Ecotopia

The first Ecotopia took place in 1989 in Germany, in a field not far from Cologne in West Germany. Three hundred and fifty people lived in tents for three weeks. They ate organic food. They discussed environmental issues and movement politics. They sang, put on ecoplays, and used a special currency (the ECO) to buy and sell items.

These open-air Green festivals took place every year until 2008. They were more European than the European Union, since they were hosted in EU member states, countries whose EU membership was still in the future (Estonia, Bulgaria), and countries that are still on the waiting list (Turkey). Beginning in 1990, with a 3,300-kilometer trip from Norway to Hungary, each Ecotopia sponsored its own bike trip in order to discourage participants from arriving by way of motor vehicles. With the Iron Curtain gone, European environmentalists imagined a continent united by a different approach to nature, energy, commerce, and manufacturing.

Some of that radical thinking is now very much part of the European mainstream, such as organic food and bans on nuclear energy. The Ecotopias, however, have dwindled away, though the annual bike trip lives on.

Veronika Mora participated in the very first Ecotopia in Germany. The next year, she brought the concept to Hungary, where she organized the second gathering at a farmhouse. She was only 20 years old when I talked to her a few months before Ecotopia 1990.

She now works at the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation, where she provides grants and technical assistance to environmental organizations in Hungary. She certainly remembers the summer of 1990, when she was organizing Ecotopia.

“It was very successful,” she told in an interview at her office in Budapest last May. “But financially it was a disaster. I was 20. I undertook the organizing of a gathering with 500-plus participants, and I didn’t realize what that would entail. The difficulties were kept pretty much behind the scenes. Many people came. There were Hungarians who saw an ad somewhere and thought it would be fun and just came. For quite a few of them, it was a life-changing experience. I still meet people who say, ‘I went to Ecotopia in Hungary in 1990 and it was such a decisive event in my life!’”

The Hungarian environmental movement played a key role in opposition politics in the 1980s. Protests around a dam planned on the Danube River – one part at Gabcikovo in Slovakia and the other at Nagymaros in Hungary – focused discontent with the Communist government. An anti-nuclear energy movement was also emerging. And new groups were tackling such issues as air pollution and nature conservation. “Bringing here a big international event that was completely different from what people had experienced before did play a role,” Mora recalled. “It was an inspiration. Groups began sprouting up. That was the golden age of the environmental movement.”

The golden age did not last long. “It was a period with a lot of potential,” she continued. “Nothing was carved in stone. Everyone felt that we could do a lot, we could move along different pathways. But what happened very soon after the changes, and without much public debate, was the consolidation of this path to capitalism. After that, there was no real room for debate any more about what this capitalism should look like. In the early 1990s, one thing that could have been stronger would have been discussion. We were done with Communism and socialism, so now where do we go next?”

We talked about the current environmental challenges that Hungary faces, the role of the EU, and what the current government in Budapest is doing – or not doing – to meet Green concerns.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

That’s a good question. I don’t remember whether I was in Hungary or in the Netherlands. I lived in the Netherlands in 1989-90, so I might have been in the Netherlands at that time already. No, I was in Hungary. From that period of changes, other moments were more memorable and stay in my mind better than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

Tell me about the events that had more impact for you.

 

In Hungary, everything went sort of smoothly. You realized that changes were coming. But it happened pretty gradually, so it was not a ground-shaking experience. One of the things I remember, and the reason I remember it is because I missed it, is the taxi driver strike in 1990. It was after the election of the first free government when they hiked the price of gasoline very steeply. The taxi drivers went on strike and blockaded the whole city, and everything was quiet and silent. There were no cars. I was in the Netherlands at the time. I was always sorry to have missed this event, because it somehow glued the whole city together. Everyone was in solidarity and helped each other.

Of course the reason the taxi drivers went on strike was rather stupid. The gasoline prices had been kept artificially low, so they simply raised them to market prices. But that was a real mass action in Hungary. Prior to that, things happened gradually and not in a very big steps.

