Published on March 22, 2024

Art as a balm in the just transition: Inspiration from Poland and Romania

For the just transition to be successful, it is crucial to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the planning and implementation of the process. The coal regions of Jiu Valley in Romania and Eastern Wielkopolska in Poland are inspiring examples of this collaborative approach. Thanks to strong partnerships between local public authorities and civil society, both regions are now on the right track for a sustainable future beyond coal. 

In January 2024, CEE Bankwatch Network hosted an event called ‘Planet Konin’ in the city of Konin in Eastern Wielkopolska. The aim of the event was to bring together stakeholders from Jiu Valley and Eastern Wielkopolska, and to provide them with a platform for sharing experiences and approaches to bringing about a just transition. 

The first part of the event focused on discussing the challenges of implementing the Just Transition Fund. Representatives from Petroșani mayor’s office, Konin’s Regional Development Agency, and Bankwatch highlighted potential solutions that can be implemented locally. For instance, Romania’s territorial just transition plan allocation for small and medium-sized enterprises was identified as a progressive strategy for supporting regional economic growth. There were also presentations by local authorities, regional businesses, science institutions, trade unions and non-governmental organisations. Common topics were the huge potential of the Just Transition Fund to meet local needs and the essential role of dialogue between authorities and other stakeholders. 

The second part of the event focused on the important role of art in shaping local identities during the complex process of just transition. It kicked off with a screening of Planet Petrila, a documentary that tells the story of an ex-miner-turned-artist who uses his work to prevent the local authorities from demolishing the infrastructure at the recently closed mine in his hometown of Petrila in the Jiu Valley. As a result of his efforts, a non-governmental organisation bearing the same name succeeded in saving the mine. Uniting both strands of the story, the artist and star of the film, Ion Barbu, and urbanist and activist, Mihai Danciu, were both present. They shared their experiences of using art and activism to bridge the gap for local people as they adjust to a new reality. Ion and Mihai, along with their colleagues, have organised a number of events including plays, concerts, art exhibitions and a permanent museum dedicated to the miners that have the role of saving the others during accidents. 

The documentary served as a springboard for the second part of the discussion, which focused on exploring how local non-governmental organisations can make a difference in the just transition. In addition to Ion, who spoke at greater length about his work in Petrila, representatives from several local Polish non-governmental organisations also took the floor. Grzegorz Przebieracz, a foreman and member of the Engineering and Coal Mining Technicians Society, explained the efforts he and his colleagues took to save ‘Dolores’, an enormous lignite extraction machine with special meaning for Konin residents.  

The salvation of Dolores is a symbolic victory for local activists in Konin, who see it as an opportunity to preserve and promote the heritage of the region. They even invited Ion to help them with ideas for harnessing the cultural significance of the machine to drive tourism in the region. Adam Jaroński, a photographer who has taken many a picture of Dolores, captures the beauty and legacy of the coal mining tradition in Konin. Dolores is the lead actress in his documentary, which showcases the legacy of mining in Eastern Wielkopolska. The work of Konin Dance Theatre, another important organisation in the cultural landscape of Konin, is also strongly rooted in the regional history and cultural landscape of the town. The dance group’s leader Katarzyna Łapaj-Strzykowska announced their new programme entitled ‘A Very Personal Identity’, which showcases the unique perspectives of dancers on the just transition. 

The event closed with a debate between Bankwatch’s Miłka Stępień and Adina Vintan and Mihai Danciu of the Jiu Valley Association (Valea Jiului Implicata). The discussion revealed the enormous positive effects coalitions such as the Jiu Valley Association can have on their local environments and on strengthening local civil society. Inspired by their Romanian counterparts, local organisations in Eastern Wielkopolska have already begun exploring opportunities for establishing a similar coalition. 

The importance of cultural identity and art in smoothing what can often be a traumatic transition for local communities is often overlooked. As the people of Jiu Valley and Eastern Wielkopolska have shown, a truly just transition is about creating an atmosphere of hope and trust in a process that leaves no-one behind.