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Toward Local Resilience in Hungary

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For the last 20 years, the small village of Kapolcs has held an arts festival in the summer time. The town has fewer than 500 people, but thousands flock there during the festival to hear music, buy crafts, and eat traditional Hungarian countryside food. Kapolcs is also on the edge of a national park that encompasses a section of Hungary's largest lake, Balaton. Kapolcs is rural Hungary at its best: lush, bio-diverse, and reasonably prosperous from tourism revenue.

I visited Kapolcs during its long quiet season. I was meeting Judit Vasarhelyi, a long-time environmental activist who had moved to Kapolcs. More than two decades ago, I interviewed her at a splendid old silk mill in the old section of Budapest where she ran the Independent Ecological Center. At that time, Hungary seemed to be leading the region into a Green future. Twenty-three years later, Vasarhelyi was considerably more sanguine about the environmental prospects for Hungary, the region, and the world.

"In those days we were thinking about Hungary turning into an environmentalist country coming out of the socialist years, which were environmentally quite careless," she told me last May over a delicious home-cooked lunch of stuffed peppers and an extraordinary meringue dessert called Floating Islands. "It would have been practically a full change of paradigm, which of course was impossible for the economy to adopt. Even a liberal economist of the Blue Ribbon Circle said that in the midst of the economic crisis, in the short run, there were no resources to invest into the environment. Instead the new government offered a lot of money to those who were jobless immediately after the collapse of the economy. It then became very difficult to send them to work instead of their waiting for unemployment subsidies. On behalf of the prime minister this was out of good will and correct intentions, of course. But as the proverb goes, even the path to hell is paved with good intentions."

Joining the European Union should have been a step up environmentally for Hungary. But it was a mixed blessing.

"When we joined the EU, we more and more realized that Hungary has a kind of dowry of biological diversity -- because of socialism," Vasarhelyi continued. "In such territories where there was military presence, either Soviet or Hungarian, there was no economic activity. The military activities somehow protected or at least didn't use up those resources. We should at this moment be proud of this dowry and try to save it. We shouldn't, like a bridegroom, go to the pub and drink it up! But many European institutions simply want economic development and growth, and they don't seem to care about exploiting these remaining ecological resources."

After many years of work in Budapest and at the international level, Vasarhelyi began to focus instead on local projects. Through a project called Sustainable Communities, she helped identify towns that might be interested in implementing their own environmentally sustainable project. "We would work in one town more than two years, with 60 volunteers," she explained. "For example, in one small town the community decided to have selective collection of waste. They did a business plan. It didn't cost the town a penny. It was zero balance. The whole community, through debate, expressed their desire for this program. And it still exists."

She adapted the program to the countryside as well, including the area around Kapolcs where she now lives. But she no longer radiates the optimism of the earlier years. Instead, she is bracing for environmental catastrophe. She ended our conversation by recalling a pamphlet that the Stockholm Environmental Institute handed out at a follow-on meeting in New York five years after the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

"It was about various social scenarios of the coming disaster," she said. "Three of them were terrible. In one, mankind disappears. Another is that mankind declines, the global village disappears, and then we try again with available technologies. In the third, there is a terrible dictatorship with a lot of environmental migration, and a thin layer of oligarchs is in possession of clean air and water and soil. The fourth scenario, and the only positive one, involved a turn to decentralization from globalization, a turn towards self-sustainable approaches. If an ecological collapse is to happen, it is better to act in a prophylactic way. Instead of falling down we might have a soft landing. That is resilience. And that was five years after the first Rio. I took this as a very smart analysis. And this is what I've been doing ever since. Probably in vain."

The Interview

When you started out in 1989-90, in terms of your expectations of what you could do for Hungary over the next 10 or 20 years, where is Hungary compared to what you expected in terms of air quality, water quality, energy sustainability. Are you at 50 percent?

In those days, we didn't know the word "sustainability." We used "organic" as in "organic planning," which was similar. I was in the Hungarian delegation that travelled to Rio in 1992 for the Earth Summit. It was the smallest delegation: only seven members. It was ridiculous. Even though the Summit participants were very proud of themselves for dealing with energy over and beyond environmental issues, it was not understood to be part of the environment but rather a side effect. Now it's considered at the very core. We had a very weak minister for the environment at that time. The Dutch minister, who didn't sleep at all during those two weeks, started to gather the "like-minded countries", mostly Scandinavian nations and smaller European countries like the Netherlands and Austria - and Hungary from Eastern Europe. The Dutch minister took the Hungarian minister under his arm and said, "You need to be part of our likeminded group." And he was. Because our industry had collapsed, he could promise many things concerning reduced emissions.

The government could meet the stricter regulations because industry had collapsed.

Still, it was good to hear that Hungary had signed everything. William Reilly was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency at that time. He and President George H.W. Bush were also at Rio. Reilly was violet in the face when he was prohibited from signing the climate convention on behalf of the United States. Previously he had been an NGO and civil society person. All of us could understand this internal fight. We were very proud that Hungary signed everything that could be signed.

