Mikuláš Huba, Independent Researcher, Institute of Geography, Slovak Academy of Sciences Founding member of Slovak Environmental Senate
In the past decade, the sphere of the environment has been characterized by the domination of one political party: Smer-SD. In cooperation with the mafia and developers, Smer-SD has primarily impacted the environment in negative ways. They have contributed to the destruction of forests, increased water pollution, soil degradation, and the devastation of national parks, all to profit off of the natural resources. In the last two years there has been some slight improvements, such as upgraded waste management and the decision to stop subsidies for brown coal mining. Also, the government has declared the country to be carbon neutral by 2050.
My activism in the past years, including my position from 2012 – 2016 as an independent MP in the Slovak Parliament, mostly as the Head of the Committee for the Environment, diversified into different fields. As an opposition MP, I did not have much opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. However, despite this fact, I submitted (together with my colleagues) several dozen drafts of new laws. Moreover, I organized about 40 conferences, seminars, hearings, exhibitions and eco-film presentations in the frame of Parliament and sent about 130 interpellations to the members of the government.
Five years ago, I initiated the foundation of a free network of environmentalists, the Slovak Environmental Senate. Our current president, Zuzana Čaputova is also a founding member. And I continue to publish articles and books and remain an active advocate for the environment in many different ways.
The young generation is really the only source of the optimism. Activities like the Fridays for Future protests, where children walk out of there schools to call attention to climate change and the work of Greenpeace and similar organizations are inspiring. My experience with environmental volunteerism is better in comparison with the situation ten years ago. The new generation is active. (Including both my sons!) The Slovak universities are not active enough in this field, but the mass media provides more coverage than it did 10 years ago and the influence of modern social media and networks is important, too.
I am happy that so many young people are more and more active. They are creating real public pressure for change. Still, I do not have too much optimism for the future. The great majority of Slovak decision makers are the environmentally ignorant and the majority of the population stills aspires to consume, a material-based standard of living, which has a great negative impact on the natural environment.
Before the Velvet Revolution, there was no official system to protect the environment. There were some laws for environmental protection, but even when there were good laws, such as to protect the water there was a system of exceptions. Each polluter could ask for an exception and they received it.
The environmental movement was open to all people. We had progressive communists in our group, dissidents, and all denominations. Our group, Slovenský zväz ochrancov prírody a krajiny (the Slovak Association of Nature and Countryside Protectors) worked to engage the public in cultural and natural values.
We published a journal called Ochranca prírody (Nature Protector). It was a small printing, only 2,000 copies, but it was enough to inform people about our ideas and activities. Another area of our activity was related to the construction of the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Dam, a huge construction on the Danube River. Step by step we contacted activists in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Finally, in 1988 we prepared a petition, to protect the area where the dam was being constructed, which was signed by 10,000 people from all over the Visegrad region. We advocated for an international park between Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. We partially succeeded in that one half of the forest around the area of the construction was protected. This success was also due to the Hungarian government’s refusal to participate in the construction.
The most famous of our activities was the book Bratislava/nahlas (Bratislava/Aloud). It contained 300 recommendations on how to improve the natural and social environment, the historical aspects of the city, cultural and historical values, the problems of transportation and construction, and the interrelationship between these areas. It was not only a critique of the system, but also a constructive contribution to the discussion about the future of Bratislava. The government understood only it as a critique and had a typical reaction for something that they saw as political opposition. They started a big campaign in the Communist mass media, making a dogmatic set of arguments against our recommendations. They sent our book to many scientific institutions asking them to find mistakes and to write some critical opposition. Nothing negative, as far as I know, was said against us from the scientific community. We also experienced support from the common people who we had once helped when we protected their historical, wooden houses from destruction. They wrote an open letter to the government stating that we were not enemies, but good people. We did lose the ability to travel abroad and also had problems with the secret police for two years until after the revolution.
It was a very exciting period for us. On the one hand we were called to the secret police and were under pressure from the regime, but on the other hand we were confident and had solidarity. We were making a positive difference, which isn’t so easy to find now in our society. Because we were under so much pressure from the regime we faced a dilemma about whether to limit our activities and to be more silent and passive or to be just the opposite, more active and more open. We chose the second option and started to increase the intensity of our activities.
During that period it was impossible to establish a new NGO that was in opposition to the regime. We were the only organization in Slovakia that did opposition work. Because of this, people from different fields including the consumer’s movement, the handicapped movement, supporters of cycling, and others from a wide area of social activism asked us to create a “roof” above them. We gave them a space for the realization of their ideas and activities. It was a very unique thing and also a positive source of optimism for all of us. Hundreds and hundreds of people met and cooperated within the framework of our organization. Most of the people who participated in the revolution in 1989 were coming from this movement.
After the Velvet Revolution I spent two years in the Slovak Parliament as the head of the environmental committee. It was a legislative revolution in the field of the environment. We made 30 new environmental laws.
Changes in the environmental movement since the revolution have been both positive and negative. On the positive side, a great many NGOs were created after the revolution and now have professional leadership, good equipment, and good skills. On the negative side, there is much less volunteerism and giving of personal money. The great majority of young environmentalists in Slovakia believe that it is normal to receive a grant to compensate for their activities. Another positive change with democracy is that anyone can travel abroad. And while this is a good thing, traveling abroad competes for personal time that might otherwise be used to participate in local activities. Maybe in the future we can find a renaissance of volunteerism in a new manner, because at this time there is a prejudice towards volunteerism that it is a leftover from communism. Maybe the next period will be a time where there will be a combination of good skills with a big motivation to volunteer. This is my optimistic vision for the future of Slovakia’s environmental movement.
This interview was in English
Photo by Magda Stanová