· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Good News from the Brink. The story of Horní Jiřetín, a small North Bohemian town that defied the coal industry

Horní Jiřetín, a small town in the Czech Republic, was set to be wiped off the map and replaced by a brown coal mine. The end of Communist rule and the privatisation of the coal company was not going to change the town’s fate. But the local community and civil society joined forces and did just that. Now the town is pressing ahead with energy transition plans, in order to do away with not only coal mining, but with fossil fuel dependency altogether.

Before the Velvet Revolution took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Horní Jiřetín was a place which, despite its historic importance as a town located in the royal region, was destined for complete destruction in order to give way to the opencast mining of brown coal. Although it was home to approximately 2,500 residents, the Communist regime was more interested in the town’s fossil fuels than in preserving its historical and cultural values, and planned to wipe the town off the map.

Despite the difficult period that took place in the 1970s, when over forty villages and towns in the North Bohemian region were wiped off the map, Horní Jiřetín and the adjacent settlement of Černice were saved from complete destruction. This was thanks to the actions of a number of figures including regional politicians, geologists, professionals and, last but not least, tireless associations and organisations which, in an era of repression, especially in the era of “normalisation” (following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968), were not always able to effectively defend themselves from propaganda coming from above.

After the Velvet Revolution: from public to privatised coal

However, even after November 1989, when Czechoslovakia became, after more than forty years, a free nation again, entitled to the right to self-determination without Soviet interference, the woes of Horní Jiřetín continued. The coal company that threatened the town ́s existence was privatised and became known as Mostecká uhelná společnost a. s. (Most Coal Company). Less than a year after the Czech Republic became an independent state in 1992, it succeeded in flattening another North Bohemian village, Libkovice. The site of this village, which fell victim to the extraction and burning of brown coal, has not been mined to date.

In this case, the newly-created private coal company had no problem in spreading its destructive activities beyond the so-called “mining limits”, which were established by the first democratic government after the end of communist era and still protect a significant part of Northern Bohemia from extraction today, including the cadastral territory of Horní Jiřetín and Černice. The mining limits were meant to be a permanent guarantee of security for a region devastated by intense industrial development, as well as for its residents, who had been forced to move from one place to another and were sentenced to an uncertain existence.

The coal company Mostecká uhelná (later absorbed by Czech Coal, now Sev.en Energy) has been owned by controversial billionaire Pavel Tykač since 2006. It played a key role in the government’s energy plans and in the decision to expand brown coal mining. It published numerous expert assessments which were then passed on to the public sector as official documents, despite the fact that it was now a private company only interested in securing its own economic growth and profit. The media portrayed the company’s operations as necessary for the energy independence and security of the Czech Republic, despite the fact that most of that coal was exported, and at a price below market value.

There is still uncertainty around the company ́s privatisation process. Czech courts are still dealing with the case more than a decade after proceedings began. The key figures involved in privatising the company were sentenced to years in prison for corruption and fraud in Switzerland.

Saved by civil society

At the same time, the community of Horní Jiřetín also underwent a significant transformation. Before 1989, there was an overall sense of resignation which, of course, was true of Czechoslovakian society in general. There was an exacerbated sense of uncertainty, however, for the residents of Horní Jiřetín, convinced that the coal mine extension was a “necessity”. Yet, during the period between 1989 and 2003, most locals realised that it was important to take a stand against the political and economic power of coal corporations, and that they could actually win this fight.

The town’s community gravitated towards political figures and activists that defended citizens’ homes, their environment, their living space and human dignity in general. The plans to demolish Horní Jiřetín triggered a social and political transformation. The common goal of saving the town brought people together, which in turn led to a restoration of social relationships and to the emergence of a vibrant local civil society. Locals began collaborating with non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace, and Czech environmental groups Hnutí Duha (Friends of the Earth Czech Republic), Brontosaurus and, more recently, Limity Jsme My (“We Are the Limits”). The latter was formed specifically to fight against the expansion of brown coal mining in the Czech Republic and now develops climate justice activities all over Europe.

The real breakthrough was the relationship of trust that developed between locals and non-governmental organisations. It transformed people’s perception of environmental and human rights activism. Locals began to respect and value the enormous role played by these organisations. The result was a thriving and confident community united by more than just fighting coal mining. Cultural events, sports and hobby groups all played an important role in connecting people with the wider community. A number of different groups were formed, aiming to address various social issues, creating a space of common understanding. One example is the independent local theatre club, “SchachTa” (which in Czech plays on the words Mine or Pit). The theatre club produces its own plays on controversial social issues in the community and society in general. The local community even restored some traditions and events that had died out under the communist regime.

