the coast. The local people had to clean up to 15 tons of dead animals and plants.

A social movement to protect Mar Menor gained strength. The Lawyer Teresa Vicente, supported by Scientists, Lawyers and hundreds of members of the public, started a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP). This is a process in which people in Spain can directly propose a new Law to the State Government. The ILP text aimed to consider Mar Menor as a legal person, so the previous laws could be easier to apply. Eduardo Salazar, a Lawyer involved in the movement, explains that this consideration makes it simpler to protect the lagoon. The laws that were supposed to defend Mar Menor had failed because it was the local government that should have applied them, and they were “the same people that let the Mar Menor got polluted in the first place”, as Salazar says (7). With the ILP, any harm to the lagoon can be easily reported through three committees: scientific, political and social. All the legal processes must involve the people who report issues in the first place. In this way, every report will be public, and the people can know if the government is taking care or not.

The ILP needed at least 500.000 signatures to be considered by the government, and unfortunately, before they were collected, the COVID19 pandemic started. But that didn’t stop the movement. Just after the Spanish government finished enforcing quarantine, the ILP volunteers began their odyssey to get all the necessary signatures. Mostly women, the volunteers worked wherever they could in Murcia and Spain. At the end of August 2021, Mar Menor suffered another anoxia. In response, up to 70.000 people formed a human chain around the lagoon to demonstrate against the inaction of the government (8). By October 2021 they had passed the 500.000 signatures goal with 639.826 people involved.

Human chain as a demonstration to protect Mar Menor. Source.

After the normal process for this kind of law, the ILP was approved in October 2022, being the first ILP to be approved without any amendments. Spain became the first European Country to consider an ecosystem as a legal person. The environmental associations from Spain and around the world celebrated this big step in the European Climate Change fight. Now, the local Murcia people can report any damage made to Mar Menor. But the justice doesn’t rely just on the inhabitants of Murcia, but also on the three committees (scientific, political and social) that will oversee Mar Menor’s life to find any problem. Also, it will make it easier to check if the farmers are applying the sustainable methods they are supposed to use. As this Law emanated from the Spain’s Central Government, it is the most important move the State has made to defend Mar Menor. Maybe this is an opportunity to fix uncontrolled growth of agriculture due to the Tajo-Segura Trasvase. The years will tell if it is indeed a useful way to protect the lagoon.

The Shannon – a legal person?

As we said in a previous article, in September 2022 a group of Irish lawyers and activists wrote a submission to the Citizens’ Assembly called “Rights of Nature in Ireland: Towards a living island of rights-bearing communities” (9). In this submission, they propose two ecosystems that could benefit from a new legal approach. The first one is Ireland’s Peatlands, endangered because of the turf commerce. As the researchers suggest, the recognition in the Irish Constitution of the Rights of Nature will help this ecosystem. Doing so, “would help shield our fragile bogs and other valuable ecosystems from political expediency and short-sighted measures.”

The other ecosystem that is proposed is the Shannon River. In this case, they talk about a personhood status for the river, the same as Mar Menor. So, what is happening to the longest river of Ireland and why would it benefit from this new approach? The environmental problems of the Shannon River are biodiversity loss, water pollution and flooding (and, looking to the future, also the Shannon-Dublin pipeline). Even if we address them as three separate issues, they are all interwoven.

Hundreds of thousands of fish have died in the Shannon River. Right now, it only has 5% of the salmon it should contain. The eel population has also been reduced. As the Old River Shannon Foundation says, the main problem is the Shannon Scheme, with the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric plant as a potential fish killer. Even if the hydroelectric energy is a sustainable energy, “it’s not ‘green energy’ when you have no effective fish passes, no fish screens, have never completed an Environmental Impact Assessment and are abstracting >96% of the flow from a Natura 2000 river (10). This is what the Old River Shannon Foundation claims. In May 2022, 100,000 young salmon died at the Parteen Salmon Hatchery. The ESB claimed it was an algal bloom, but, as the Foundation points out, it seems like a negligence, similar to the one that in 2014 killed more than 300,000 eels in Erne River (11). Also, it is necessary to add all the biodiversity loss due to the floods from the last years. Millions of creatures are dying due to human (in)actions in the Shannon River.

Water pollution in the Shannon is also a problem that needs to be tackled. Apart from farming, one of the main polluters is the Aughinish Alumina plant in Co. Limerick, the largest of its kind in Europe. With an aerial view, you can see the red sludge mountains next to the factory, which are formed from the residues of applying the Bayer method to the bauxite to obtain aluminum. This is a kind of radioactive material which, due to an accidental leakage, caused an ecological disaster in Hungary in 2010 (12). Even though it is dangerous, in 2018 the expansion of the red mud disposal of the plant was approved, “which would require the extension of a pit to contain materials displaced during construction and rock blasting”. The environmentalists say that these explosions  can turn into the same ecological disaster that happened in Hungary. As Tim Hannon, an activist against the plant, said to the Limerick Post, “the reason you can see it (the mud pond) on Google Maps is because nothing can grow on it. This stuff is incompatible with life, under no circumstances should it be allowed to expand” (13). Not to mention the diseases it caused to people and cattle, probably related to the water pollution that aroused in the 90’s in the surroundings of the Aughinish plant (14).

