At the end of May, a group of Polish, Slovak, Hungarian and Bulgarian visitors – mayors, local government bureaucrats, NGO members and trade unionists – came to the Czech region of Ústí nad Labem to learn about the region’s experience with shutting down coal mines.
All participants in the study trip come from regions with intensive coal mining and related structural problems. All CEE countries currently find themselves at various stages of the debate on if, when and how coal mining should be terminated and how to deal with the social, environmental and economic problems which accompany phasing out coal mining.
Study trip to Usti region, Czechia. Video by Zhenya Tsoy.
While for many local inhabitants this might come as a surprise, the Ústí region proved to be an inspiration for the CEE visitors. The discussion on phasing out coal is more advanced in Czechia than in many of its CEE neighbours; quite a lot of thinking has been put into how regions can build post-coal futures over here. At the same time, the stories from Czechia are easy to relate to for visitors from the post-communist region (at the very least, because Czechia is not much richer than its neighbours and the countries share a common history of communism and post-communist transformation).
Many topics were covered during the study trip, from managing the reclamation of the landscape after mining, through how to attract new industries into the old mining regions, to acquiring finances for the transformation and securing public support for the process.
On the issue of nature reclamation, the visitors were surprised at the fact that this is approached in a very complex manner in Czechia. In Slovakia, we learnt from the Slovak participants, there is a similar law as in Czechia which stipulates that mining companies should set aside funds for future reclamation activities when they start mining. However, it seems this does not work quite well in practice in Slovakia.
“When I see how you have turned the surface mines into beautiful lakes, which have potential for tourism or new industrial activities, we don’t see that happening in Slovakia at all,” says Michal Ďureje from the Prievidza city council in Upper Nitra (Slovakia’s mining region and a pilot of the European Platform for Coal Regions in Transition). “In our region, we see empty holes and un-reclaimed fields with no further use. Nobody cares about the areas hit by mining.”
Another way that Czech authorities found to give new use to old mining sites was to try to sign up the old mining shafts to the UNESCO list of protected areas (like the town of Krupka is trying to do) or to provide incentives for film-makers to use the devastated landscape for unique shots – this has the added value that the public gets familiarised with the sites.
The Czech government’s “Restart” program, which aims to rebuild structurally less developed regions, also served as a big inspiration for the CEE participants. The active cooperation between the central government and the regional administrations has been highlighted as one of the most important requirements for a successful transformation of coal regions across all the countries. More concentrated efforts at regional re-development could also attract more financial resources, which are often lacking, the participants concluded.
The participants all stressed the importance of planning the phasing out processes and subsequent reclamation and resocialisation activities well in advance. The government in Bulgaria, we were told, refuses to make any plans and preparations for the end of coal mining, even though many acknowledge this will sooner or later happen.
“People need a vision,” said Petko Kovatchev from the Bulgarian Green Energy Institute. “Everybody must see that it is better if there is a certain plan, a road map, of how to manage the phaseout, rather than to be surprised by the circumstances. The Czech Republic is ahead of Bulgaria in this regard.”
Even though the “Restart” program still has to overcome many challenges in order to deliver the desired results, its mere existence is already a success story proving that something like this is possible in other CEE countries.
Another widely discussed topic, which connects all the coal-mining regions of the participating countries, is the outflow of people from these areas, which often do not offer attractive jobs or pleasant and healthy living conditions. There is no easy solution to this problem and clearly a complex approach is needed, which includes the cooperation of the government.
For example, Vladimír Buřt, the mayor of the Horní Jiřetín town (which successfully fought against being destroyed by a coal mine expansion) is now content with the influx of people the town has seen since the government ruled out the expansion. On the regional level, in order to keep people put, it is necessary to work on improving air quality, diversifying the local industry and providing high-quality education and attractive job opportunities.
Last but not least, the topic of active citizen participation has been brought up frequently throughout the trip. If the inhabitants are not included in the transformation planning, they might feel that it is a non-transparent, top-down process from which they will not benefit. In Slovakia, for example, the discussion about phasing out coal is widely politicised and the society sharply divided on the issue. If, on the other hand, the citizens can contribute to the process from the beginning, such polarisation decreases and the final result is better for everyone.
We would like to thank the following people for sharing their experiences: Tomáš Budín from Palivový kombinát Ústí, Ivo Přikryl from ENKI, Gabriela Nekolová from the “Restart” program, Kamila Bláhová – mayor of Litvínov, Vladimír Buřt – mayor of Horní Jiřetín, Filip Brodský from the University of J. E. Purkyně, Rostislav Kadlec from the town council of Krupka, Martina Johnová from the community centre Hraničář, Barbora Hyšková from the Regional office of Ústí nad Labem region, and Karel Klusák from the trade union ECHO.
This trip was made possible by the project ‘Accelerating the Energy Tranformation of Central and Eastern Europe and Learning from the German Experience’ funded by the European Climate Initiative (EUKI).