 

When we talked in 1990, you were working with Ecotopia. It was leading up to the 1990 event.

 

Which was in Hungary.

 

And a couple more were planned. How long did you work with Ecotopia?

 

Ecotopia itself was the event. But I worked for a European organization called the European Youth Forest Action. It still exists, but hardly. I went on cooperating with them until 1997 or 1998 or 1999. I was based in Hungary. Actually out of the Hungarian Ecotopia was formed a group of enthusiastic young people who didn’t previously have much to do with the environment. They formed a small local group and did a couple of things. But then slowly but surely, since these were young people, everybody’s life went in different directions. So it died after a few years.

 

The Ecotopia that took place here was a success?

 

Yes, it was very successful. But financially it was a disaster. I was 20. I undertook the organizing of a gathering with 500-plus participants, and I didn’t realize what that would entail. The difficulties were kept pretty much behind the scenes. Many people came. There were Hungarians who saw an ad somewhere and thought it would be fun and just came. For quite a few of them, it was a life-changing experience. I still meet people who say, “I went to Ecotopia in Hungary in 1990 and it was such a decisive event in my life!”

 

But you mostly remember the financial problems.

 

Well, I was running around organizing stuff. But I also had fun. And this small group of people came out of it. We became friends, and with some of them I still keep in touch.

 

Was that a high point for the Hungarian environmental movement?

 

No, but it was a trigger in the sense that it was in 1990. The roots of the environmental movement had already been there. Groups were forming, such as the Danube movement, and a few other NGOs were in place. But everything was at a boiling stage, just starting up. Bringing here a big international event that was completely different from what people had experienced before did play a role. It was an inspiration. Groups began sprouting up. That was the golden age of the environmental movement.

 

And you’ve been part of it ever since?

 

This organization, the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation where I’ve been working for the last 15 years, has a mission is to support the development of environmental NGOs and civil society in the broader sense. We mostly do grant making and provide technical assistance. It’s a professional obligation for me to be up to date and follow things.

 

The big environmental issue here in the late 1980s was the Nagymaros-Gabcikovo dam project. Was that ever resolved?

 

No. It’s still not. The whole thing was taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which issued a verdict in the mid-1990s. But it was the sort of verdict that is difficult to implement. The Slovaks built a dam on their side of the Danube. But the Hungarians didn’t build the second dam. The Slovaks diverted the Danube, and the main issue in the court case was the diversion of water between Slovakia and Hungary. The Slovaks still divert the majority of the Danube’s water into an artificial canal. Negotiations between the two states still go on, sometimes with higher intensity, sometimes with lower intensity. It seems to be a never-ending story.

 

The Slovaks diverted the water into the tributary in order to create a height differential?

 

It’s partly an artificial canal using the water from the tributary. But I’m not into the details of the Danube issue.

 

But there are still organizations working on it. 

 

Yes. I’m not sure on the Slovak side. But in Hungary, there is Szigetkoz with all the little islands. The diversion of the Danube is a big issue there because many of the tributaries dried up or the water level dropped very low, and this influences agriculture, nature, and so on. So, some environmental organizations in Gyor are working on it, and some in Budapest.

 

Another issue was nuclear power. Is that still an issue?

 

It’s bigger than ever. We still have a nuclear plant in Paks. Recently the issue was the lifetime extension of the nuclear blocks. The original lifetime was set to end in the next few years. The parliament passed a resolution to extend the lifetime. Now the government plans to build two more blocks.

 

At the same site?

 

Yes. The problem is that all the Hungarian governments have all been pro-nuclear. It’s been difficult to have a public debate on nuclear issues in Hungary. The present government wants to decrease dependency on Russian gas and sees nuclear as the way out. The only thing that may save us is the lack of money. Building two new blocks would cost quite a lot. The main problem is that there is really no public debate on it. If there is debate, it gets politicized very quickly and with a lot of secrecy surrounding it. The organization Energy Club is located upstairs. They have already initiated and won a number of freedom of information court cases around documents and data related to the Paks issue, like the impact assessment of the enlargement. It’s ridiculous that they have to go to court to get this information.