After Rio, we focused on retrofitting. For example, I organized the first hearings in the Hungarian parliament on energy efficiency and conservation issues. We produced a paper. There was an environmental committee. We explained that this was the route that we should follow because it was good for both the environment and the economy because it created jobs. People talk about Green industry nowadays but this also would have been Green industry. Never before had a foreign expert come to a parliamentary committee. They were just tolerant of this expert, Gregory Katz of the Rocky Mountain Institute, listening in a friendly way to him. We tried, but we weren't really able to do anything.

The government didn't enact any new policies.

It has tried to do something. After joining the EU, we have a quota of renewable sources that we need to use instead of fossil fuels. And there are high expectations attached to renewable energy. But one by one, they turn out to have unexpected side effects. Wind turbines turn out to be very expensive. Bioethanol destroys territory that could be used for food. When the EU gave support for biomass, they started to cut down the real Hungarian forests and turn the wood into energy. This was beautiful wood, and the forests had complex biodiversity. This was not "biomass." An energy plantation is one thing, and a forest, which is the most complex ecological system, is something different. You can't turn one into the other.

When we joined the EU, we more and more realized that Hungary has a kind of dowry of biological diversity -- because of socialism. In such territories where there was military presence, either Soviet or Hungarian, there was no economic activity. The military activities somehow protected or at least didn't use up those resources. We should at this moment be proud of this dowry and try to save it. We shouldn't, like a bridegroom, go to the pub and drink it up! But many European institutions simply want economic development and growth, and they don't seem to care about exploiting these remaining ecological resources.

We were very busy in the civic organizations here in Hungary working on a year-by-year basis on pressing environmental issues. I don't think anybody had in mind a vision of what we would or should be doing 10-15 years later. There are plenty of Hungarian Green organizations, and they are well organized. Some are apolitical, and others advocate on a national level. But many focus on doing tangible things at a local level. When the Hungarian delegation came back from Rio, the government sent some very expensive shiny reports to the UN with a lot of blah-blah-blah. The part I wrote -- I was on the committee of sustainability -- described NGO activities, mainly doing this type of Local Agenda 21 projects. There were real activities and real concerns -- something that later would be called a local agenda. These really meant something.

When the political changes happened, Hungary went first. It was like a minefield. Antall wanted to get us out of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, but everything was done very carefully not to trigger any brutal revolts. We knew what had happened in 1956 -- bloodshed, murder, and Soviet repression -- and we didn't want that to happen again. So we were the sappers carefully going through the minefields and demining them, and we were nervous and we were worrying all that time. But when it was demined, all the other nations ran right through -- with their Velvet Revolution and champagne and happiness! We were not happy because we had sweat on our faces because of all that nervous effort.

After that, the Antall government immediately created what I was told by lawyers was the most autonomous code on local governments in all of Europe. After this change, I spent my working life in the countryside doing several small projects in localities. When we came back from Rio and IEC was inaugurated, Madeline Kunin visited. She was the governor of Vermont and the president of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, and she wanted me to do a workshop on doing local work. It was suggested that IEC could and should do such local projects, like generating democratic, sustainable, and environmentally conscious communities. We at the IEC loved this idea. We very carefully selected those towns in terms of order of magnitude and also of political diversity. Almost all had populations between 18,000 and 20,000 - communities where everyone knew each other. They were the size not only to start a community but also to revive the good old community that was hidden under the surface. We did a lot of work just to learn these histories and pick a team that could work together. It was a brilliant program called Sustainable Communities, and it was really participatory in the truest sense. I know all the misuses of the terms "partnership" and "participation," but this was the real thing. We would work in one town more than two years, with 60 volunteers. For example, in one small town the community decided to have selective collection of waste. They did a business plan. It didn't cost the town a penny. It was zero balance. The whole community, through debate, expressed their desire for this program. And it still exists.

I realized that this project should be adopted in rural areas. This, presently, is a rural area in the basin around me. It's an ecological unit as well. Since all the waters come from within, no one can pollute it from outside. If the inhabitants of this area decide to do organic gardening, then they can do that. We've gotten some Swiss and Dutch support for this project, as well as Hungarian government support. We produced scientific set of papers on how to approach an autonomous small region -- autonomous was the key word, i.e. self-sufficient in terms of energy and other natural resources. Then we joined the EU, and they just laughed at us because these areas were too small. They told us that we must understand that Western people who give tax pennies to us want to see results.

Back to the Sustainable Communities project: for each town, we got $50,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund on the condition that we create consensus on the first goal to be achieved. Wherever there was consensus, this amount of money was there. It was not just plans and papers and planners who make money from making plans. For instance, Hungary once received European money to save the great bustard. A Dutch person came and used up all the money writing a series of papers as high as the table! And there was not a penny left for the real action. Sometimes the support from a Western country is just a way for them to deal with their own unemployment. They label it as support money, but they use it up themselves by hiring these experts.

The five villages -- what was the consensus for them for the first step?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.