Teresa Vicente is a professor of philosophy of law and director of the Chair of Human Rights and Rights of Nature at the University of Murcia, Spain. Thanks to her efforts, along with those of many other activists and lawyers, the Mar Menor, Europe's largest saltwater lagoon, was granted legal personhood in 2022 following a Popular Legislative Initiative. In April 2024, Vicente received the prestigious Goldman Prize, known as the “Green Nobel Prize.” This award is given to an individual from each continent who has undertaken extraordinary actions in defense of the environment. Here is our Q&A with this year’s recipient for Europe and a lawyer for nature.

On the top floor of the Law Faculty building in Murcia, Teresa Vicente steps out of her office window onto the terrace overlooking the cloister. Here, the philosophy of law professor spends much of her time on the phone, discussing with other lawyers and activists how to respond to the judge's decision in a case concerning pollution in the Mar Menor — the first ecosystem in Europe to be granted its own legal personality.

“I have been teaching at the University of Murcia since 1986, but I have never stopped hanging around the halls of justice,” says Vicente. “I am part of the Chair of Human Rights and Rights of Nature at the University of Murcia, which I have directed since 2019. It is a legal action committee. We prepare arguments for a case, present them to a judge who, if they believe the argument is valid, will analyze and pursue it.”

TERESA VICENTE: Professor of philosophy of law and director of the Chair of Human Rights and Rights of Nature at the University of Murcia, Spain. She is among the recipients of this year's Goldman Prize.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and translated into English. The full version is available below for our Premium members.

Why did the committee expand its focus from human rights to include nature rights?
What has changed is the awareness that without nature rights, we cannot talk about human rights; the two are inseparable. That's why the committee carries this name.

How did the recognition of legal personality for an ecosystem come about?
International environmental law began to develop in the 1970s. Academically, environmental law is even more recent. But what progress have we made environmentally over the past 50 years? We have witnessed a greater loss of biodiversity. Every year, we record a warmer atmosphere and more soil loss. So, the question is: what isn't working in our approach to protecting the environment? It's getting worse! You don't need to attend United Nations meetings or read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports to figure it out. Since the Paris Agreements, which are a very important and promising legal basis, nothing has improved.

Drawing on the philosophy of law — which questions the motivations behind the law, measures its efficiency, and proposes new models — we realized that we had not assigned a mission to nature. Environmental law is crucial because, before it existed, nature was thought to have an infinite capacity to renew itself, which is absolutely false.

Teresa Vicente often works from the terrace of the Law Faculty building in Murcia.
Now we are all the Mar Menor — Teresa Vicente

Today, it can be clearly demonstrated that there is a living system, and this system is not just the recent Gaia theory of James Lovelock (editor’s note: the Gaia theory is a classic in ecological literature that views the Earth as a self-regulating system creating the necessary conditions for life). Over the last century, earth science and ecology have told us that the separation between humans and nature is wrong. Such a distinction has led us to the Anthropocene, whose message is that nature is an object at our service. This approach has led us to exceed the limits of the only planet that allows us to live. It has made the very laws of nature vulnerable, because nature has its own immutable laws.

It's not about blaming ourselves but about analyzing why. We are already there; we’re seeing the collapse. All of this won't return to a previous state if we do nothing. We are fighting to make the Earth habitable, and it makes no sense with everything we know today to continue with this economic development model. That's why nature rights are rooted in a new vision: nature is alive; humans are part of the ecosystem. Until now, humans have been the only ethical subjects (editor’s note: as in the only beings recognized with intrinsic dignity) and thus with responsibilities. Now, we must take responsibility for the damage we have been causing to nature and share the idea of dignity with the Earth, because any vital element — including organic and inorganic elements that generate life — has dignity. Perhaps we don't realize it, but it's impossible for a species to have dignity if the whole ecosystem does not.

ARTICLE 6 (Spanish Law 19/2022): Enforcement. Any natural or legal person is authorized to defend the Mar Menor ecosystem and can enforce the rights and prohibitions of this law through a legal action filed with the corresponding court. Such legal action must be brought on behalf of the Mar Menor ecosystem as the true interested party. The person initiating such legal action and prevailing shall have the right to recover the entire cost of the dispute undertaken, except in cases of negligence or bad faith, including attorney's fees, court costs, expert fees, and witness fees, and shall be exempt from procedural costs and guarantees related to injunctive measures.
On the left, the Mar Menor on a map; on the right, algae proliferating in the Spanish saltwater lagoon (Courtesy of Ecologistas en Accion).

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