The Czech RE:START programme is a unique attempt by a government in central and eastern Europe to help coal regions develop in alternative ways.
The town of Most in the north-west of the Czech Republic is a black spot in the country’s contemporary history. Books exploring the ecological disaster in central and eastern Europe in communist times tend to illustrate what happened with images from Most. Old lead prints from the early 1970s show the beautiful narrow buildings of a coquette Mitteleuropa burg collapsing under assault from bulldozers. In front of them, a lignite pit was opening its wide black mouth – and it would go on to swallow the identity of this Bohemian settlement.
Many places in the Ústí nad Labem region (Ústecký kraj) shared the fate of Most: a partial or complete vanishing into the abyss, as they were swallowed by the open-cast mines which fuelled the planned economy of communist Czechoslovakia.
Kamila Bláhová, the mayor of Litvinov, a small town in the vicinity of Most encircled by mines, says that this coal history ought to end “in our lifetime”.
“I was born in Most in 1976, the worst time in our contemporary history from an environmental perspective,” Bláhová says. “A lot of towns were disappearing from the map in those years, it was just horrible.”
Her fellow citizen and contemporary, Gabriela Nekolová, remembers how during her childhood every child had to wear masks on their way to school because of the pollution. Today Nekolová is the vice-director of the central governmental programme RE:START, which focuses on the economic revival of Czech mining regions.
Nekolová remembers the shock in her community when the church was moved, one of the last buildings that remained standing. The rest of the old city is now rubble at the bottom of an artificial lake, as the old open mine was filled with water as part of a long process of revitalisation in the area.
Coal fuelled the economy and brought profits, Nekolová says, but “the Ústecký region paid heavily for national development.”
She thinks that the national government should be responsible for supporting the alternative development of mining regions, because the economy as a whole profited from the mines. The Ústecký region is now infamous for environmental damage, high unemployment and internal migration – the region has seen an exodus of people in the post-communist period.
RE:START mining regions
“It took twenty years to convince the government to do RE:START,” Nekolová says with a sigh.
RE:START is a national programme, launched by the Czech government in 2015, which aims to support the economic and social transformation of the country’s three mining regions (Ústecký, Karlovarský and Silesia). Under the framework of this programme, the government assists local businesses, promotes innovation, research and development (R&D) and higher education, invests in housing and transport, the restoration and revitalisation of polluted sites, as well as spurring job creation.
RE:START is a programme which is unique in the central and eastern European region due to the fact that it is an initiative of the central government dedicated to the transformation of mining regions and has remained untouched despite changes to the ruling party (originally it was an initiative of the Czech Social Democrats, launched in 2015).
“RE:START is a sign that the government is taking the shutdown of mines seriously,” says Bláhová, adding that it would have been better to have had the programme already in the early 1990s when the restructuring of the economy began. Currently, if mines close, the job losses entailed are far fewer than in the 1990s, because there are now a lot less people employed in the mining sector.
When RE:START was launched, Nekolová reminisces, those in charge quickly noted that their job was much more complex than they had initially thought: managing the phase-out of mining means dealing with the structural social problems which are characteristic of the region, and therefore involves sophisticated approaches to local development.
Before proposing measures, those in charge of RE:START gathered inputs from the relevant communities and experts. The budget of the programme is around EUR 2 billion, up to 2030. This is not only money coming from the state budget, but also funds channelled from other sources of financing (and, sometimes, this is new money that would not have come to the regions in the absence of RE:START): the EU Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund, the European Investment Bank, the Europe Facility and the Cohesion Fund.
Public participation is key
“We need structural change,” says Bláhová, the mayor, pointing out that both new and sophisticated industries as well as old ones can be part of the new economic mix of Litvinov and the surrounding region.
“The chemical industry, a clean one, is what we should still hang on to,” says Bláhová. Litvinov is home to one of the Czech Republic’s main refineries.
Nonetheless, Bláhová would like to see tourism and services developing more – Litvinov lies in a mountainous region.
“We were always perceived as an unattractive region, but this is not true! We were always attractive, we have beautiful mountains and pollution is a thing of the past,” Bláhová says. “We are enjoying the cleanest air in decades.”
She thinks RE:START can help to bring in subsidies for the restructuring of brownfields and their revitalisation and reuse.
A just transition for the Ústecký region would require the involvement of local communities, who could contribute to the vision of socio-economic development. So far, however, public participation in future planning has been relatively low.
People are quite active in commenting online and bringing their (virtual) contributions to RE:START, but there is still a need for deeper involvement and engagement.
“Only recently, we received over 200 suggestions on how things can improve with our local strategy in Most,” says Nekolová. “We are also trying to get non-governmental organisations and unions involved in committees that deal with the region’s transition.” There are around 500 active organisations all over the Ústecký region, according to the RE:START vice-director.
“Participation gives hope. I am not saying that people are happy, but definitely hopeful,” comments Nekolová.
As Mayor Bláhová views it, many communities in the Czech Republic are not used to public participation: the communist state imposed the development of the mines quite brutally and with utter contempt for the environment or any sort of democratic practice.
Irena Moudra Wunschova, a senior activist with the Green Party in Ústí, believes that more communication and involvement from civil society is needed. “There is simply no future for mines and we have to replace them.”
According to the Green Party activist, mines not only cause pollution and deep social problems but they also restrict participation. “These mining enterprises are all currently connected to issues of nepotism and political mafia,” she says.
Her son in law, Petr Globocnik, was recently elected as a local councilor in Litvinov from the coalition that includes the Greens.
“For me, RE:START is still a mystery because it just started,” Globocnik says. “Of course the program has not changed anything so far, but the expectations are high. So far it has sounded like propaganda, but we have been receiving more valuable information about it recently. The good thing is that it connects organisations from different areas in a network, and this can only help with closing the mines.”
“People are extremely frightened about losing their jobs, so the government has to get into the conversation and take care of these fears,” Bláhová says, adding that the development of the region starts from closure of the mines and that most people in the Ústecký region are in favour of this happening.
And, the mayor concludes, “There will be a coal shutdown all over Europe, this is clear. For Romania and Poland, the sooner they assess the issue and look for alternatives, the sooner they will overcome their social problems.”
Text and photos by Raul Cazan