The first Ecotopia took place in 1989 in Germany, in a field not far from Cologne in West Germany. Three hundred and fifty people lived in tents for three weeks. They ate organic food. They discussed environmental issues and movement politics. They sang, put on ecoplays, and used a special currency (the ECO) to buy and sell items.
These open-air Green festivals took place every year until 2008. They were more European than the European Union, since they were hosted in EU member states, countries whose EU membership was still in the future (Estonia, Bulgaria), and countries that are still on the waiting list (Turkey). Beginning in 1990, with a 3,300-kilometer trip from Norway to Hungary, each Ecotopia sponsored its own bike trip in order to discourage participants from arriving by way of motor vehicles. With the Iron Curtain gone, European environmentalists imagined a continent united by a different approach to nature, energy, commerce, and manufacturing.
Some of that radical thinking is now very much part of the European mainstream, such as organic food and bans on nuclear energy. The Ecotopias, however, have dwindled away, though the annual bike trip lives on.
Veronika Mora participated in the very first Ecotopia in Germany. The next year, she brought the concept to Hungary, where she organized the second gathering at a farmhouse. She was only 20 years old when I talked to her a few months before Ecotopia 1990.
She now works at the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation, where she provides grants and technical assistance to environmental organizations in Hungary. She certainly remembers the summer of 1990, when she was organizing Ecotopia.
"It was very successful," she told in an interview at her office in Budapest last May. "But financially it was a disaster. I was 20. I undertook the organizing of a gathering with 500-plus participants, and I didn't realize what that would entail. The difficulties were kept pretty much behind the scenes. Many people came. There were Hungarians who saw an ad somewhere and thought it would be fun and just came. For quite a few of them, it was a life-changing experience. I still meet people who say, 'I went to Ecotopia in Hungary in 1990 and it was such a decisive event in my life!'"
The Hungarian environmental movement played a key role in opposition politics in the 1980s. Protests around a dam planned on the Danube River -- one part at Gabcikovo in Slovakia and the other at Nagymaros in Hungary -- focused discontent with the Communist government. An anti-nuclear energy movement was also emerging. And new groups were tackling such issues as air pollution and nature conservation. "Bringing here a big international event that was completely different from what people had experienced before did play a role," Mora recalled. "It was an inspiration. Groups began sprouting up. That was the golden age of the environmental movement."
The golden age did not last long. "It was a period with a lot of potential," she continued. "Nothing was carved in stone. Everyone felt that we could do a lot, we could move along different pathways. But what happened very soon after the changes, and without much public debate, was the consolidation of this path to capitalism. After that, there was no real room for debate any more about what this capitalism should look like. In the early 1990s, one thing that could have been stronger would have been discussion. We were done with Communism and socialism, so now where do we go next?"
We talked about the current environmental challenges that Hungary faces, the role of the EU, and what the current government in Budapest is doing -- or not doing -- to meet Green concerns.
When we talked in 1990, you were working with Ecotopia. It was leading up to the 1990 event.
Which was in Hungary.
And a couple more were planned. How long did you work with Ecotopia?
Ecotopia itself was the event. But I worked for a European organization called the European Youth Forest Action. It still exists, but hardly. I went on cooperating with them until 1997 or 1998 or 1999. I was based in Hungary. Actually out of the Hungarian Ecotopia was formed a group of enthusiastic young people who didn't previously have much to do with the environment. They formed a small local group and did a couple of things. But then slowly but surely, since these were young people, everybody's life went in different directions. So it died after a few years.
The Ecotopia that took place here was a success?
Yes, it was very successful. But financially it was a disaster. I was 20. I undertook the organizing of a gathering with 500-plus participants, and I didn't realize what that would entail. The difficulties were kept pretty much behind the scenes. Many people came. There were Hungarians who saw an ad somewhere and thought it would be fun and just came. For quite a few of them, it was a life-changing experience. I still meet people who say, "I went to Ecotopia in Hungary in 1990 and it was such a decisive event in my life!"
But you mostly remember the financial problems.
Well, I was running around organizing stuff. But I also had fun. And this small group of people came out of it. We became friends, and with some of them I still keep in touch.
Was that a high point for the Hungarian environmental movement?
No, but it was a trigger in the sense that it was in 1990. The roots of the environmental movement had already been there. Groups were forming, such as the Danube movement, and a few other NGOs were in place. But everything was at a boiling stage, just starting up. Bringing here a big international event that was completely different from what people had experienced before did play a role. It was an inspiration. Groups began sprouting up. That was the golden age of the environmental movement.
And you've been part of it ever since?
This organization, the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation where I've been working for the last 15 years, has a mission is to support the development of environmental NGOs and civil society in the broader sense. We mostly do grant making and provide technical assistance. It's a professional obligation for me to be up to date and follow things.
The big environmental issue here in the late 1980s was the Nagymaros-Gabcikovo dam project. Was that ever resolved?
No. It's still not. The whole thing was taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which issued a verdict in the mid-1990s. But it was the sort of verdict that is difficult to implement. The Slovaks built a dam on their side of the Danube. But the Hungarians didn't build the second dam. The Slovaks diverted the Danube, and the main issue in the court case was the diversion of water between Slovakia and Hungary. The Slovaks still divert the majority of the Danube's water into an artificial canal. Negotiations between the two states still go on, sometimes with higher intensity, sometimes with lower intensity. It seems to be a never-ending story.
The Slovaks diverted the water into the tributary in order to create a height differential?
It's partly an artificial canal using the water from the tributary. But I'm not into the details of the Danube issue.
But there are still organizations working on it.
Yes. I'm not sure on the Slovak side. But in Hungary, there is Szigetkoz with all the little islands. The diversion of the Danube is a big issue there because many of the tributaries dried up or the water level dropped very low, and this influences agriculture, nature, and so on. So, some environmental organizations in Gyor are working on it, and some in Budapest.
Another issue was nuclear power. Is that still an issue?
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