When I met the biologist Gyongyi Mangel in 1990, her enthusiasm was contagious. So much was going on in Hungarian civil society that it was hard to keep track of all the new initiatives. She was passionate about connecting issues — feminism and ecology, food and health, or transportation and sustainability – and it was hard not to get caught up in her can-do spirit.
And it wasn’t just her. The level of civic activism seemed to be growing ever higher. “More and more people call me every day,” she told me in 1990. “They want to help. They want to do something against the noise, against the industries.”
When I met up with her 23 years later in Budapest, she was considerably less sanguine. Her radio show on environmental issues, which she’d been doing for more than two decades, had just been outsourced. She was distressed at the low level of civic activism, though she understood that most Hungarians were having difficulties just getting by. There had been some successes over the previous years. Activists had blocked a straw-burning power plant in an environmentally sensitive area. Hungary has also backed a strong anti-GMO position. But these successes were few and far between.
“In the course of the last years, financial support was reduced, some of the few employees had to be dismissed” from environmental NGOs, Mangel told me. “So, apart from a few exceptions, the Green organizations are in a really difficult situation right now, on both a local and a national level. There are also fewer programs, so they can also achieve less. And on the really big issues, we can’t really achieve anything.”
Nor has she been satisfied with the current Hungarian government’s stance on environmental issues.
“Here is a really really painful example,”she told me.“Previous governments started a plan to expand the Paks nuclear power plant. But they actually avoided the necessary step of submitting the plan to parliament. So, they avoided some permitting steps. There was no professional debate about what kind of energy policy we should have and whether we need Paks or not. In such a serious matter a referendum would have been appropriate. But they are putting out a tender nevertheless. And we are preaching in vain here about the madness of building a nuclear power plant given the experiences of Chernobyl or Fukushima but also taking into account the economic and energy considerations. It seems that this process can’t be stopped. There are organizations that keep attacking the plan, but they simply don’t have enough power to block it. We can only hope for one thing: that there won’t be enough money for it.”
Her pessimism even edged toward the apocalyptic. “My bitterness has grown because I feel that humanity is heading toward self-destruction,” she concluded. “And then there’s European politics. Frankly, the European Union is the shrewdest neo-colonial organization. So, we are proceeding in an astonishingly bad direction. With free trade and all these financial manipulations that produce so much debt, it’s produceda deep crisis that is part ecological, part social and where there’s no way out. So I am rather pessimistic in this this respect. However, I am an optimist in one sense. As long as it’s possible, we need to keep saying what we know, what we have heard from interviewing experts. We can’t miss any chances.”
Tell me how your radio show started.
I worked as a biologist at the Research Institute for Radiobiology from 1984. Chernobyl happened just when I started to work there. Then in 1990 I went to work for the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, I was writing articles on environmental issues. I was then invited to the radio as an expert on environmental issues. I had no experience in radio, but I did have some experience in journalism, in lecturing, and in conducting deep interviews. When I was called to the radio as an environmental expert, I learned a few radio tricks there. On top of that I had my writing skills. So, this is how I became an environmental journalist, first at the program called Oxigén. This was in 1992.
Unfortunately, this ecological radio program has been outsourced. It a disgrace that now there is no single internal expert program dealing with ecology in the public media in Hungary. In the old days there were periods when there were six or seven or eight different such programs — expert programs not general programs. When the public media employs someone, they can demand a certain level of quality, expert knowledge, and exactitude. But in the case of an external company, that doesn’t happen, and it is way more expensive to have the work done by external people.
When we talked in 1990 you described many different environmental groups and emerging organizations, You were quite enthusiastic. How would you regard the NGO sector on environmental issues today? Is it still strong? Is it still producing a lot of good results?
In 1988, the floodgates were opened, and a lot of organizations were formed. The situation of most of them was stable. They got a small office, a telephone, a computer, a couple of employees, and through this they were able to organize some programs. There was an increasing number of huge national organizations, which organized a wide range of programs. They even got as far as preparing a Green budget, which unfortunately no government ever used. The organizations started to specialize, for instance, in waste management, biological diversity, Eco-villages, and so on. This specialization meant that everyone found a topic and a place in an organization. Usually these organizations received some financial support for their operations from the state, but it was a minimal amount.
Through these programs they also received some recognition, and there were also some success stories. They stopped a couple of investments into environment polluters. For instance in Szerencs, a straw-burning power plant was going to be built on the Tokaj World Heritage territory, in a place where straw did not even grow naturally. And of course, the burning of biomass at allis rather questionable. This investment has been shut down.
So these were the successes. At the same time in the course of the last years, financial support was reduced, some of the few employees had to be dismissed. So, apart from a few exceptions, the Green organizations are in a really difficult situation right now, on both a local and a national level. There are also fewer programs, so they can also achieve less. And on the really big issues, we can’t really achieve anything.
What about the environmental ministry?
In this case I will speak as a private person and not a journalist. According to my personal opinion, the fact that the ministry was joined to the agricultural ministry did not yield good results at all. The State Secretariat for Environmental Affairs has much less influence. Apart from this, some experts were removed, some people who had worked there for 10-20-30 years as the heads of national parks, ministries, and some other fields. And now no one really seems to be interested in environment and nature protection apart from a couple of narrow fields.
Of course, there are some nice words, but we see no action following them. When Zoltan Illés talks about the reorganization of waste management, that’s a really fantastic thing. But at the same time there were changes in the leadership in at least eight out of the 10 national parks including the Hortobágy National Park. There was a leadership change in the non-profit Company for Gene Preservation. And it is also very important that a lot of experts were dismissed. I feel that some people had an eye on land that could be cultivated on the territory of the national parks, so this is why the leadership of the national parks had to be made weaker. As a journalist, I had prepared some interviews in a couple of concrete cases and they confirmed this.
