The Goldman Environmental prize is one of the world’s largest awards to recognise grassroots environmental activists. Its winners are people from around the world who have made significant efforts to protect the natural environment, often at great personal risk. You can read about some of their incredible achievements here.
This year, one of the winners is Zuzana Čaputová, a public interest lawyer who spearheaded a successful campaign to shut down a waste dump that was poisoning the land, air and water in her hometown.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with Zuzana, supporting her in the fight for a fairer and safer environment in the ancient town of Pezinok, Slovakia.
As Zuzana led the “Dumps don’t belong in towns” (Skládka do mesta nepatrí) movement, Greenpeace Slovakia supported her campaign by sharing our experience in planning, mobilisation and communication. Together we organised successful peaceful protests and engaged diverse groups across the affected community, including artists, wine-producers and students, in what became one of the largest citizen mobilisations since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
The first waste dump in Pezinok was built in the 1960s, just 500 feet from people’s homes, without any permits or safeguards to keep the dangerous chemicals from leaching into the soil. Cancer, respiratory diseases, and allergy rates in the area began to soar, with one particular type of leukemia being reported eight times more than the national average.
As that dump started to reach capacity, a wealthy developer with close ties to regional authorities pushed through plans to build another dumping ground. Despite a 2002 ordinance that banned landfills within city limits, plans for the second dump went through without any public consultation or input from the local community.
This is what spurred Zuzana to act. She didn’t want to see her hometown being used as a dumping ground for Europe’s rubbish, as rumoured. She was fed up of the smell of the landfill wafting into her home and the dangerous chemicals threatening the health of her young daughters.
Our first demonstration rallied thousands of local residents. This helped to bring municipal leaders on board with the campaign, despite their early skepticism. The protests eventually gathered crowds of over 7,000 people in the town square: we organised concerts, photo exhibitions and handed a petition to the European Parliament with 8,000 signatures.
In 2013 the Slovakian Supreme Court ruled that the new dump was illegal, abolishing their permission to operate. This verdict echoed a decision of the EU Court of Justice in Luxemburg, which clarified rules for effective environmental participation in all EU member states, based on this case.
This successful campaign helped the little town of Pezinok spark changes in EU-wide rules. Zuzana’s act of courage is inspiring people across the country to stand up for their rights to a clean and safe environment. She is a true environmental hero.
Zuzana Čaputová is a member of the VIA IURIS public law team. Together they are fighting new construction laws in Slovakia that would weaken public access to environmental information and decision-making. They are also providing legal assistance for communities and environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace Slovakia, in different environmental battles.
Juraj Rizman was Greenpeace Slovakia’s office director (2008-2013) and campaign and communications adviser to the local initiative against the landfill in Pezinok (2008-2010).
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