August 1995 Issue #35

Citizens and Cement: NGO Activity to Influence Czech Economic and Environmental Development Policy

by Radka Kvasnickova

At the turn of the years 1989/1990 the atmosphere in Czech Republic was alive with friendship, tolerance and enthusiasm; this was temporarily true not only in Prague, but in most places of the Czech Republic. But today, five years after "the Velvet Revolution", many people are again overcome by passivity and are not willing to join public activities. People can't get rid of the heritage of more than forty years of the "building of socialism" so easily. However, a number of non-governmental organizations such as my own, Deti Zeme (Children of the Earth) are actively working to protect our environment through citizen actions to influence public policy.

The Background

The "building of socialism" had destructive effects not only on people, but also on the environment. During this time, our country became one of the most polluted in Europe. Our forests of Northern Bohemia were destroyed. No wonder, because the biggest pollution was (and still is) caused by the energy-producing industry and the energy needs of our economy. These are at enormously high levels due to obsolete technologies and to the focusing of the Czech economy on heavy industry. But there are still more problems.

The collectivisation of agriculture led to ploughing off the edges of fields and field preserves, including the field roads, so that the small fields were connected into large expanses of land. On our sloping land this caused erosion, which led to a decline in agricultural production. In an attempt to increase production, chemical fertilizers were extensively used. So there soon appeared another problem: polluted surface water. In addition, industry and cities have lacked waste water treatment plants, further degrading water quality.

This situation is fortunately changing. Starting in 1990, the Czech Republic has been recovering slowly from almost half century of central planning, and shifting to a market economy. The land was relieved of high doses of agricultural chemicals, because their prices are now several times higher. The Czech government grasped firmly the economics under their control, but unfortunately only the economics!

Current Policies Sacrifice Ecology for Short-Term Economic Gains

The Czech government's one-sided concentration exclusively on economics has led to neglect of environmental problems. Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus promotes short-term policies of trading ecological quality for economic development. As he has said, "We must first earn money and then we can care of the ecology." Or: "The ecology is an icing on a cake which we must first bake." Or: "The natural resources don't exist as themselves, because they are invented and then used by people."

During the past five years the export of non-processed materials (such as limestone, other sorts of stone, gravel, sand, coal) and primary (i.e. only partially processed) products has almost tripled. Their main purchaser is our neighboring Germany. These materials are several times less expensive in Czech Republic, partly due to the cheap labor force but especially because our state actually still donates the energy and transportation. Cheap (state-subsidized) energy production keeps the costs of industrial production artificially low. Thus the price of the Czech products does not include the costs of polluting our environment.

The under-valued prices of Czech produced materials lead to much waste. For example our high quality high-percentage limestone is used for production of cement (while cement is usually made from limestone of lower quality). The low price encourages export; between 1988 and 1994 the export of cement increased more than twenty times! Now the Czech Republic exports almost 40% of its entire cement production. Because cement production is highly extractive (requiring extensive strip and open-pit mining) and also very energy-intensive, we come to the conclusion that we are in fact exporting our environment. From the viewpoint of long-term development of the Czech economy, this does not make sense.

How Did We Start Our Work? What Is Our Aim?

In the summer of 1993 the inhabitants of several villages in the Czech Karst region asked Children of the Earth for help. The German company Heidelberger Zement had decided to build in this locality a giantic cement plant.

The new Heidelberg Cement plant is intended to replace an obsolete existing cement plant near the city of Beroun. So we can pose a question: what is so wrong with building a modern plant instead of an old one, which strongly pollutes the Beroun environment? The basic problem is the capacity of the new plant, which is related to the planned export of Czech cement into Germany. The new plant would have a capacity almost three times greater than the existing one; the amount of cement exported to Germany from the new plant would equal the total current production of the old plant. For the Czech Republic, this would mean the growth of so called "dirty productions" (energy-intensive heavy industry) and thus continuing devastation of the environments.

In addition to all the problems related to the export of raw materials, there are many very serious objections to building this cement plant in the proposed location. The plant would be situated only a few dozen meters from the border of the regional nature preserve of the Czech Karst, about 30 km (20 miles) from Prague.

