Zuzana Čaputová

2016 Goldman Prize Recipient

  • Slovakia
  • Pollution & Waste

A public interest lawyer and mother of two, Zuzana Čaputová spearheaded a successful campaign that shut down a waste dump that would have poisoned the land, air, and water in her community, setting a precedent for public participation in post-communist Slovakia.

A cheap and convenient dumping ground

In Pezinok, a charming vineyard town in western Slovakia, viticulture plays an important part in the local economy, where a castle and museums attract tourists interested in learning about the region’s historic royal wines.

In recent years, however, the country has also become known as a place to dispose of garbage from neighboring countries in Western Europe. In the 1960s, Pezinok became home to a waste dump, built without any permits or safeguards to keep the toxic chemicals from leaching into the soil—just 500 feet away from a residential area.

As the dump started to reach capacity, a wealthy developer with close ties to regional authorities pushed through plans to build another dumping ground. Despite a 2002 ordinance that banned landfills within city limits, plans for the second dumpsite went through without any public input from the surrounding community.

Meanwhile, residents in Pezinok were left to pay the price from the antiquated landfill. Cancer, respiratory diseases, and allergy rates in the area began to soar, with one particular type of leukemia being reported eight times more than the national average.

‘Dumps Don’t Belong in Towns’

Born and raised in Pezinok, Zuzana Caputova is an attorney at public interest law organization VIA IURIS, a career path she chose as a way to help people in her community.

For Čaputová, the waste dump’s toxic legacy cast a deep shadow both at work and at home. The stench from the nearby landfill wafted into her home, where she kept the windows shut to keep her two young daughters safe. Cancer took an unwelcome foothold when both her uncle and a close colleague’s wife received diagnoses in the same week.

Armed with her legal expertise, she engaged artists, local businesses, wine producers, students, church leaders, and other members of the community in a grassroots campaign to shut down the dumpsite. Čaputová and other activists came together and organized peaceful protests, concerts, and photographic exhibits and gathered 8,000 signatures in a petition to the European Parliament. In addition to mobilizing civil society, she mounted a relentless legal challenge to the new landfill through the Slovakian and EU judiciaries.

The first demonstration brought together thousands of local residents, which helped bring municipal leaders on board with the campaign despite their early skepticism. They heard the citizens’ message loud and clear: “Dumps Don’t Belong in Towns.”

Rallying civil society in post-communist Slovakia

The campaign came to a head in 2013, when the Slovakian Supreme Court ruled that the newly proposed landfill was illegal. The court withdrew permission for the new dumpsite to begin operating, and ordered the decrepit dumpsite to shut down. The verdict echoed a decision from the EU Court of Justice, which affirmed the public’s right to participate in decisions that impact the environment not only in Pezinok but throughout the EU as well.

Čaputová, as a member of the VIA IURIS team, is now fighting back new construction laws in Slovakia that would make it easier for developers to bring illegally built projects up to code while weakening public access to environmental information and decision-making. Along with her VIA IURIS colleagues, she is also providing legal assistance for other communities in Slovakia that are fighting against industrial pollution.

The victory in Pezinok—the largest mobilization of Slovak citizens since the 1989 Velvet Revolution—sets an important precedent for civic engagement in Slovakia, and is inspiring citizens in the country to stand up for their rights to a clean and safe environment.

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