Face to face with Legal Powerhouse, Zuzana Čaputová

October 11, 2016

Program officer Lindsey Freedman looks back on her first meeting with 2016 Goldman Prize winner Zuzana Čaputová earlier this year. Zuzana is a public interest lawyer who mobilized the largest citizen’s campaign in her country in almost 30 years, stopping their home from being used as a dumping ground for much of Europe’s waste.

It was 23 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing when I arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia, in January 2016 to meet Zuzana Čaputová. After months of trip-planning emails and Skype calls, I reached Slovakia’s capital city a few days ahead of the film crew who were joining us to make the profile video about her work. When I had called Zuzana two months before to tell her she’d won the Prize, she was overwhelmed: after years of hard work and sacrifice, to finally be recognized was quite emotional. During months of research and reference calls, program officers usually get an idea of the Prize winner’s personality, but nothing compares to meeting them in person.

The Film Shoot

During the next few days, I was lucky enough to accompany the film crew and observe Zuzana as she engaged with her community. I was surprised by her soft-spoken and humble demeanor. She is gentle but determined, confident but caring, a keen listener with a razor-sharp focus on what needs to happen, and how. She has two daughters who adore her, and it was wonderful to see her encouraging and patient approach as she helped them with their homework. I soon found that the quiet exterior was not the full picture. One day we spent hours in miserable weather, ankle deep in snow in a field outside Pezinok filming the “new” dump site. As a California resident unused to extreme weather, I was bundled up as much as possible–hat, gloves, snow boots, the works–but Zuzana wasn’t fazed. I asked her if she was cold, and she just smiled, shrugged, and said “No.” All I could think was “Wow, she is tough!” It was the first time I witnessed the tenacity that had propelled her to rally thousands to stand up for their rights.

(From top-left going clockwise): The forest surrounding the picturesque town of Pezinok, Zuzana in front of the public interest law organization she works for VIA IURIS, Zuzana and I taking a walk in the woods, Zuzana with the film crew in front of the old landfill site. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

(From top-left going clockwise): The forest surrounding the picturesque town of Pezinok, Zuzana in front of the public interest law organization she works for VIA IURIS, Zuzana and I taking a walk in the woods, Zuzana with the film crew in front of the old landfill site. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

From Indignation to Action

After seeing the “new” dump site and learning from Zuzana how Pezinok had long been a dumping ground for Western Europe’s waste, I was furious. I was angry at the blatant corruption and malfeasance that had allowed this massive scar on the earth to move forward. I was also indignant that Slovakia’s nascent democracy had been misappropriated in such an outrageous and obvious way. But just being mad doesn’t get you very far, and as I spent time Zuzana I learned why she was able to lead the largest citizen’s movement since the 1989 Velvet Revolution: she fights injustice with respect, persistence, and integrity. Her years of practicing Zen meditation have helped her to balance the setbacks and stay focused. Zuzana told me that she always felt a calling to help people, and said “I am a good lawyer who wanted to be a psychologist.” I met a colleague and close friend of hers, a man whose wife’s breast cancer was likely caused by the toxins in the “old” dump site. Her diagnosis was one of the pivotal moments that made Zuzana decide to fight to protect Pezinok from further environmental damage.

“[The campaign] has taught me how to overcome my biggest challenge: my own fear. My fear was called cancer, which brings suffering to many people in my town.”

Zuzana’s determination to close the “old” dump site and prevent the “new” dump site from moving forward reminded me of a poster I have in my office. It’s a quote from Nick Carter, 1997 Prize winner from Africa, which says: “If you see a problem and you feel that something should be done about it, and you look around and see that no one else is doing anything—you’re elected.”

You can support Zuzana by visiting the Via Iuris website to help her organization continue to take on – and win – more pro bono public interest cases in Slovakia.

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