 

Is there a particular foreign company identified to build the reactors?

 

Everything is still up in the air. It might be the Russians. They seem to be the best candidate with the most potential. The Western companies are not interested, because the Hungarian state can’t really provide financing. They are thinking of all different sorts of financing. [The Hungarian government signed an agreement with Russia in January 2014 to build the new blocks and provide a loan for the financing.]

 

The share of total energy that nuclear power provides is quite large.

 

In electricity, it’s around 42 percent.

 

Has it increased?

 

It was Paks and still is Paks.

 

I remember the first government wanted to increase the amount that nuclear provided.

 

The idea of the new blocks has been floating around for a while, but there haven’t been the finances to do it. But this government seems more intent on doing it.

 

As a result of Hungary joining the EU and meeting new standards, have environmental indicators like air quality and water quality improved?

 

It’s difficult to say whether it’s the result of EU accession or just general improvements in technology. Also, joining the EU has been a gradual process. By 2004, the whole legal system was harmonized. It didn’t happen overnight. In Hungary we are very good at legislation but implementation lags behind. The institutional system is underfinanced. So, yes and no, in terms of the impact of the EU. The general developments in technology have played the same role.

Since the early 1980s, the quality of the environment has improved in some aspects. But it has deteriorated in other aspects. Here’s one example. In the early 1990s, leaded gasoline and lead pollution were an issue. By 1998, leaded gasoline was phased out completely. So, that went away because the technology was there to phase it out. The amount of pollution per car went down. But the number of cars went up. So there was a rebound effect.

 

I remember the Danube was a dirty river. Has it improved?

 

I’m not sure it was so dirty. Water quality is actually pretty good in most of the country. The main issue 20 years ago was communal and industrial sewage. But the industry in northern Hungary collapsed, so that problem disappeared. Communal sewage is still a problem in some parts of the country, but it is slowly progressing. In Budapest up until a couple years ago, 80 percent of city sewage went into the Danube untreated. But then, with EU money, a huge sewage treatment plant was built two or three years ago, on Csepel island in the Danube. It treats most of the Budapest sewage. So, the water quality of the Danube is quite good, especially north of Budapest. You can bathe in it. But you’re not supposed to drink it.

 

What would you say are the continuing environmental problems?

 

There’s no one-time big environmental issue, or very few of them. What we have in terms of environmental problems right now is basically the same kind of problems in the developed world related to consumer society.

 

There are no problems left over from the Communist period aside from the nuclear plant?

 

Most of the legacy has been cleared away, although there are maybe a few spots of untreated waste that are still an issue. And even the nuclear energy issue — I wouldn’t call it a leftover problem because it is a very present problem.

One leftover problem is energy efficiency, especially household energy. Buildings have not been insulated very well, especially the huge blocks of flats you can see all over the country. But there have been programs to renovate and insulate these huge blocks, and there are good examples of this around the country. But there have not been enough funds. I don’t know what percentage of these blocks has been renovated, but certainly not the majority. You can see the difference very clearly in the housing estates between those that have been insulated and those that haven’t. The reason I mention this is because it has a huge potential. Even though we are not very good at installing new renewable sources, if we just sped up this insulation program and completed it, we could save a lot of energy.

 

Is there a Green building standard?

 

Yes, now buildings have this standardization system, with grades from A to G. Theoretically from last year on, if you want to sell real estate you have to have this energy qualification. But so far, it hasn’t really shown up in the market prices. Maybe in ten years it will be a major factor for anyone wanting to buy real estate, but not yet.

 

What about recycling?

 

Awareness about selective waste collection is pretty high. Over the last 10 years, recycling systems have been under development. In urban areas such as Budapest, you can recycle or select your waste. But still the percentage is considerably lower than in Western Europe. The other issue is that, over the last 10 years, a system of incentives for companies and for treating selective waste was developed, but the present government, mostly for financial reasons, centralized and nationalized the system that previously involved private players. The new nationalized agency responsible for the whole thing was set up only a year ago. It’s still not really functional. But some people are afraid that a nationalized system without economic incentives could be more detrimental than useful.

