This is a guest blog by Goldman Prize Program Officer Lindsey Freedman, who recounts her first meetings with 2017 Goldman Prize winner Uroš Macerl. Macerl is an organic farmer from Slovenia who successfully stopped a Lafarge cement kiln from co-incinerating toxic petcoke (a byproduct of oil refining) and hazardous industrial waste by rallying legal support from fellow Eko Krog activists.
The first time I saw Uroš Macerl was on a computer screen. He had been selected as the 2017 Goldman Prize winner for Europe the week before, but coordinating a Skype call to tell him that he had won was challenging: the language barrier, time zone, and the need to keep up the ruse that I was an environmental journalist who wanted to interview him (so as not to spoil the surprise before we spoke) all contributed to the delay. Finally, however, we connected. With his friend and colleague, Erika, sitting by his side translating, I was able to tell him that I was not, in fact, an environmental journalist, and was actually calling to let him know that he had won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. A huge grin spread over his face and we all started laughing as he realized that not only had Erika been in on the ruse, but she had also been an invaluable reference for me in my research over the previous year.
Meeting the Prize winners after so many months of research is one of my favorite parts of my job. By the time I met Uroš on his farm in central Slovenia about a month after the initial call, it felt like we were old friends. Uroš, Erika, and I spent the first day of my visit huddled around his kitchen table drinking tea, eating cookies, and discussing the Prize. I met Uroš’ wife, Sanja, and his 3-year-old son, Beno. I got to see Uroš herding his sheep up and down the valley’s steep ravines, and watched as he attempted to convince a ewe who had given birth to twin lambs not to reject one of the babies (she ultimately did, and Uroš took the baby back to the farm with us). I also made friends with Uroš’ donkey, Florjan, who from that day forward would bray and run toward me whenever we arrived on the farm.
The film crew arrived a few days later, and we spent the next few days shooting Uroš’ Prize film (and taking nips of Marshal, a local liqueur, to stay warm in the cold weather). I learned about many of the challenges that Uroš and his organization, Eko Krog, had faced in their long battle to shut down the Lafarge cement plant in his backyard. I was able to see the Lafarge smokestack from the hills behind Uroš’ home, and observing how close the plant was to his home, family, and livelihood brought his whole story into perspective for me. I felt profoundly honored to spend time with Eko Krog members who had banded together to support Uroš as president as they worked together to shut down the plant. Hearing their stories of family members and friends afflicted with various types of cancer (the valley’s cancer mortality rates are about 6% higher than the rest of the country) brought home the truly devastating effects of the plant.
Uroš continues to be a source of inspiration not only for me, but for countless environmental activists around the world.
As we wrapped up the film shoot and prepared to head back to the US, I reflected on the power that one person can have—particularly when the odds of success appear to be decidedly not in their favor. Uroš Macerl, a sheep farmer, stood up to the world’s largest cement manufacturer—and won.
Support Uroš and Eko Krog as they work to inspire the next generation of activists in Slovenia.
Lindsey Freedman is the program officer for Europe and Asia at the Goldman Environmental Prize. She assists Prize winners from these regions prior to and during the Prize tour, and visits them in their home countries before they come to the US.