A place for environment in the new Czechoslovakia?


By Sally Low
and Peter Annear

PRAGUE — Ironically, the Suma Mountains region owes its largely unspoiled condition to the old Czechoslovak regime. Bordering on Austria and (West) Germany, for several decades it was closed off to most citizens. Now local residents are divided over whether to open the area to big commercial tourist development, from which some think they could grow rich, or to preserve it as a national park.

Economic difficulties and the pressures of the market have dampened the "beautiful phrases and emotional speeches about the environment" that helped bring people onto the streets in November 1989, says Zdenek Prasil, a long-term activist in Brontosaurus, a Czech environmental youth group. He spoke to Green Left about the state of the movement in his country.

Environmental groups have multiplied rapidly since 1989, but the movement faces numerous problems. While concern is high in areas like Prague and Northern Bohemia, where terrible air pollution affects daily lives, the desire to be part of the free market dream — or mere economic survival — takes first priority for many.

And like much of this society, the environmental movement is undergoing some sharp discussions about the past. Groups that existed before 1989, the Czech Union for Nature Protection and Brontosaurus, which was formally affiliated to the old Socialist Union of Youth, are accused by others of having collaborated with the old regime.

"Complete nonsense", says Prasil. While tolerated within limits, environmental activists were not popular with Communist Party bureaucrats. In the current atmosphere of recrimination and purges, the now independent Brontosaurus is one of the few really pluralistic movements in which people with a broad range of political views cooperate.

Activists also find that, whereas before they were not free to publicly criticise the regime, now they are but it is difficult to get their views aired in the press. Publicity, research and the full-time staff needed to run a professional operation all cost money that is increasingly hard to find.

Energy, transport and agriculture are Czechoslovakia's three major ecological problem areas, and in Prasil's view the market will make matters worse.

Brontosaurus recently asked 50 banks how they monitor the environmental consequences of new investment projects. Of the 12 which bothered to reply, most claimed to have some guidelines but made it clear they regard their clients' privacy as more important than the public's right to be informed.

Day and night, road traffic now pours across newly opened borders and t villages. Major highways are planned to link Vienna with several German cities via Prague. Eventual European Community membership is likely to increase this problem. Already, under pressure from Greece and other EC countries, the federal government has lowered the transit fees for Greek trucks.

As well, the government is threatening to close down or stop subsidising a large proportion of the present rail and public bus services. This will encourage a trend towards private car ownership and substantially raise living costs for the least well off.

Wholesale privatisation is not the way to solve the problems of overuse of pesticides and fertilisers — as well as often substandard quality — in the collectivised agricultural sector. These, Prasil says, could be better tackled through legislation, taxes and incentives.

Czechoslovakia's cooperative farming sector was one of the few relatively efficient areas of the economy, and not many farmers want it dismantled. Used to an 8-10 hour working day and the considerable social benefits of collective farming, they don't share the city-dwelling, right-wing government officials' enthusiasm for the old family plot. Those who do set up private farms will often have to borrow so heavily to meet initial costs that they will be under heavy pressure to maximise returns without regard for environmental consequences.

As far as energy is concerned, Prasil's view is that nuclear power may be the only viable option for a transition period of about 15 years. Power-hungry industries could then be transformed in a way that would not devastate the lives of the 50-60% of the work force who, directly or indirectly, are employed by them, he says.

"Either we still burn highly sulphurised coal and have deformed babies and dead forests or we find some other source, and I think the only one is nuclear power. I know it's a big problem, but we have to find some way out of the current situation. On the other hand, there is already quite a strong anti-nuclear lobby who point to the French example and say, if we use it now, there will be strong pressure to keep expanding the industry."

A related problem in the complex debate over nuclear power is the potential disaster at Hamr in north Bohemia, the site of one of the world's largest uranium mining complexes. Since the 1970s hydrochemical mining methods have created an underground acid sea which, if not stopped, will eventually find its way into and kill all life in the Labe (Elbe) River, destroy drinking water supplies and turn the region into a wasteland.

Some government experts argue that existing mines should continue to be exploited in order to pay for the $US2-7 billion clean-up operation. However, because of low world market prices, the uranium is likely to be stockpiled or used domestically.

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