Aughinish Alumina Plant as viewed across the estuary from Kildysart Pier. Wikimedia Commons.

Another important issue with the Shannon River is flooding. Even not having enough data to relate it directly with human action and climate change, “it is part of a Europe-wide pattern; rivers are drying up in some areas, and getting stronger, with more forceful currents in others” (15). In the last years, flooding has increased more than expected, causing severe damage to the farms alongside the River, Upper and Lower Shannon are both affected. One of the reasons for this flooding is because of the bed of silt at the bottom of the river, probably caused by the excess runoff from the farms. One solution is to build ponds where the polluted water can be stored before reaching the river, so the silt is deposited there. Save Our Shannon Organisation sent a list of the main actions that should be done in a submission to the Minister. The three objectives are (16):

  1. Reduce water levels in Lough Allen, Ree and Derg by one meter, and introduce an emergency bill to control the level of these lakes.
  2. One authority in total control of the Shannon, enabled to mandate the ESB and Waterways Ireland.
  3. Remove all the impediments in the critical areas.

The Shannon Pipeline which will provide 300 million liters of water to Dublin every day could also be a problem, since “water abstraction is not effectively regulated in Ireland”, says the Rights of Nature Submission (9). Like dredging, just abstracting water from the Shannon can produce faster currents which will erode riverbanks and can put bridges and dams under pressure.

In 2020, the River Shannon Management Agency Bill was proposed to tackle the flooding problem and is still in the process of being approved. This Law will create the River Shannon Management Agency, which will “undertake, construct and maintain all such drainage […] for the purpose of preventing or substantially reducing the periodical flooding” (17), among other things. This Law, as the Rights of Nature Submission says, can be an opportunity for protecting the Shannon with a legal-personhood status. In fact, if you compare the River Shannon Bill and the Mar Menor Law (and the other ones presented in the previous article) both contemplate the creation of an Agency or Commission. If the Shannon Law extends its purpose with amendments, this Agency can be the representantive of the Shannon River and its powers can be extended from just managing flooding, to protecting the Shannon from the problems exposed in this article. If the Shannon River is a Legal Person, it would be easier to address the problems. In addition to the Government, part of the responsability for the biodiversity loss and pollution of water, as shown here, rests with two big businesses: ESB and the Aughinish Alumina Plant. To fight them, legal tools must be given to the people, since these companies are able to pay fines and continue their activities without any trouble. If the legal framework changes and the problem is addressed as if these companies are harming a legal person, the Shannon Agency would have a new way to protect the Shannon. Eventually, this will lead to minimize the damage of the flooding, reduce the biodiversity loss and fix the problem of water pollution.

 

Sources and links

(1) Ley 19/2022, de 30 de septiembre, para el reconocimiento de personalidad jurídica a la laguna del Mar Menor y su cuenca. 

(2) Canal Mar Menor (2022) Inventario ecológico del Mar Menor.

(3) Reche, E. and Almagro, E. M. (2022) La iniciativa para que el Mar Menor tenga derechos es aprobada en el Senado: “Encabezamos un movimiento europeo”. elDiario.es.

(4) Ministerio para la Transición Ecológica y el Reto Demográfico (2022) Trasvase Tajo-Segura.

(5) Rodríguez-Calles, L. (2022) Ecological Impacts of Agribusiness Transformation in a Spanish Mediterranean Enclave: Impacts on the Mar Menor Coastal Lagoon. EuroChoices, 21 (2), 43-49

(6) Esteve Selma, M. A. (2021) Mar Menor: historia de un colapso ambiental que pudo haberse evitado. The Conversation.

(7) Sanchez Hernández, J. (2022) Entrevista a Eduardo Salazar [Video]. Youtube.

(8) Agencies (2021) Some 70,000 people form human chain to protest environmental crisis at Mar Menor. El País.

(9) Brennan, C.; Dora, P.; Hough, A.; Joyce-Kemper, S.; Killean, R.; Kirby, P.; McNeill, B.; Nevin, C; Owens, D.; Sullivan, L. and Tobin, B. (2022) Rights of Nature in Ireland: Towards a living island of rights-bearing communities. Submission to the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss

(10) O’Connor, W. (2020) The Shannon Scheme does not provide “Green Energy”. Old River Shannon Foundation.

(11) O’Connor, W. (2020) Over 100,000 young salmon die at Parteen Salmon Hatchery. Old River Shannon Foundation.

(12) Tran, M. (2010) Hungary toxic sludge spill an ‘ecological catastrophe’ says government. The Guardian.

(13) English, B. (2022) Groups will do everything possible to stop Aughinish rock-blasting. Limerick Post.

(14) Ferriter, P. (2021) Sludge on the Shannon: Inside Ireland’s Alumina Industry. Meon Jorunal.

(15) Ni Aodha, G. (2020) Dredging the Shannon would ease flooding in some areas, and make it worse in others. TheJournal.ie.

(16) These objectives form our submission to the minister in charge of the opw and are set out as follows. Save Our Shannon Organisation

(17) An Bille um Ghníomhaireacht Bainistíochta Abhainn na Sionainne, 2020. House of the Oireachtas.