If you say you can’t breathe, there are two meanings. The first is symbolic, that the mental environment is stifling, choked with lies and hypocrisy: there is no breathing room. The second meaning is more immediate, that the air itself is corrupted and you are literally choking to death.
The first is a sigh of despair; the second a cry for help.”
—Eduard Vacka, an electrical engineer, quoted in a 1987 article "Morning in Teplice," which appeared in a Charter 77 publication in October 1987.
There were few places in the world where the connection between environmental and human rights was so poignantly demonstrated as in the “black triangle” of northern Bohemia, southern Saxony, and lower Silesia, once considered to be the most polluted and ecologically devastated area in Europe. In this region, the Communist regime conducted an ideologically driven program of rapid industrialization that systematically and ruthlessly degraded the landscape and its inhabitants. For the people living in this ruined land, the humiliation and disenfranchisement of state socialism had an immediate, and often deadly, corollary: low life expectancy, high rates of infant mortality and birth defects, debilitating chronic illness, and political entrapment. It was here that the abstract principles of civic and political rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and rearticulated by local dissidents came face to face with the daily reality of environmental injustice. As Czechoslovak émigré historian Jan Mlynarik put it, “Nowhere is the destructiveness of the Communist system more evident than in nature. Ecology has literally become the litmus test for the regime.”
In the decades following the Second World War and the 1948 parliamentary coup that brought the Communists to power in Czechoslovakia, the rugged beauty of northern Bohemia was reduced to smoldering ruin. There, in the foothills of the Krusny Mountains, ancient forests were leveled, strip mining operations destroyed more than a hundred villages, and coal-fired plants and chemical industries fouled the air and water. Soot rained from an ashen sky that the sun only penetrated an average of sixty days a year. On “red days” when the seasonal thermal inversions trapped the smog at ground level, blackened and shriveled leaves and fruit dropped from the trees and the hospitals filled with suffocating children.
The people of the northern Bohemian coal basin suffered the loss of the natural environment with a range of physical and psychic disorders. In addition to respiratory ailments and chronic illness, many residents expressed a deep dread and alienation from a landscape drained of color, texture, and history. By the late 1970s this existential despair, combined with concerns about long-term health effects, led to a mass exodus from the region, especially among young professionals with children. The state retaliated with a mixture of bribery and coercion. Long term residents were paid a 2000 crown living supplement (commonly referred to as “funeral expenses”) and others were legally trapped in the region in a kind of involuntary servitude orchestrated by state control of jobs and housing.
Ironically, by this time the Czech government, along with the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern bloc, had participated in the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm and had signed and ratified the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which explicitly laid out a legal framework that combined civil and political rights with environmental responsibilities.
A few Czech dissidents, led by playwright and future president Vaclav Havel, had the audacity to take the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act literally and founded the pioneering human rights group Charter 77. With its critical focus on civil and political rights, the group provoked a harsh backlash by the regime. Effectively isolated by state repressive tactics and its own intellectual elitism, the group would not emerge as a popular forum until the late 1980s. While the regime sought to repress the political implications of the Helsinki agreements, environmental conservation was largely seen as apolitical and thus an acceptably generic form of civic engagement. State commissions and academic institutes were finally permitted to conduct environmental studies, both on a theoretical and practical level, and the official mass media began to popularize environmentalism among the general public. One of the first of these controlled initiatives was Brontosaurus, an environmental group launched in 1974 under the auspices of the Socialist Youth Organization. As long as no ideological conclusions were drawn, ecology effectively became a Communist front.
The government’s priority of politics over substance in its environmental campaign is illustrated by the fate of the oldest environmental group in the country. Founded in 1958, the Association for the Protection of Nature and the Countryside had grown to more than 16,000 members, and outgrown its political oversight. Charged with “insufficient political commitment” (it was, for example, the only association in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic with a founding charter that did not mention the leading role of the Communist party), it was forced to disband in 1979 and was replaced by the more subordinate Czech Union of Conservationists. Thus, by the end of the 1970s the two major environmental groups in Czechoslovakia, comprising 28,000 members between them, had both been established at the order of government and party organs and functioned under their direct supervision. State sponsorship allowed the regime to follow the letter of its legal obligations pursuant to the Stockholm and Helsinki protocols, while preempting and subordinating any truly spontaneous activism among the nascent environmental initiatives. On the other hand, environmentalists faced the moral dilemma of deciding whether their participation within official environmental organizations was a de facto expression of loyalty to the existing regime, or simply a necessary compromise in order to be able to engage in vital work. Given the regime’s dreadful policies and mismanagement of the ecological crisis, environmental activists often walked a fine line between the rhetoric and the practice of their guarantor.
By the 1980s, however, it was increasingly awkward to keep civil and environmental rights categorically distinct. A young generation of activists, unbowed by the historical trauma of the Warsaw Pact invasion, demanded transparency, accountability, and action. Improvements in technology and unofficial communication networks also made it difficult for the regime, despite heavy-handed repression, to maintain its blockade on the flow of information. In 1983, a secret government report outlining the critical state of the environment was leaked and published in samizdat (the unofficial press) by Charter 77 and rebroadcast to the country by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The disinformation and negligence surrounding the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, widely disseminated through unofficial channels, only fueled the widespread public cynicism, leading to a loss of faith in the government and an increasing willingness to contest its authority.
A growing coalition of citizens’ groups had begun to make explicit connections between the protection of the natural environment and a broader agenda for social and political change. In the democratic upheaval of the late 1980s, nearly all Czech civic initiatives included concerns about the environment in their mission statements. Environmental concerns topped the agenda of the mass demonstrations that wracked and galvanized the country in 1988 and 1989 as well as the policies of the first post-Communist government.
The first unofficial ecological demonstration in May 1989 illustrates the degree to which the environment had become a priority issue. Already that year dissidents had been rounded up in preventive detention and other protesters had been gassed and clubbed; but the Prague Mothers “parade of prams” and people in the street voicing demands for a healthy environment during an international summit on environmental affairs — left bystanders supportive and security forces completely disarmed. Finally, one week before the November 17 Velvet Revolution that would signal the downfall of the old regime, thousands of protestors in Teplice and other northern Bohemian cities held a series of protests explicitly claiming their right to fresh air as a human right.
It had taken ten years for environmental rights activism to achieve the global cachet of Havel’s coterie of political prisoners, but it was instrumental in transforming the discourse of civil rights in Czechoslovakia. The abstract notions of “living in truth” and appeals to the “order of Being” of the Chartists made for poor slogans at the nascent public demonstrations, but demands for clean air and water and the health of the nations’ children were basic and universal enough to cut across class and regional divisions and through the rhetoric of the regime.
The story of the region in the years since the fall of communism is one of mixed success. While an embrace of Western style consumerism and market driven public policy quickly displaced the popular environmental agenda, the strict guidelines for human and environmental rights spelled out in the European Union accession agreement have spearheaded a remarkable recovery in the region. The Bohemian experience under both communism and capitalism indicates the interdependent and symbiotic nature — indeed, the necessity — of environmental and other human rights.