 

The current government has markedly different policies from previous governments? 

 

Yes. It has hardly any. The environment is very low on the government agenda. When they came into power, the new government reorganized the whole state administration system and created this huge mega-ministry. They dissolved the environmental ministry, and now there is one big rural development ministry, with environment part of it. In theory this could work well, because rural development and environment go hand in hand. But the environmental policies are very weak. Last year the whole professional administrative staff working on climate issues was fired, all of the sudden. You never hear about what’s happening with the people who replaced them. Basically, that was the end of Hungary’s climate policy for a while. It’s now practically nonexistent.

 

Have the Green parties — and I know there have been several — had much impact on policy?

 

Until Politics Can Be Different (LMP) came about three years ago, all the other Green party initiatives were negligible, insignificant. Then, two years after it was formed, LMP successfully entered parliament. It has strong roots in the environmental movement. It’s still a small oppositional party in the present parliament. Since the government has a two-thirds majority there, it’s practically impossible to achieve anything from the opposition.

 

Are there any prospects at a political level for a change in policy, however it’s achieved, either by LMP or in coalition with other parties?

 

I wouldn’t say in the short term. At this point, it looks like, however much we don’t like it, Fidesz will win the next elections. Recently LMP split. The main reason was this debate over whether they should join the left-wing opposition and form a huge opposition alliance with a single goal of beating Fidesz. Or maintain its separate identity and not link up with the left, which did some really bad things over the last decade. A fraction allied with the Left, and the other fraction remained independent, keeping its distance from both Left and Right. Personally I prefer the independent position. But they are still struggling with the aftermath of this split and will have to start rebuilding again because this split took up a lot of time and really hindered everything else. Some people who come from the environmental background are part of the leftist coalition, but I’m not sure how much impact they will be able to have on policymaking. Then there is LMP, which is now quite small, and it will be lucky to make it above the parliamentary threshold.

 

Which is 5 percent.

 

Yes.

 

You said that the Left did some really bad things over the last decade. Were you referring to environmental issues or more generally?

 

Generally. But the environment too. The reason why Fidesz was successful in 2010 was that the eight years of socialist governance led to such a level of corruption that people really got really upset. Now what they got is even worse corruption. But that’s another issue.

 

Did the corruption extend to the environmental realm with environmental companies?

 

Yes, I would say.

 

We had a big scandal in the United States involving a solar-panel-producing company. I was curious if something similar happened here.

 

I don’t remember any major corruption cases connected to environmental issues or companies. But on the not-so-visible level, I’m pretty sure it was there. If you wanted to open up a small-scale mine, I’m sure you had to have contacts in the right places. Or lifting nature conservation status from a given plot of land would be the same kind of thing.

 

Have there been protests around that? In Bulgaria, there have been protests around the government allowing developers into areas designated as nature preserves.

 

There have been a few. An issue that got really high visibility is the enlargement of the Audi car factory near Gyor two or three years ago. They got a piece of land that was a Natura 2000 site. But that was a touchy issue. The local environmental organizations couldn’t speak up very vocally because of the employment issue. The expansion was supposed to bring a lot of employment. So, environmentalists from other parts of the country took up the issue and wanted to take the environmental permit to court.

But then one guy, who is actually from Debrecen, was criminally accused of embezzlement. He allegedly took money from the company in exchange for not going to court. The case is still pending. The interesting bit is that the guy was placed in custody. This custody was even extended to the legal limit, 90 days or so. At the time, this was taken as sending a message to environmentalists of what could happen to them. There is still no verdict, so it’s not decided whether he’s guilty or not.

 

He was a member of the environmental movement in Debrecen?

 

Yes.

 

And he was accused of taking a bribe?

 

Yes. I know the guy personally. I’m not keen on him, but I don’t think he did it.

