Activist who fought for legal rights for Europe's largest saltwater lagoon wins 'Green Nobel'

A professor who helped save Europe's largest saltwater lagoon is one of this year's winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel."

Dorany Pineda
Monday 29 April 2024 08:36 BST

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Growing up, Teresa Vicente spent long days in Spain's Mar Menor swimming in transparent waters, cupping seahorses in her hands and partying under the moonlit sky. Out there, she recalled, time stood still.

But over the decades, chronic contamination from mining, development and agricultural runoff turned the once crystal-clear waters of Europe's largest saltwater lagoon into a graveyard. A mass fish die-off in 2019 prompted the professor of philosophy of law at the University of Murcia to take action.

Over the next several years, Vicente, now 61, led a grassroots campaign to save the region's ecological jewel from collapse. Her efforts helped lead to a new law passed in 2022, giving the lagoon the legal right to conservation, protection and damage remediation.

Vicente is one of this year's seven winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel," which honors grassroots activists and leaders from across the globe for achievements in protecting the natural world. The recipients were selected from about 100 nominees.

“(This prize) signifies an international recognition that we are facing a new stage in humanity," said Vicente in Spanish. It's a stage where “human beings understand they are part of nature. And this recognition means that it is not a local or national conquest, but rather a European and international one."

“They call Mar Menor the lagoon of magic," she added, "and all of us on this journey have seen a lot of magic.”

The other winners are:

— Marcel Gomes, executive secretary for the media nonprofit Repórter Brasil, who organized a campaign that alleged connections between beef from the world's largest meatpacking corporation, JBS, and illegal deforestation in Brazil and helped pressure retailers around the world to stop selling the meat.

— Indigenous activist Murrawah Maroochy Johnson, who helped stop development of a coal mine in Australia's Queensland state that would have devasted nearly 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) of a nature preserve, spewed nearly 1.6 billion tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its lifetime, and endangered the rights and culture of Indigenous peoples.

— Alok Shukla, who led a community movement that saved nearly half a million acres (200,000 hectares) of forests from 21 proposed coal mines in Chhattisgarh, a state in central India.

— Andrea Vidaurre, who helped convince the state of California's air quality agency to establish two transportation regulations that limit emissions from trains and trucks. The rules include the nation's first emissions limit for trains.

— Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu, Indigenous activists who prevented seismic testing for coal and gas in a coastal area off South Africa's Eastern Cape.

Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, called the winners “an incredible group of individuals laboring, sometimes in obscurity, against overwhelming odds to prevail against governments, against industry."

Vicente was born and raised in Spain's southeastern city of Murcia, home to the Mar Menor. When she learned about the 2019 fish die-off, she was at the University of Reading in England studying how other countries had successfully bestowed legal rights upon natural resources to protect them.

To save the lagoon, Vicente in 2020 helped write the first draft of a bill granting legal protection to the Mar Menor and submitted it to Spain's Parliament, which allows citizens to propose laws directly. But the process required her to gather 500,000 signatures during COVID-19 lockdowns.

By November 2021, with help from thousands of volunteers across Spain, Vicente had amassed nearly 640,000 signatures — and the law was passed in 2022.

She never doubted she would succeed. "People had understood that they were part of that ecosystem and were excited about the idea of ​​being able to defend their rights," she said. "When people forget their political differences, their religious differences or their economic differences, and give themselves over to a new idea of ​​justice, that is a sure success.”

The Goldman Environmental Prize was founded in 1989 by philanthropists Richard and Rhoda H. Goldman to recognize common people working in their communities to protect and improve their environment.

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AP video journalist Haven Daley contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment.

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