  1. This preserve is used as a holiday resort not only for inhabitants of the capital city, but also for several larger towns which are situated close by (Beroun, Kladno).
  2. Several important national nature preserves are situated inside the regional preserve. This is an area of great biological diversity and uniqueness. The emissions from the new cement plant (mainly nitrous oxide, NOx) would reduce the diversity of botanical species, as the original ecosystems (especially the rock prairie) would be suppressed by nitrophile vegetation.
  3. The limestone quarry which would be used by the new cement plant is also inside the regional preserve. The regulations for limestone mining in the Czech Republic have not been changed since the communist regime. Thus it is possible to mine up to four million tons of limestone per year inside the regional preserve. When the cement plant would start to work, the mining inside the nature preserve region would increase more than twice. It is paradoxical that the same governement, which has established the regional and national preserves to protect the ecology of the nation also promotes building of the cement plant which would devastate the Czech Karst preserve.
  4. Another very important problem is connected with the quality of the limestone. The Czech Karst contains the largest deposit of the highest quality in the Czech Republic. Such high-percentage limestone is needed for desulphurising devices of the coal electricity plants in Northern Bohemia, for special pharmaceutical purposes, for agriculture, and for the food industry. Its amounts are limited. Using this limestone for producing cement is like using gold for making screws for cabinet-makers.
  5. This locality provides an unique study and research area especially for specialists and students from the Faculty of Science of Charles University. The limestones of the area of Konprusy represent the only Lower Devon Massif in the Czech area and they are well-known in the whole world for their rich paleontologic content and their stratigraphic profile. This area is a real scientific and cultural treasure, and its value is inexpressible (the less rich analogy exists only in a hardly accessible part of Karn Alpes on the Austrian - Italian border).
Thus a regional concern of the inhabitants of towns in the region became a focus of national attention through the work of many people, including my NGO, Children of the Earth. Our goals has been to organize opposition to the proposed Heidelberg Cement plant through publicity about the issues, involvement of the citizens, contact with politicians and members of the Ministry of the Environment, and obtaining international support.

What was the Activity "50 days for the Czech Karst"?

On Saturday June 2nd, 1995 the weather was quite friendly. It seemed that every moment it could start to rain, but fortunately it didn't happen. We held the closing happening of the activity called "50 days for Czech Karst" in Prague, in close vicinity of medieval Charles' Bridge, under the open sky. The informative exposition about the endangered Czech Karst was preserved from the rain by a large tent but the rest of the activities (the scene, sounding apparatus, audience) were out in the open. Quite a lot of people and journalists gathered here. Speakers included celebrities, actors, ecologists and politicians who supported us, including a former minister of environment, some members of the Parliament, and a Mayor of a village in the Czech Karst. The popular folk singer and composer Vladim!r Merta performed for the crowd. Right on the place we had prepared paints and fabric for children, so that they could paint pictures concerning environmental themes. We made a "snake" banner, 160 metres (500 feet) long, by sewing together the painted pieces of fabric. (Perhaps the nicest picture was painted by children from a kindergarten from the opposite corner of Czech Republic). After the speeches were finished, a procession of participants with the snake marched to the Prague Castle Square. There we finished the happening and we wrapped festively two parts of the long banner. Later we sent one part of it to the company Heidelberger Zement in Germany (investor of the cement plant) and the other part to the regional council in Beroun which decides about the building of the plant.

This happening was the last action of our campaign, "50 days for the Czech Karst". In the middle of April 1995 Deti Zeme (Children of the Earth) proclaimed this activity. Its aim was not only to save the regional preserve, but also to connect the much criticized fragmented ecological movement in Czech Republic. We tried at least in this one campaign to involve as much people as possible, of different interests. We contacted not only the ecological organizations but also the Scout groups and high schools. We sent hundreds of letters asking for inspiration and support. There were many of possibilities, from creating a wall poster on some public place or decorating a banner by paintings, to participating in a seminar or in the common actions, or collecting of signatures for our petitions.

One of the important parts of this activity was a Czech-German seminar focused on the Czech Karst, held in April. The seminar was free and it ended with an excursion to endangered places of the regional preserve. We also visited well-known caves (which are very close to the locality of the proposed cement plant). We also organized some informal activities. For example each Friday in Prague we held "A Running Race of Dust Raisers". In small toy lorries we alegorically transported cement from the Old Town Square in Prague (the location of the Ministery of Economics which supports the devastation of the Czech Karst and exportation of cheap cement into Germany) to the German embassy on Mal Strana. Anybody could take part in this activity. Once a mother with a baby carriage participated. Other times we would be supported by a University professor of mathematics, and or by a member of Parliament.

What Do the Local Inhabitants of the Czech Karst Say?