 

You give out grants from this foundation. What applications are generating the most enthusiasm?

 

The problem is the lack of enthusiasm nowadays.

 

And that’s reflected in the number of applications?

 

Rather, the quality of applications. Right now, we have a big grant program supported by money from Norway. We just had the deadline this Monday. We received a huge number of applications, more than I expected, but I haven’t yet read them, of course. From what we hear, or experienced so far, they don’t seem very enthusiastic. The point is, basically, that the whole Hungarian civil society is in a crisis, including the environmental movements, especially over the last two or three years. With the new government, all state and EU funding has been cut back drastically. Over the last two years, all NGOs, including environmental ones, have had to struggle to survive. Also those working in the advocacy field have become very disheartened because consulting and advocating on issues with the current government has proved absolutely useless. They just don’t listen. Or they listen and then go ahead with the same policies, uninfluenced in any way, regardless of what you do. Unless it’s a big scandal. We were hoping that with this Norwegian grant we could turn the tide. But what we are seeing is a civil society in a state of despair and apathy. You can feel and see it on every level.

 

Even if there’s a problem with the government and its two-thirds majority in parliament, aren’t there opportunities available at the regional and local level?

 

No. Basically, all the regions and the localities are very strongly Fidesz-dominated. I think 95 percent of mayors are Fidesz.

 

Wow, 95 percent!

 

Yes, the country is orange. And since Fidesz is a very centrally controlled party, everyone follows the party line.

 

In some countries, political groups like Fidesz — we might call them right-of-center populists — sometimes develop their own kind of environmental program. They see environment in a nationalist way as “our resources” and so on.

 

Yes, on a lip service level. The new constitution contains some beautiful language about natural resources. But I think it’s only lip service. Here’s an anecdote from a week ago. The government had a session in a small village in south Hungary. The prime minister was there, and he was filmed. He was talking to the local MP and the mayor, and he was asking what the problems were there, like a good king coming to solve the problems. One of the problems mentioned was that there should be a road leading to the Drava River and a ferry service should be made across it. It wasn’t happening because the area is a Natura 2000 site. The prime minister said, “How come we can’t give ourselves permission to build a road if we want to?” or something like that. I don’t think he knows what a Natura 2000 site is. And the film is on the government portal. So they’re proud of it.

 

Has there been much reaction to it?

 

Not really. This video was a laughing stock. The whole video radiates this “I’m the prime minister coming to solve all your problems” kind of attitude. The part about the road was only one small bit.

 

Looking at previous years, what would you say were some of the more exciting or successful projects you’ve been able to fund? 

 

I should look up some things!

You don’t necessarily see this in the grant applications, because they’re not formalized by NGOs, but small local initiatives are really sprouting up. Also in terms of local production, local markets, local self-reliance. In Budapest, community gardening is becoming chic, which is pretty recent, just in the last two or three years.

 

When you think back to your worldview in 1990 when you were organizing Ecotopia, have you rethought any of your initial philosophy?

 

I might have refined my thinking, but I haven’t fundamentally rethought anything. I told you what I am doing now. All through my adult life, I’ve worked in the NGO environmental movement, in civil society in the broadest sense, so I haven’t changed my views.

 

You say that you’ve refined your views. How would you describe that?

 

Come on, 24 years ago, I was 20! I was young and enthusiastic, a bit naive.

 

You’re not enthusiastic now?

 

Yes, enthusiastic but I hope that I have shed my naiveté.

 

So you wouldn’t singlehandedly organize another Ecotopia here in Budapest?

 

Well, now I could because I have the experience – I know how to do it better.

 

Is there a group of people that you’ve been involved together in the environmental movement over the last 20 years?

 

Oh yes. My husband is from the environmental NGO movement. And most of my friends are related to that in one way or another. My home NGO is called the ELTE Nature Conservation Club, which has been dormant for the last couple years. It’s going to be 30 soon. I’m organizing a reunion of people going back to the first members. That was a very important group for a long time in terms of the fraternity, the ideological background. Although the group itself went dormant, most members remained in the environmental movement as full-time professionals in the NGO sector.

