TAKING ON DIRTY BUSINESS
For the Slovenian shepherd, clean air is a basic right; he knew he had to fight the polluter
For the Slovenian shepherd, clean air is a basic right; he knew he had to fight the polluter.
THE WINNER’S MUSIC ROLLS from giant speakers, and in the crowded auditorium a spotlight falls on a tall, goateed man in the front row. As a nervous smile spreads across his long, angular features, Uroš Macerl climbs the steps to the stage. It’s April 24, 2017. Unfurling a folded piece of paper, the 48-year-old says a brief “thank you” in English—which he can barely speak—then reverts to his native Slovenian to deliver a speech. You cannot defeat a multinational corporation alone, he tells the audience. But, he adds sternly, “Even if you are just a simple shepherd, you can win.”
The stage of San Francisco’s grand War Memorial Opera House—where Uroš holds aloft his prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize to passionate applause—is a long way from this sheep farmer’s hometown.
Uroš hails from the village of Ravenska vas in the hills above the towns of Zagorje and Trbovlje; his farm lies with the boundaries of both towns which are about six-and-half-kilometers apart. The area is in hilly central Slovenia, 60 kilometers from the capital Ljubljana. It nestles in the narrow valley carved by the river Sava, amid two beautiful mountain peaks.
This lush basin should have been an idyllic place to grow up, but by the time Uroš took over his grandparents’ farm in 1990 the once-picturesque area had been transformed by more than a century’s pollution from coal mining and heavy industry. Fruit withered on the trees, lambs were often stillborn and cancer rates among locals soared. Worse was to come.
WHEN COMMUNISM FELL in 1991 and democracy arrived, citizens felt empowered to openly ask questions about the pollution. But, though the repressive days communism were gone, a more subversive form of abuse was taking root as Slovenian officials turned a blind eye to local concerns in favor of welcoming big money.
In 2003, French multinational Lafarge Cement took over Trbovlje’s 130-year-old cement kiln. Local au- thorities strongly backed the firm’s expensive PR efforts, claiming it would rescue the valley’s economy and bring much-needed jobs.
Lafarge promised to be kind to the environment, but soon began to burn petroleum coke—petcoke—a by-product of oil refining that gives off sulfur dioxide and other toxic emissions.
Although the firm said the emissions were within European limits, those living in the valley’s three small towns could tell from the sting in their nostrils that something was wrong. Uroš, whose farm was just five minutes up the hill from the plant’s vast, smelly chimney, could barely breathe.
He immediately joined a civic group, one of several now forming in protest. They collected signatures for a petition against Lafarge’s license to burn petcoke, sending it to Slovenia’s environment minister, Lafarge and the media. It was largely ignored.
As anti-pollution protests grew, Lafarge intensified its efforts to build a good public image, donating money to the local maternity hospital and sponsoring community sports clubs. It also promised to switch to cleaner fuels.
“We believed them initially, thinking that they really might use materials friendlier to the environment,” admits Uroš. Then in 2004, Lafarge announced plans to burn industrial waste—which locals knew would be even worse than petcoke. Real fury broke out. “It was clear that action was required,” says Uroš.
ONE AUTUMN EVENING in 2004, Uroš and seven other volunteers met in a small, simple office in Trbovlje. No one kept minutes of the discussion that followed, but biologist Metka Medvešek recalls: “There was this special energy in the air, an enthusiasm that’s difficult to put into words.”
Metka remembers that the small group of the budding activists—legal professionals, engineers, farmers—agreed to increase their efforts. They’d register an NGO that would have greater impact than the sum of their parts, and call it Eko Krog—“Eco Circle”.
By early 2005, “I first felt that this group could achieve something,” says Uroš.
When the first two presidents of the newly formed group resigned, Eko Krog turned to Uroš. The farmer was known in the community as being friendly and hardworking. He also possessed that special enthusiasm and energy that makes for an inspiring leader. Uroš knew that the role would be time-consuming and frustrating— especially given that government officials were stonewalling the group. But, he says: “I’m a person who doesn’t yield. If I see injustice, I must revolt.”
