Irina Velicu and Mikuláš Černík*
Between 21st and 25th of June 2017, the first international Climate Camp organized in Czech Republic took place in Horní Jiřetín, a town of northern Bohemia. The initiators, a grassroots movement Limity jsme my, see themselves as part of the global struggles for climate justice, similar to other events such as Ende Gelände, Plane Stupid, Reclaim the Power.
The slogan “Limity Jsme My” / “We are the limits” (to open cast mining and fossil industry) is encapsulating decades of efforts to set (and respect) the limits to the areas that can be mined because of a history of more than 80 villages being wiped out by coal-mining in North Bohemia during the communist regime. The image below, few minutes walking distance to Horní Jiřetín, clearly illustrates what open cast mining meant for the region.
Due to a combination of factors such as close proximity to the mines, active citizens and city-mayor – Horní Jiřetín became emblematic for the struggle against further violation of the limits to mining. These limits were set in law in 1991: given the huge level of environmental pollution, social distress and life degradation caused by mining in Czech Republic, one of the main priorities of the Czech government after the fall of previous regime was to regulate this economic activity in order to enable the transition of the region from the dependence on heavy industry to cleaner energy. However, the last town destroyed by mining in 1993, Libkovice, has long resonated in the memory of people in Horní Jiřetín: despite the end of the regime and opposition from locals who had enough of relocation in one family lifetime, the plans for the mine were implemented with the support of the remaining post-communist managerial structure.
Therefore, the last 2 decades were shadowed by the possible expansion of the mine: with every change in government, such possibility was again and again a main national polemics. More so, the limits were recently broken at the Bílina mine in 2015, nearby non-populated areas. This enabled the company Severočeské Doly – ‘daughter’ of the national energy company ČEZ – to continue mining for another 150 million tones of coal. In this context, more than 3000 people in the Czech Republic signed a petition to protect the town against demolition as a result of a possible expansion of mining.
The 2017 Climate Camp was a unique occasion in Czech Republic and Central Eastern European region (CEE) because it brought together the veterans of the Czech environmental movement from the 1980s with the new generation of activists to discuss the future of the movement. The diversity of participants was notable during the program. An essential part of the talks and actions during the camp have focused on ‘greening’ the economy: first, by reducing dependencies on coal (and nuclear) at the town level, institutional and personal level, national levels, making renewables more affordable and decentralized. Second, by transforming the economy altogether towards energy democracy, independence from monopoly energy corporations and corrupt state-business practices. Among other activities, the involvement of various other social movements gave the Climate Camp a broader social justice-turn, connecting ecological issues to anti-racism, eco-feminism, queer rights and squatting.
While there are different opinions and feelings around the possibility of both – living with or without mining – the crucial point is that some form of transition is necessary, be it towards greener economies or more radically, a broader transformation of economy and labor. But the conversation between ‘ecology’ and ‘work’ has not been without tensions. First of all, despite organizers’ invitation, the representatives of the miners unions did not join the camp. Second, among some of the panelists, the vision of work in the post-carbon future has varied from a mainstream one with a mere change in fuel, to a different decentralized and democratically driven green economy.
Keeping the camp functional itself meant a lot of work on the part of all participants: collective (vegan) cooking or cleaning, security guarding against police, corporate or some authoritarian-oriented people, building the awareness to create safe space for any participant, horizontal decision-making, all these meant self-organized life and work which kept us busy day and night. One important part of the camp activity focused on direct-action training: to give people a brief introduction about how to behave during non-violent civil disobedience action to be effective and to avoid chaos and possible injuries.
The day of the direct-action started with a march that gathered more than 200 persons of all ages. Singing and shouting “We are the limits”, accompanied by police helicopters and ‘anti-conflict’ police groups, protesters reached the area of the open cast mine and were met by more police on horses anxiously waiting for something to happen.
In a symbolic gesture, the participants formed a human chain around the mined area, and continued to shout “We are the limits!”, “System change, not Climate Change”. The participants were all dressed in white overalls with red line along their arms. While holding their hands the protesters formed a red line, a symbol of climate justice movement used globally: the mining limits were embodied in Czech Republic simultaneously with the Coode Rood activists occupying the coal harbor in Amsterdam.
The participants continued their march into a forest around the town. Eventually 4 buses took them to the announced demonstrations close to coal mining infrastructure in the region. Confusing the police, the busses ended up at the Bílina mine: 140 people prepared for the direct action jumped out of the busses and occupied the mine, blocking the excavator and stopping the transport of coal. As a precautionary measure, two other nearby mines were closed by managers.
The coal mine workers welcomed the activists’ gesture, as it meant some free time and excitement breaking the working routine. Participants of the protest shouted “paid day off for the workers”. One worker replied that they will receive their payment for this day. Activists started to chant “4-days working week”, which was warmly welcomed. This communication may be one of the reasons why the workers gave water to protesters while police mostly ignored their needs.
The successful action was not without difficulties for some of the participants: deprived of water and hand-cuffed for 8 hours in the heat, pushed and moved around by somewhat aggressive policemen for one day and one night. Most of the participants who were more severely treated were the foreign ones (mostly German, French and Polish, but also Slovak). According to one of the organizers, this could have been the result of interference from the German police, exemplifying transnational patterns of intimidation. However, the remarkable international collaboration of activists underlines an ongoing shift in coal mining resistance, as climate change does not recognize any national borders.
Finally, participants who did not get involved in the direct action joined the protest to the power plant and the solidarity actions at the police-stations where the majority of the direct-action participants were eventually taken. The power-plant Ledvice (see picture below) is where the coal from Bílina mine is combusted.
In the end, the participants did not just say good-bye and returned to their home: fueled with the enthusiasm of another successful direct action and solidarity work, the hope to repeat such solidarity actions was quickly materialized by some of them participating in the Hamburg demonstrations against G20, the protest against cutting the Bialowieza forest in Poland or preparing for the upcoming Ende Gelände.
The Climate Camp was a crucial event in CEE, a region slightly overlooked so far in terms of engaged-research on ecological mobilization: here, heavy industry, both before and after the dictatorial regimes, has had a serious impact on environmental and climate injustice despite active opposition from generations of environmental activists and citizens.
*Irina Velicu, PhD, FCT Postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra
Mikuláš Černík is a doctoral student at the Department of Environmental Studies in Brno, Czech Republic, focusing on the resistance to coal mining, member of Limity jsme my/We are the limits.