The lava from the Cumbre Vieja volcano is changing the appearance of the island of La Palma, and this has important social and environmental implications, but it also raises some unusual legal issues. What happens to the ownership of the land where the magma advances? According to the experts consulted, this natural catastrophe that happens in slow motion can trigger significant changes in different areas. On the other hand, if the lava finally reaches the sea, the volcanic rock may expand the surface of the Canary Islands, which requires resolving ownership of the new land. In some cases, according to the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGM), these outcrops in other locations have modified the maritime boundaries of countries. On the other hand, in La Palma the lava flow already covers land that has some owners, but whose uses have completely changed. The administrations involved will have to decide what to do with these areas when the magmatic material solidifies.
In the first case, we still have to wait to see if the lava finally reaches the sea and in what way. If new lands are created in what is now the sea, as sources from the Ministry of Ecological Transition indicate, Spanish legislation establishes that the first coastline is in the public maritime terrestrial domain (DPMT). This is reflected in the 1978 Constitution and the Coastal Law, so that this hypothetical expansion of the island of La Palma would belong to the State. On the other hand, it may mean that certain areas along the coast that are within the DPMT suddenly cease to exist, and a process of dissatisfaction may be opened to unprotect them.
In Tenerife, the eruption of the Trevejo volcano in 1706 buried much of the village of Garachico and left a completely different coastal profile, where volcanic rock created curious pools of sea water that are now natural pools, a tourist attraction that moves the place .
If the gain in space from the sea at La Palma is only a hypothesis at the moment, it is even more unlikely that the lava will significantly alter the profile of the coast. However, in some eruptions elsewhere, the action of volcanoes has also changed the lines that mark countries’ use rights at sea. As Luis Somoza, deputy director of the IGME, points out, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that defines the rights to explore and use marine resources is determined by the distance of 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) into the sea from the coast of nations. Therefore, if suddenly a new bulge appears on the shore or a new islet appears, the boundaries are extended. “This is considered natural growth, it’s just a simple hypothesis, but it’s happened before in Japan and China,” emphasizes Somoza, specifying that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does not accept this when the offshore expansion was made. artificially.
In any case, the lava wall has already involved more than 350 properties and farms of all types on the island of La Palma. According to data from the European Earth Observation System Copernicus, on Wednesday the lava from the Cumbre Vieja volcano covered 166 hectares of the island. What will happen to these lands completely altered by magma? Here the answer is much less clear, as it will depend on what the competent administrations do. However, what was once perhaps a house with a swimming pool or farmland has now become a volcanic rock pile that is difficult to use, but with enormous geological and environmental value. Some researchers believe that, regardless of ownership, these lands must be protected. However, the implications of this depend on the type of protection chosen.
According to José Miguel Tabarés, vice-rector of the College of Registrars of Spain, “if nothing was done, the private land under the lava would continue to be so, but it seems reasonable to proceed with some regulatory or expropriation process to make them as these landowners now own land where they cannot build or cultivate“.
Urban planning, much more rigorous
On the other hand, Rafel Audivert, administrative lawyer specializing in the environment and professor of administrative law, questions how urbanization in the affected area was allowed, where other eruptions occurred, even if it was many years ago. He is convinced that from now on legislation and urban planning will be much stricter, not only in relation to the possible evolution of a volcano, but also to other natural phenomena and their possible consequences, such as the rainfall regime in relation to to river courses, for example.
What cannot be foreseen is that there will be complaints to the public administration for unforeseen events, since the forecasts about the possible eruption of the volcano made it possible to take measures and alert the population to the danger. The debate, in any case, will be raised with regard to risk prevention. With the understanding that the degree of demand has increased a lot in recent years and that what was previously fortuitous is now considered negligent.
“Urban planning,” says Audivert in this sense, “will be stricter in many places. In the area now affected in La Palma, one of the first measures should be the implementation of protection strips, affecting homes and properties“. Here, the answer must therefore go through a set of actions that will have to do with both politics and law. According to Audivert, there will be properties that will simply disappear and their owners will be compensated. Obviously, those with insured assets will have greater protection and compensation. The Insurance Compensation Fund will have to act against the damage caused by a catastrophe.
But public authorities will also have to help the less farsighted or the most helpless. For example, those who carry out cultivation activities will in many cases not be able to continue on the same plots. In this case, there is the possibility of acquiring new land in predetermined areas, that is, receiving land, in the same way that those who have seen their house burned and demolished will be able to settle in new homes offered by the institutions. None of this can be done in two days, as it will involve a process of accreditation and verification of ownership, for example.
Luis Cordón, a civil lawyer at Tornos de Barcelona, explains that those who do not have insurance “will feel helpless from the start”. He estimates that in the short term there will have to be a response in the form of administrative actions by the Government of the Canary Islands, because the affected properties will not only be those destroyed. As detailed, “in this area there will be many buildings, cottages and houses that were not destroyed by the lava, but which will remain isolated. They will have remained standing, but without any type of supply, neither water nor sewage, and perhaps without access”. The damage balance, in short, will include more elements than meets the eye.
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