Uroš and Eko Krog scored its first goal in 2007 when, working with the Slovenian ombudswoman, Lafarge was forced to hand over its emissions data. It showed that levels of benzene, which can cause leukaemia, and PM10, coarse dust particles, which increase lung cancer risk, had soared.
That’s when the “real work” began, he says, because although Eko Krog could spread the word, they discovered that, under Slovenian law, it was almost impossible for citizens to take polluters to court. Any would-be litigant had to be able to prove direct impact on their holdings in order to instigate court proceedings. Official “impact areas” were drawn up and assessed by an independent
WHEN THE COMPANY GAINED A FRESH LICENSE TO BURN WASTE, UROŠ DUMPED MANURE AT THE FACTORY DOOR.
engineering agency to the order of Lafarge (a procedure determined by the Slovenian legislature): They were dubiously small.
In 2007, the town of Zagorje tried to be made a party in legal proceedings against Lafarge—but its bid was rejected, for this reason. But the same day that Zagorje’s bid was turned down Uroš received a call at home from a member of Zagorje’s team. It turned out that a small portion of his own farm was within the 500-metre impact zone of the cement plant: Uroš could take Lafarge to court.
“I was excited,” he says. “But I also knew that everything still lay ahead.”
In 2009, Uroš won his first victory in court by having Lafarge’s first license for burning waste suspended. Eko Krog members shared congratulations —but were cautious, and with good reason. The verdict triggered a vicious cycle of new licenses, complaints, and further court battles.
By now, he was no longer the naïve beginner who’d fall for false promises. When Lafarge obtained a fresh license, he responded by dumping a heap of manure from his stables at the factory’s front door. Meanwhile repeat requests to meet with senior government ministers were being ignored, so on the day Prime Minister Borut Pahor was set to drive through the region, Eko Krog protestors blocked the road.
The legal battle ground on. Between 2009 and 2011, Lafarge threw onto the fires of pollution industrialwaste items ranging from old tires to bilge oils from sewers. After its permit to burn industrial waste was revoked for the final time in 2011, the cement kiln still went on, switching back to petcoke. There was no government interference.
The years-long merry-go-round came with serious costs for Uroš. His marriage suffered, ending in divorce. He was insulted and sometimes even threatened by locals who were against closing the cement plant. Rumors also spread that Uroš was only in it for financial compensation.
In the face of this, says the sheep farmer, “It never occurred to me to give up.”
All this time, Eko Krog had been keeping experts at the European Union informed of developments in the case. In 2010, the EU instructed Slovenia to bring polluters, including Lafarge, into line. The government largely ignored the instructions and failed to act.
Yet although the EU Commission knew what was going on in the Lafarge case, it could do little more until all legal avenues within Slovenia had been exhausted. And that would take years.
ON A BRIGHT but chilly day in February 2015, as Uroš worked on his sheep pasture, he received a phone call. The 46-year-old literally jumped for joy as he learned that the EU was finally able to impose real sanctions.
In 2014, when Lafarge ignored a ban on burning petcoke issued by Slovenia’s high Administrative Court, all legal avenues within the country had been pursued. The European Commission could now step in. In 2015, it brought Slovenia before the EU Court of Justice; it demanded a base fine of 1.6 million euros and a 9,009 euro penalty for every day that Lafarge went on operating.
Within a day, Slovenia’s environment ministry had ordered the cement kiln to shut down. Eko Krog activists finally allowed themselves a warm sense of satisfaction.
TWO YEARS LATER, the stench of cement production no longer lingers at Uroš’ farm, and spruce trees have begun to grow again in the valley’s barren forests. The soil will take decades to cleanse, but Uroš will plant a few trees now to produce fruit juice.
Although he’s just won one of the world’s best-known environmental awards, Uroš doesn’t dwell on his achievements. “I am just somebody who will do anything to have the basic right to live in a clean and healthy environment,” he says, before swiftly pointing out that Eko Krog is ready to fight Lafarge’s ongoing attempts to sue Slovenia. “Hopefully, this award is an additional safeguard to make them take us more seriously,” he adds.
But the self-described simple shepherd believes: “Now we finally have a future before us, an opportunity to do something. This is the ultimate reward you can receive.”
Uroš’s farm sits on a hill overlooking Trbovlje, where air pollution from local
factories have long affected the town’s farms, wildlife and its people.