 

When you get together with your friends and colleagues from that period, do you ever talk about what could have gone differently or what you could have done differently to ensure better results today in terms of the environment?

 

Everybody remembers the early 1990s as a golden age. It was a period with a lot of potential. Nothing was carved in stone. Everyone felt that we could do a lot, we could move along different pathways. But what happened very soon after the changes, and without much public debate, was the consolidation of this path to capitalism. After that, there was no real room for debate any more about what this capitalism should look like. In the early 1990s, one thing that could have been stronger would have been discussion. We were done with Communism and socialism, so now where do we go next? But the political class and the majority of society looked to the West and wanted to adapt Western models. Environmentalists were not active enough in talking about possible alternatives. They should have been more active in talking to the people and integrating into society. The whole legal system had to be renewed after the changes, and most environmental groups concentrated on the legal system. The big framework law on the environment was passed in 1995 but it had been in preparation for a longer period. The legislation took up the attention of the environmental NGOs, and they spent less time and energy talking to the people and integrating into society.

 

I don’t know if any other country did any better.

 

I don’t think so. And I don’t know if anything could have been done. The thrust to embrace capitalism was so strong.

In 1994, I was in Norway. They had a referendum on joining the EU. A Norwegian environmentalist organization invited me as the Eastern European voice. A couple weeks prior to the referendum, everyone talked about this one issue. People either had a stance pro or con. What amazed me, and what I missed in Hungary, was this real debate. In Hungary, when we joined the EU, there was a referendum as well, but there was practically no debate and it was really difficult to bring up any alternative voices. Of course you could express these opinions, they weren’t repressed. But they didn’t get much attention.

 

Viktor Orban has been somewhat critical of the EU.

 

Over the last five or six years, no infrastructural development was made here with Hungarian funds. It was all EU structural funds. So, if the structural funds are cut… Viktor Orban will go only so far with his criticisms but no further. Trust me on that.

 

You said that it was difficult to say whether the improvements in environmental standards here were a result of EU pressure or technological improvements. What’s your evaluation of the role of the EU in terms of the environment in general? Is it entirely positive or have there also been negative influences?

 

Approximately 80 percent of Hungarian environmental legislation is based on EU legislation. You can’t talk about a separate Hungarian environmental policy. And the EU’s environmental policy is basically the highest standard in the world. Of course, the EU is basically developing through a series of pacts, compromises, and political interests. It’s not so easy to move anything forward in the EU.

In some respects, EU environmental policies are very important. Without them, Hungary would probably not be doing as it is doing — as in nature conservation with the Natura 2000 system. In other cases, Hungary is doing very badly, for instance with its EU commitments on renewable energy. And in still other respects we are more critical of EU policies, for instance on genetically modified organisms.

 

From the U.S. point of view, the EU standards on GMOs are much better!

 

I know, I know.

 

When I was here in 1990, there were a number of regional initiatives based in Hungary, like the Regional Environmental Center.

 

It still exists.

 

It was located in an old silk mill.

 

They moved out from there and got a much bigger building in Szentendre.

 

Is Hungary still a kind of regional center for environmental organizations?

 

Not really. There’s some cross-border cooperation, but Hungary is certainly not a regional leader. For example, the Regional Environmental Center is a huge organization, with 100 employees, but I have no clue what they are doing. It provides consultancy to companies and to government, but it doesn’t have hardly any contacts with NGOs.

 

Where do they get their money?

 

Governments. The Japanese, the Italians. They also have a lot of contracts with corporations and industries. But I have no clue what they are doing.

 

So, they represent the Green capitalism side of things.

 

Yes, and Green diplomacy as well.

 

The last questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1990 and evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Hungary since then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

I hate these kinds of questions. These are not things you can talk about in terms of numbers. 3.

 

Same period of time, same scale: but your own personal life?

 

7.

 

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next two or three years, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

3.

