Czechoslovakia: Greens organise to save what's left

March 12, 1991

By Tracy Sorensen

PRAGUE — The view over Prague formerly enjoyed by a gigantic statue of Stalin is justly famous — all Gothic church spires, patchwork roofs and stone bridges crisscrossing the Vltava River. Unfortunately, on most days it's difficult to see it through the low-slung brown smog.

Prague is a beautiful city, but it stinks. The scent and tang of sulphur are reminiscent of Cringila, the Wollongong suburb beside the BHP steelworks, on a bad day.

Zoning appears to have been unheard of by those in charge of the city's development: enormous smokestacks sit side by side with grey residential blocks, belching black smoke all over them.

The water is not much better: it tastes like a kind of heavy metal cordial. The huge amount of chlorine in it makes the skin dry and itchy.

Statistics confirm what you can taste and smell: one-third of children in Czechoslovakia have immune system diseases; asthma levels are among the worst in Europe; life expectancy is low (in Europe, higher only than Poland).

According to the newly re-established Anti-Cancer League (which was banned by the old regime), cancers have dramatically increased since 1965; the league blames "deteriorating living conditions". The number of cancer patients increased by up to 160% in 1988. That year, cancer accounted for about 22% of total deaths.

Since it swept to power after the overthrow of the Stalinist regime in November 1989, the ruling Civic Forum government has repeatedly declared the environment to be a national priority.

The national consensus is for a drastic reduction in the production of power from low-quality coal, which has devastated the ecology of northern Bohemia; the introduction of catalysts for cars; the building of sewage treatment plants; the creation of refuse incinerating plants and gas and fly-ash separators; and the passing of consistent environmental protection laws and limits.

Higher priorities

The government has also repeatedly declared that it doesn't have the money. In January, it allocated the Czech environment ministry 300 million crowns for this year; one complete desulphurisation unit for a thermal power plant costs 1000 million crowns.

The environment runs a poor second place to the government's first priority: to raise the economy to Western European levels of production and consumption in the shortest possible time, and to do so using the free market model.

The government has scrapped its own plan to reduce sulphur emissions by one-third; it is continuing, despite opposition from Italy and Austria, to operate old and dangerous nuclear reactors; and it has oversial project to dam the Danube near the Hungarian border.

Small grassroots ecological organisations are springing up all over the country. Campaigning around issues as diverse as recycling, the use of glass bottles for milk rather than plastic bags and the protection of endangered plants and animals, the groups all have in common a deep suspicion of any kind of "big politics".

This suspicion is even directed at the Green Party, which is held to be tainted by an association with the secret police of the old regime. The groups prefer to work within small circles of people they know, although they do come together for joint work around particular issues.

"In the beginning, we trusted the government to care both for the economy and for people", Petra Francova, a member of perhaps the best known grassroots ecological group, Mothers of Prague, told Green Left. "But now we are suspicious. It seems to us that it should be possible to deal with both the environment and the economy at the same time, and not first recover the economy and then start to create a better living environment.

"It seems to us that our children are in such bad condition that the priorities should not be like this."

In January, Mothers of Prague and another small organisation, Ecocaste, held a week of joint activities in Wenceslas Square. Huge boxes of plastic bottles were collected to draw attention to the need for recycling programs, while activists discussed ecological problems with passers-by.

"My children always used to be ill", said Francova. "One would stop and the other would start. They had problems with their immune systems, not just asthma but other kinds of upper respiratory tract infections."

Mothers of Prague is demanding that trucks be routed around the city rather than straight through residential areas; for the centre of the city to be made entirely free of cars; for better parks and facilities for children; for less chemicals in foods (additives and poisoning from fertilisers); improved water purification, and so on.

Recycling

Ecocaste is a subgroup of the larger environmental group Children of the Earth.

"These plastic bottles are produced by one organisation, Slusovice", activist Martin Ferbas told Green Left. "The problem is that they haven't a recycling program and they make 16 million bottles per year. Most of those bottles go into the rubbish. Some of them are burned, which is very horrible because when they are burned at under 1200° centigrade, it creates carcinogenic waste.

"We want Slusovice to stop the production of these bottles or to start a recycling program."

Ecocaste is not associated with either the Green Party or the more l youth group Brontosaurus; for Martin Ferbas, these organisations are too big and too official.

Next on Ecocaste's agenda is an action against the Moravian dam complex Novomlynska nadrza, which was completed three years ago. The dams have almost destroyed a forest in the region which needs vast quantities of water twice a year.

The local Rainbow Movement and the Moravian section of Ecocaste are campaigning for water to be released from one of the dams to try to save the forest. They say it must be done this year or it will be too late: "After that, the surrounding areas will have dried out so much that nothing will live there".

Danube dam

The dam which most concerns ecologists is the one under construction at Gabcikovo in Slovakia, near the Hungarian border.

Ecologists hold that the dam and hydro-electric scheme would devastate the surrounding region, just as at Novomlynska nadrza. The surrounding forests would dry out and die; changing water levels would prevent fish from breeding; and heavy metals would be concentrated in the sludge that would build up on the river bottom. Drinking water for the surrounding territory would be at risk.

There have been lively demonstrations through Prague streets, demanding that the government stop work and close the project down.

Work has all but stopped, but not because the government has bowed to pressure from ecologists. The Hungarians, originally partners in the scheme, have pulled out because of massive pressure from the Hungarian ecological movement.

The Czechoslovak government now argues that with 37 kilometres of channel already built, and a power station completed and awaiting start-up, it would be more ecologically damaging to stop work than continue.

The Slovak government is busy calculating the economic losses the Hungarian side has caused by pulling out, hinting that there might be calls for compensation.

This determination can be best understood in the context of Slovak nationalism, says Ivan Dejmal, the editor of Ecologicky Bulletin and a long-time campaigner against the dam. According to Dejmal, the Slovak nation had always lacked a major technological project which would "represent it as a capable nation".

Another nationalist element, he says, is that the territory surrounding the dam site is traditionally Hungarian. "We were given the area after the first world war and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy."

Ethnic Hungarians live on both sides of the proposed scheme; when completed, it would cut the area into two, "so the two sides could not communicate with each other. The few Slovak ecologists who know what is going on have a hard time persuading politicians in Bratislava that it's not a matter of Hungary but a matter of protecting the

Those campaigning against Gabcikovo have formed the Danube Charter, which involves both Hungarian and Czechoslovak activists as well as Austrians: early plans to involve Austria in a joint hydro-electric scheme were stopped by massive Austrian opposition.I

Issue