Q&A with Zuzana Čaputová

November 9, 2016

A few months before the Prize announcement in April, we got the chance to speak with environmental attorney Zuzana Čaputová who, for over a decade, fought to stop the illegal dumping of hazardous waste in her community. Zuzana not only succeeded in repealing a permit for a proposed landfill, but closed another that had been operating illegally since the 1960s, and stopped plans for a new waste gasification plant. More significantly, she helped pave the way for public participation in government decision-making that set a precedent in post-communist Slovakia.

How long have you lived in Pezinok, and what attracted you to the legal field?

I was born in Pezinok. When it came to my decision on what subject to take at university, I was deciding between law and psychology, and was also interested in history. I wanted to do something that would allow me to help people.

You’ve accomplished so much, shutting down the old landfill in Pezinok and more recently, stopping a proposed waste gasification plant. What are you most proud of?

The power of this victory rests on the fact that it’s about public participation; a critical step in getting the landfills shut down. It was a personal mission as both landfills are very close to houses, and the area has high cancer rates – this is what motivated us to start the campaign.

That’s my mission. Helping my clients, my community, outlining legal or campaigning options to participate in the decision-making processes to influence development projects. I guide them through those processes, but they’re doing the campaigning work. Those affected by these projects are the ones doing the action. I then use the help of different experts in the environment and technology to inform the legal work.

Where is all this waste coming from that was destined for the landfill?

The old landfill contained the municipal waste from other towns including Bratislava. The old landfill contained dangerous waste, especially from chemical factories and hospitals. This was also the plan for the new landfill. In terms of the domestic or foreign waste, the official line was that the new landfill would contain only Slovakia’s waste. Unofficially however, truck drivers repeatedly confirmed that they were shipping waste from Western Europe, but they were afraid to disclose this for investigators. It’s quite likely that these landfills were destined to store waste from other European countries as Slovakia is quite close to the border. It’s also much cheaper to dump in Slovakia than in other countries.

Zuzana crafting home decorations with her 12 year-old daughter Ema at their home in Pezinok, Slovakia. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

How prevalent is the disposal of hazardous waste in Slovakia?

Slovakia has a heritage of communism. In those days, the landfills were built as a ditch and weren’t managed properly (being sufficiently isolated or drained, for example). The laws were very weak but in 2007 an EU law stated that every landfill built during the regime needed to be shut down. Many of the landfills are still in operation while claiming that they’re in the process of being phased out. There are still many landfills operating undercover, which is why it is hard to know the extent of the problem.

What are the health impacts of landfills on your community?

A national registry of cancer incidences compared Pezinok county with the Slovak-wide average, focusing on seven types of cancer. This was based on numerous studies. It concluded that certain types of oncological illnesses can be linked to the vicinity of landfills. They were using data gathered over 35 years. For one specific type of leukemia, prevalence in Pezinok county was 80 times higher than the Slovak-wide average.

What were the impacts on your own children? Were you afraid for them?

Luckily my closest family members, including my children aren’t affected but my uncle got cancer and the wife of my closest colleague working on the campaign – they actually got diagnosed in the same week. It was a week where I was preparing an important legal submission and it was at an important stage. That period was a very emotional time for me. In my personal life at the time, I had two small kids living in the center of Pezinok and due to the landfill, we were scared of opening the window.

Zuzana Čaputová at the balcony of her sister-in-law’s apartment. The chimney of brickfield factory which operates the old landfill (left). The new landfill was planned in the area on the right-hand side of the picture. Both landfill sites are so close to the town that people can see them from their homes. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

How did you go about organizing the local community to participate in stopping the landfill?

Towards the end of the 1990s, I began work at the municipal authority and my colleague told me about the story. We then made a few legal steps to change the land use plan, but the real public participation happened between 2006 and 2013.

It was a gradual and intuitive process, learning as we were going. It started with providing people with information, telling them about the impact of the landfill through leaflets. People were informed and ready to be engaged and our first petition received 1,200 signatures. Of course, another main driving force was the Pezinok citizen’s initiative, ‘Dumps Don’t Belong in Towns’. I worked with [public interest law firm] VIA IURIS on the legal side and with Greenpeace on the campaign planning.                

What kinds of groups did you involve as part of your organizing?

We were convinced that pollution is an issue that concerns everyone, as it does not discriminate against any group. We were sharing information about the landfill’s potential effects with everyone in the area. We worked with wine producers, because Pezinok has been a wine producing town throughout history. These wine producers live in Pezinok, and most have sick people in their family. The landfills were directly affecting their lives.

We did have other groups joining in. For example, a priest was doing a Sunday service announcing where petitions can be found and local artists printed petitions to collect signatures in their galleries.

Zuzana meets with group of activists, community leaders and local citizens of Pezinok who formed citizen action group “Dumps Don’t Belong in Towns.” (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

What does the future hold for the landfill and that site?

As both landfills have been closed or stopped, it is now a brownfield site, basically a ditch. The area is sitting idle and unless their investor decides to re-start the whole process of applying for a permit, they will not be built.

Who was investing in these landfills?

The investor is a company that privatized the landfills after the fall of communism and has strong personal ties with the governing party.

Did you have any support from local government?

Around the year 2000, when we started to talk about the issue, about half the local government supported the landfill, including the mayor. We met with key local government representatives and explained to them that we were starting a campaign and would like to engage the public again. These representatives didn’t think we were capable of raising sufficient awareness and after the first demonstrations with 57,000 locals, their opinion abruptly changed. After many intense years of work, there was a proposal to adopt a brand new construction law.

Could the new construction law help stop unchecked development like the landfill, or will other changes need to be implemented to stop illegal dumping? 

Even the best legal acts do not have the power to stop corruption, and the best legislation can be misused. The new construction law strengthens the position of the public, who can now act as a watchdog over construction projects. Their comments now need to be taken into consideration and need to either be applied or argued properly. Their position is strengthened especially in the land-use planning phase – the government can no longer dictate how the area will be used without public scrutiny.

What other towns have looked to you to support similar battles on landfills in their towns?

About eight municipalities have been dealing with waste incineration, some even with dangerous waste, and three landfills. Some of it was more a legal battle and for others we provided larger, more complex legal support.

How do you think the Prize will impact your work?

Even as the Pezinok story was unfolding and we didn’t think it was going to turn out well, we heard from different activists from different municipalities who said if I succeed then the whole community succeeds. This is bigger than Pezinok being acknowledged on a higher level; it’s a massive encouragement for others who are trying to win cases like this. This is an important contribution of the award as it brings motivation and encouragement for other campaigns.

How can people help?

There are ongoing court cases that VIA IURIS would want to work on but doesn’t have the sufficient funds to do so. You can help meet the growing demand for our work by making a donation.

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