 

Budapest, May 3, 2013

 

 

Interview (1990)

 

The first Ecotopia–a gathering of ecological activists in an ecological setting–took place last year in a field not far from Cologne in West Germany. Three hundred and fifty people lived for three weeks in tents, eating organic food, discussing environmental issues and movement politics, singing, putting on ecotheater and so on. Veronika Mora, a longtime activist in Hungarian environmental circles, was at the first Ecotopia. Now she is organizing the second, scheduled for three weeks in August in Bugac in the central part of Hungary. So far, she reports, 1500 applications have come in, including 160 from Hungary. She worries about the drawbacks of success: there might not be enough room if everyone shows up at the same time.

The center of Hungary’s Ecotopia will be a farm bought recently by the Youth Environmental Alliance, one of the co-sponsors of the event with EYFA (the European Youth Forest Action). Around the farm will be a tent area, stages for music and drama, an organic “restaurant,” an area for workshops and so on. The farm will become an environmental center after the event. The bike tour sponsored by EYFA that began in Bergen will end at Ecotopia. (Last year, Mora organized for EYFA a bus tour through the region that visited both the natural splendor and the natural disasters of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.) The cost of one day at Ecotopia is 15 ECOs, a currency created for Ecotopia that is pegged against all world currencies (1 ECO=1 DM).

Mora sketched out for me a history of the ecological movement in Hungary–which was in fact a history of her involvement in these issues as well. Originally some groups in the countryside worked on environmental issues but these were mostly “old-fashioned” nature conservation clubs, concerned with such things as planting trees. The first major ecological group, ELTE (the Nature Conservation Club of the Eotvos Lorand University), was founded in 1983 by three young biologists and an elder scientist. It was a legal club and this brought several problems. When for instance the Danube Circle won the Alternative Nobel Prize, ELTE wanted to print the news in its newsletter. The government said no. But the issue of the newsletter had already been printed. So they were forced to put stickers over the section. One of the first issues that ELTE worked on was the protection of a hill in the southern part of Hungary called Szarsomlyo, a biological and zoological area. Although protected, the hill also contained a talc mine and the government at the time wanted to expand operations. ELTE led the fight, arguing that such an expansion would endanger rare species that live nowhere else in the world (the hill is rather unique because of its location). Winning the fight, ELTE became quite a respected organization. It has worked with the Danube Circle, Biocultura, the Green Circle of the Polytechnic and so on. It has also sponsored the frog-saving expeditions.

In 1983-84, a wide range of grassroots groups emerged. In 1985, with Polish and Czechoslovakian organizations, ELTE founded “Greenway,” an Eastern European environmental network. At first, because of its more liberal press laws, Hungary was chosen at the center; the organization’s newsletter has since moved to Latvia. 1985 also saw the first illegal demonstrations at which several activists were arrested. In 1988, large demonstrations against the Danube dam project attracted as many as 10,000 people. Concurrently, Earth day celebrations were established, generally devoted to the air pollution problem (activists would don gas masks and lay down in front of traffic, bury the Environment in a symbolic coffin or present the Brazilian embassy with a coffin filled with wood ash). Other groups emerged: the European Youth Forest Action which also dealt with the tropical rainforest issue; Voks Humana with its colorful leader who once sat in a cage in the zoo for a day (I’m not exactly sure what that action illustrated, however). Traditionally, the communication between groups had been ad hoc. Now, some ties are being formalized: in Budapest, for instance, a working group on air pollution brings together representatives from at least nine different environmental groups. “It seems that there are many groups,” she said. “But many people belong to many groups.” Furthermore, “the people you hear on TV are not the people who are working. The real people are working without too much notice in the countryside.”

Other successes have been recently registered. Green Future led the successful fight against Metalochemica. A bauxite mine that was threatening the warm water lake at Hevisz near Balaton was shut down last summer because of community protests. There is also a movement to save old buildings and monuments.

Back to Ecotopia. Number 3 will be in Estonia; Barcelona will host Ecotopia 4 in the magic year of 1992 [it actually took place in Bulgaria].

 


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