For the Slove­nian shep­herd, clean air is a ba­sic right; he knew he had to fight the pol­luter

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY ELEANOR ROSE WITH MAJA LIHTENVALNER

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


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.

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