Local politician and activist Vladimír Buřt has been a key figure in the town’s transformation. He is the current mayor of Horní Jiřetín and Černice, but was born in the village of Albrechtice, which no longer exists, as it was destroyed by the open cast mines together with forty other settlements under the communist regime. He became politically active in 1998, fighting against coal lobbying, and has since continued to play an active role in the town’s political transformation, alongside many other residents of Horní Jiřetín, also faced with forced displacement and exploitation. Buřt became a spokesperson for the locals, challenging the dishonesty of the coal corporation. The people of Horní Jiřetín put an enormous amount of trust in him, which reflected the need for political continuity in a context of complicated negotiations and the ongoing fight for the town’s right to existence.

A way forward for Horní Jiřetín

2015 was an important year for the town, with a large number of demonstrations, happenings and performances not only in Horní Jiřetín, but also in the surrounding region, the Czech Republic, as well as in other European cities such as Bratislava, Vienna and Bucharest. There were protests both against the scheduled demolition of the town and also commemorative events for the towns, villages and human lives that had already been demolished. Most importantly, these actions were also about promoting alternative solutions for energy self-sufficiency in the public arena and in the media.

Although social relations had been hindered for a long time, due to the region’s political history and the crude attempts of coal lobbyists to drive a wedge between people, the locals clearly redefined their common interests around values of creation, rather than destruction, and stood up for these values together. Following the renewal of the local community, many national figures such as actors, musicians, geologists, energy specialists, politicians and experts in a wide range of areas began to pledge support for the town, and appealed to the general public and to the Czech Republic’s government to save the town. This wider support for the town’s cause played a particularity significant role as coal remains the cornerstone of the Czech energy policy.

After a long and harrowing twenty-year fight to save the towns of Horní Jiřetín and Černice, the 2018 municipal elections were proof that a seemingly much stronger force could be conquered. Those backing the coal company did not even put forward candidates for the elections. The Communist party was also voted out of the municipal council, as it still advocates demolishing the town in order to access the coal buried beneath its houses and homes.

As the government made no legal move to write off the deposits of coal under the town, the city council came up with its own plan to put an end to coal dependency, with the local community initiating a green energy development programme. Political activism played a key role in this development. As the town felt an existential need to become “fossil free” (or it would cease to exist), a common consensus was reached.

The date set for the end of coal mining in Horní Jiřetín and Černice is scheduled for 2024 at the very latest. The current government has promised to commission studies to help restore the land devastated by coal mines and surrounding areas, a project that would help raise the standard of living in the region. The region will still have access to electricity, as the mines are to be flooded and transformed into a hydroelectric power plant. If this all goes through as planned, the area that was once known around the world for its outstanding beauty, could once again become a place of beauty, while also supplying the entire region with clean renewable energy.

Horní Jiřetín and Černice are working towards becoming entirely fossil free. The current mayor, Vladimír Buřt, has adopted a strategic development plan, which aims to make the town’s facilities fossil free by 2023, and to further expand clean energy sources for private households with the help of regional, national and European grants. The plan also includes a number of various environmental projects for the town. Green roofs, energy conservation methods and thermal insulation are some of the steps the town is taking to become self-sufficient. Horní Jiřetín also wants to add wind power stations to its clean energy mix.

This reflects a wider trend of local communities taking matters into their hands as the demands for a cleaner environment and sustainable solutions become increasingly urgent. The case of Horní Jiřetín illustrates that the need for a renewable energy transition is both existentially necessary and feasible, regardless of the context, and can unite communities across different political spectrums. It is not so much about an outright political revolution, but rather a consequence of an organic social transformation that comes from within a community and is driven by the energy sources the community chooses to rely on. Instead of traditional top-down politics, we can see political solutions being built from the bottom up, resulting in a massive shift in political discourse and a real transformation of a community’s mindset. “Think globally, act locally” can indeed be the basis for transformative social change.

By Radek Vrábel

Radek Vrábel (@vrabel_radek) studies Philosophy at the Charles University in Prague. He is a community organiser in Horní Jiřetín on energy and environment issues. He is also a member of the municipal council.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photos: © Ibra Ibrahimovic

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