Two years ago the inhabitants of the villages Suchomasty and Tma$ ?) asked us for help. At that time, their mayors were promoting the cement plant, because the Heidelberg cement company had promised to build them a water supply system, and sewage treatment plant. The mayor of one of these villages was a member of the Communist party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM); the communists still had some of the highest positions in Czech Republic. Although the mayors supported the cement plant, the inhabitants opposed it. These inhabitants joined together to form Citizens' Initiative Suchomasty. One year later, when local elections were held in all villages and towns of Czech Republic, the inhabitants expressed their opinions about on the proposed cement plant. In all the affected villages, people elected representatives who opposed the building the cement plant and the associated devastation of the Czech Karst.

Today, the newly elected mayor of the village of Suchomasty is a founding member of the Citizens' Initiative Suchomasty. This is a great triumph for all the opponents of the cement plant. Children of the Earth has recently been helping these small villages and their representatives with expert and technical aspects of their activities, and most of all we try to coordinate our actions with them.

What is the Attitude of the Ministry of Environment, Specialists and Scientists?

In 1993 an EIA - Environmental Impact Assessment study - of the proposed cement plant was completed by the Czech Ministry of the Environment. This study concluded that "The project of the New Krlodvorsk Cement Plant (the plant proposed by Heidelberg Cement in the Czech Karst - ed.) is not desirable as a new cement producing capacity, considering the extent of the total current production of cement in Czech Republic, with its remarkable stress on the environment and high demands on energy. This plant also does not correspond to the national strategy of using our mineral wealth." Thus the EIA recommended against the plant.

The problem is that, according to Czech laws, the Environmental Impact Assessment is not binding. It represents only a recommendation, so that the administrative agency responsible for giving permission is not obliged to follow it. The management of the regional preserve also expressed its disapproval of the construction of this cement plant on its borders. But again, according to the Czech laws, if the plant doesn't directly interfere with the area of regional preserve, then the opinion of its management isn't obligatory. Never mind that the direct impact on the nature and landscape are well known. Many of the experts and ecologists also expressed their disaprovement of the construction of the plant, but it has not helped so far.

Cooperation with German Ecologists:

During the whole campaign we succeeded in connecting our forces with the best known German ecological organization "Bund Naturschutz" and with the German parliamentary political party "Bundnus 90/Die Grunen". We organized common actions, for example a press conference in Passau, the Czech-German seminars about the Czech Karst in Prachatice and Zdice, and visits to German and Czech politicians.

We are afraid that the German company, Heidelberg Cement, is taking advantage of the environmental protection laws of Czech Republic, which are weaker than the German laws. The Heidelberg Cement company asked for, and was denied, permission to burn hazardous wastes in the proposed plant. Another worry that we have is that, if the plant is actually built, then they will proceed to burn the hazardous wastes.

And we do not want the Czech Republic to be transformed into a so called "banana republic", or a country of the third world, which would serve for developped countries as a source of unrestorable natural resources, while the developped countries save their own resources and ecologies for the future.


Several days after our happening, the Minister of the Environment and the economical ministers (including the Prime Minister) had a meeting concerning the cement plant. The result was depressing - the plant will be built under certain conditions (i.e. the mining of the limestone and the total export of cement would be limited - but these conditions are not granted by any contract or agreement, and are expressed very vaguely).

In July 1995, the Children of the Earth made a two-days march to Beroun to the local board, which is willing to give permission for constructing the plant, and presented them with a petition containing 10,000 signatures of local and other citizens who rejected the cement plant. They were told by director's deputy Dr. Imon that the citizens' initiatives are not adequate partners for their board, and that the local people are misinformed and that's why they oppose the plant. This statement clearly expressed the attitude of this local authority, which is supposed to represent the interests of local citizens, but in fact completely ignores their demands.

A few days later, the Ministry of Environment gave permission for the construction of the cement plant on agricultural land, which was the last formal obstacle for construction of the plant.

Right now, in August 1995, despite all of our success in building public support and enlisting the aid of scientists, politicians and other NGOs, the Czech government is allowing the Heidelberg Cement company to proceed with its plans.

If you know any possibility how to help us, or if you have an interest in cooperating with us, please contact us at the following address:

Radka Kvasnickova
Deti Zeme (Children of the Earth)
Podbabska 14
160 00, Praha 6
The Czech Republic
phone, fax: 42-2-311 70 75
With the publication of two new books designed for the educated general public, the Center of Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow has taken a large step toward public disclosure and discussion of the connection between secret military programs and environmental degradation. Russian Minister of the Environment, Alexei Yablokov, is on the board of directors of the Center of Russian Environmental Policy.
[Next article]- [Issue Index]- [Table of Contents]


Maintained by: ECOLOGIA Last modified by: P.Ellison on 12-Feb-95