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Spain: Granting legal personality to natural areas in order to ensure their protection

Spanish Law 4/2021 on the recovery and protection of the Mar Menor recognised the rights of the Mar Menor lagoon ecosystem and its basin.

The implementation of the new legal status allows for autonomous governance of the coastal lagoon, understood as an ecosystem worthy of protection in itself, a legal novelty that enhances the treatment given until now: the lagoon goes from being a mere object of protection, recovery and development, to being an inseparably biological, environmental, cultural and spiritual subject.

Local communities are given a voice to defend and manage their interests in an environmentally very relevant and sensitive area. From this perspective, the management of participatory rights in the management of environmental interests advocated in the second pillar of the Aarhus Convention takes on a new dimension. The three pillars of the Aarhus Convention (right to information, right to participation and right to justice) are enhanced by this new legal status.

The new legislation follows in the wake of the legal protection given to the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Ganges River in India, Lake Erie in USA and Canada, the ruling of the Colombian Constitutional Court on the Atrato River, etc. In addition, the new regulation incorporates instruments not only for participation but also for the autonomous management of local communities over the protected natural area, subordinating expectations and private interests to environmental ones, which is why it can be considered very innovative in some respects.

Specifically, the law recognises the Mar Menor as a "subject of rights" including not only the area where the coastal lagoon is located but also the aquifers that are connected to it and that may affect its "ecological stability". The four rights it recognises are the right to exist and evolve naturally, the right to protection, the right to conservation and the right to restoration.

According to the article 9 of Aarhus Convention, the new legislation makes it easier for all citizens to seek remedies in court against those responsible for damage to the lagoon.

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