By Sally Low
PRAGUE - "If you go into the countryside in the West, perhaps you can drink water from the streams, but in our country it is all poisoned." Like so many Czechs and Slovaks, my friend Jana despairs over the environment in her country and insists that in the West things are much better.
Her concern is real. In the name of economic planning and industrial development, the water, soil and air in many parts of this region were ravaged. Energy guzzling and outmoded technology were introduced while basic hygiene services such as sewage treatment plants were often a low priority.
Social movements that in the West have won some restrictions on ecological vandalism were generally prohibited under the old regimes.
That there are, however, no existing models to follow - for the environment there has to be a "third way" - was a positive if not formally acknowledged conclusion of the Central European Environmental Seminar attended by more than 300 people in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, April 14-20. The conference was a venue for networking among many of the region's new environmental groups.
Funded mainly by the German Marshal Foundation, the conference was run by young North Americans, many of them students from private US universities, in conjunction with the Prague-based Green Telephone Group, Public Against Violence (the Slovak counterpart to Czechoslovakia's ruling Civic Forum) and the Budapest-based Regional Environment Centre.
Resources for independent social activism are generally lacking here, so the Regional Environment Centre in Budapest, initiated by George Bush during his 1989 visit to Hungary, is well placed to become the clearing house for the Central European environment movement.
Funded by various Western countries, the centre is controlled by a board of trustees from governments, businesses and academia. Its charter is to be an independent, non-government, non-advocacy centre covering the whole of central and eastern Europe, to fund projects, disseminate information and organise conferences.
Under the rubric of education for the environment, discussion at the conference ranged from how to teach infants to love and respect their surroundings to organic farming, deep ecology, ecologically sustainable economics, the role of the media, philosophy, networking and direct action. As well, there were panel presentations, two of which highlighted some contradictory aspects of the Western input into the seminar.
"Education Through Media" panelists such as Californian writer and activist Dennis Hayes and Andre Carothers, editor of the US Greenpeace magazine, stressed the need for alternative sources of stream Western media and pointed out that governments and legislation in a free market economy cannot be relied upon to protect the environment.
Next came the panel on "Cooperation Between Environmental Players: Industry, Government, NGOs and Academia", at which representatives of Denver University business management school, household consumer goods company Proctor and Gamble, the US government's Environmental Protection Agency, Westinghouse Scientific Ecology Group and the International Joint Commission for the US and Canada spoke.
They were received more openly than they would have been by environmental activists in Australia or the US, but there was nevertheless a deal of scepticism expressed. One young Czechoslovak woman chided Kathleen Shingledecker of Westinghouse - who, in a "mirrors and beads" gesture, had handed out non-recyclable plastic knick-knacks bearing her company's logo.
None of the representatives of industry gave specific details of their plans for the region or of how they will help to solve its environmental problems. They tended to concentrate on self-glorification or to emulate IBM, which has plastered local cities with a billboard that depicts a bunch of blue roses and the words "good luck Czechoslovakia".
Perhaps to avoid the distrust with which they are regarded by many people in their own countries, Western governments and companies seem determined to win themselves some ecological credibility in this region.