Hungary's Green Wave Crashes

03/22/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2015

When I met the biologist Gyongyi Mangel in 1990, her enthusiasm was contagious. So much was going on in Hungarian civil society that it was hard to keep track of all the new initiatives. She was passionate about connecting issues -- feminism and ecology, food and health, or transportation and sustainability -- and it was hard not to get caught up in her can-do spirit.

And it wasn't just her. The level of civic activism seemed to be growing ever higher. "More and more people call me every day," she told me in 1990. "They want to help. They want to do something against the noise, against the industries."

When I met up with her 23 years later in Budapest, she was considerably less sanguine. Her radio show on environmental issues, which she'd been doing for more than two decades, had just been outsourced. She was distressed at the low level of civic activism, though she understood that most Hungarians were having difficulties just getting by. There had been some successes over the previous years. Activists had blocked a straw-burning power plant in an environmentally sensitive area. Hungary has also backed a strong anti-GMO position. But these successes were few and far between.

"In the course of the last years, financial support was reduced, some of the few employees had to be dismissed" from environmental NGOs, Mangel told me. "So, apart from a few exceptions, the Green organizations are in a really difficult situation right now, on both a local and a national level. There are also fewer programs, so they can also achieve less. And on the really big issues, we can't really achieve anything."

Nor has she been satisfied with the current Hungarian government's stance on environmental issues.

"Here is a really really painful example," she told me. "Previous governments started a plan to expand the Paks nuclear power plant. But they actually avoided the necessary step of submitting the plan to parliament. So, they avoided some permitting steps. There was no professional debate about what kind of energy policy we should have and whether we need Paks or not. In such a serious matter a referendum would have been appropriate. But they are putting out a tender nevertheless. And we are preaching in vain here about the madness of building a nuclear power plant given the experiences of Chernobyl or Fukushima but also taking into account the economic and energy considerations. It seems that this process can't be stopped. There are organizations that keep attacking the plan, but they simply don't have enough power to block it. We can only hope for one thing: that there won't be enough money for it."

Her pessimism even edged toward the apocalyptic. "My bitterness has grown because I feel that humanity is heading toward self-destruction," she concluded. "And then there's European politics. Frankly, the European Union is the shrewdest neo-colonial organization. So, we are proceeding in an astonishingly bad direction. With free trade and all these financial manipulations that produce so much debt, it's produceda deep crisis that is part ecological, part social and where there's no way out. So I am rather pessimistic in this this respect. However, I am an optimist in one sense. As long as it's possible, we need to keep saying what we know, what we have heard from interviewing experts. We can't miss any chances."

The Interview

When we talked in 1990 you described many different environmental groups and emerging organizations, You were quite enthusiastic. How would you regard the NGO sector on environmental issues today? Is it still strong? Is it still producing a lot of good results?

In 1988, the floodgates were opened, and a lot of organizations were formed. The situation of most of them was stable. They got a small office, a telephone, a computer, a couple of employees, and through this they were able to organize some programs. There was an increasing number of huge national organizations, which organized a wide range of programs. They even got as far as preparing a Green budget, which unfortunately no government ever used. The organizations started to specialize, for instance, in waste management, biological diversity, Eco-villages, and so on. This specialization meant that everyone found a topic and a place in an organization. Usually these organizations received some financial support for their operations from the state, but it was a minimal amount.

Through these programs they also received some recognition, and there were also some success stories. They stopped a couple of investments into environment polluters. For instance in Szerencs, a straw-burning power plant was going to be built on the Tokaj World Heritage territory, in a place where straw did not even grow naturally. And of course, the burning of biomass at allis rather questionable. This investment has been shut down.

So these were the successes. At the same time in the course of the last years, financial support was reduced, some of the few employees had to be dismissed. So, apart from a few exceptions, the Green organizations are in a really difficult situation right now, on both a local and a national level. There are also fewer programs, so they can also achieve less. And on the really big issues, we can't really achieve anything.

What about the environmental ministry?

In this case I will speak as a private person and not a journalist. According to my personal opinion, the fact that the ministry was joined to the agricultural ministry did not yield good results at all. The State Secretariat for Environmental Affairs has much less influence. Apart from this, some experts were removed, some people who had worked there for 10-20-30 years as the heads of national parks, ministries, and some other fields. And now no one really seems to be interested in environment and nature protection apart from a couple of narrow fields.

Of course, there are some nice words, but we see no action following them. When Zoltan Illés talks about the reorganization of waste management, that's a really fantastic thing. But at the same time there were changes in the leadership in at least eight out of the 10 national parks including the Hortobágy National Park. There was a leadership change in the non-profit Company for Gene Preservation. And it is also very important that a lot of experts were dismissed. I feel that some people had an eye on land that could be cultivated on the territory of the national parks, so this is why the leadership of the national parks had to be made weaker. As a journalist, I had prepared some interviews in a couple of concrete cases and they confirmed this.

In the course of the past 25 years there have been all different kinds of governments, different ministers, and different possibilities for cooperation and confrontation. There was a little bit of this and that, as far as environment protection is concerned. None of the governments has been perfect, so one could discover really serious problems with all of them. Some really bad ideas had to be vetoed, or at least criticized. But many organizations find that now it is even more difficult to communicate with the government concerning environmental issues.

Here is a really really painful example. Previous governments started a plan to expand the Paks nuclear power plant. But they actually avoided the necessary step of submitting the plan to parliament. So, they avoided some permitting steps. There was no professional debate about what kind of energy policy we should have and whether we need Paks or not. In such a serious matter a referendum would have been appropriate.

But they are putting out a tender nevertheless. And we are preaching in vain here about the madness of building a nuclear power plant given the experiences of Chernobyl or Fukushima but also taking into account the economic and energy considerations. It seems that this process can't be stopped. There are organizations that keep attacking the plan, but they simply don't have enough power to block it. We can only hope for one thing: that there won't be enough money for it.

What could have been done during the previous years so that the general environmental situation would be different now? Could these organizations have done something differently?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.