In the course of the past 25 years there have been all different kinds of governments, different ministers, and different possibilities for cooperation and confrontation. There was a little bit of this and that, as far as environment protection is concerned. None of the governments has been perfect, so one could discover really serious problems with all of them. Some really bad ideas had to be vetoed, or at least criticized. But many organizations find that now it is even more difficult to communicate with the government concerning environmental issues.
Here is a really really painful example. Previous governments started a plan to expand the Paks nuclear power plant. But they actually avoided the necessary step of submitting the plan to parliament. So, they avoided some permitting steps. There was no professional debate about what kind of energy policy we should have and whether we need Paks or not. In such a serious matter a referendum would have been appropriate.
But they are putting out a tender nevertheless. And we are preaching in vain here about the madness of building a nuclear power plant given the experiences of Chernobyl or Fukushima but also taking into account the economic and energy considerations. It seems that this process can’t be stopped. There are organizations that keep attacking the plan, but they simply don’t have enough power to block it. We can only hope for one thing: that there won’t be enough money for it.
What could have been done during the previous years so that the general environmental situation would be different now? Could these organizations have done something differently?
The organizations have done quite a lot. Obviously they could have done more. But it’s rather difficult to find volunteers and people to join in actions. Because of the more difficult economic situation, people became more preoccupied with their families and existential problems. There were fewer and fewer activists. Really successful programs need a lot of activists.
On the other hand, in the different environmental groups there are more and more experts in their fields: economists, engineers, lawyers, biologists and other natural scientists. There are chemical engineers who deal with environmental chemistry at an organization and biologists who work as environmental experts at an organization. From this point of view, the organizations can produce better quality research. Yet, because of the financial and activist situation, they have greater difficulties.
What else should have been done? I don’t know. They have done a lot to call people’s attention to many things. Over the last 25 years, they have said many important things that have been disregarded by society, by the political and economic institutions. As far as everyday things are concerned, people are better informed – on selective waste collection or energy usage. They buy energy saving machines and devices that use less water or energy.
At the same time, I am convinced that few people understand the real connections between things. Even in scientific and decision-making circles, people don’t make the connections between economic and social questions and ecological crises. They don’t understand that they have to be handled together. Therefore I very often feel that we are just scratching the surface when we say, “Wow, it’s great that a low petro-consuming car is now available,” or “Look how many energy plants we’re growing.” They don’t realize that these plants aren’t good from the point of view of water management. And they take up land that ordinarily would have gone to producing food.
What do you think of the various Green parties that have emerged in the last two decades?
I would like to emphasize again that ever since I have been a journalist, since 1992, I have never been a member of a political party. Nor have I been a member of an organization because my work is connected to those issues and it would have been quite simply incorrect. The one exception is that there was a society for environmental journalists, a professional organization. Unfortunately this organization doesn’t exist any more.
However, I have been in contact with the Green organizations and I can see how the political parties function. During election periods, we ask the representatives of different parties about their opinions concerning environmental issues. So we have been dealing with the political side of the environmental question.
As far as the Green party in particular is concerned, in Hungary there used to be a Green party. And then there were three or four different initiatives, all of them unsuccessful for various reasons. No one probably thought that such a Green party initiative could ever become strong enough to become a political factor. Now there is an organization called Lehet más a politika (LMP) in the parliament. They got in with five percent of the vote, so just above the threshold. At the same time they have already split, namely for reasons concerning the future. Now it is a smaller organization, and they call themselves Green politicians. I would like to add that I like what LMP is doing right now.
Yet I would make a difference between Green politics and Eco-politics, in the sense that Green politics tends to take on many things “supported by democracy” that I have never heard from politicians that deal with Eco-politics, certain freedoms that are not particularly connected to environment protection. So, for instance, what Green politicians are doing now in the European Parliament is astonishing and disgusting, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the charges of pedophilia against him. This outrages the average person. And if Green politics is identified with the report on Hungary by Portuguese Green Party member Rui Tavares, a report that is not true, it’s just disgusting. So, if this is the model of Green politics, then I frankly hope that there will never be such a Green party in Hungary, strong, weak, or whatever.
Real Eco-politics focuses on the connections between ecological and social issues. For instance, poorer territories have more environmental pollution and therefore greater dangers to health. If a party deals with and emphasizes such things, it deserves to be supported.
If you look back to your own philosophy from 1990, has your approach changed?
I still feel the same way as I did when I was a beginner environmental activist, perhaps even more so! I felt then that it was important to stand up for certain things. As for the issues with which I started to deal as a journalist, I take responsibility for the reports and programs that I wrote 10, 15, or 20 years ago. So, for instance, around 1995 I prepared a program for the first time in which I underlined the dangers of genetic modifications. Now all these things became true. What my colleagues and I said about climate change for the first time back then all became true. So in this respect, my approach has not changed.
However, my bitterness has grown because I feel that humanity is heading toward self-destruction. And then there’s European politics. Frankly, the European Union is the shrewdest neo-colonial organization. So, we are proceeding in an astonishingly bad direction. With free trade and all these financial manipulations that produce so much debt, it’s produced a deep crisis that is part ecological, part social and where there’s no way out. So I am rather pessimistic in this this respect.
However, I am an optimist in one sense. As long as it’s possible, we need to keep saying what we know, what we have heard from interviewing experts. We can’t miss any chances.
What do you think is the reason behind the success of the GMO moratorium? Do people feel this on an individual level? Does the society generally find it important in the same way?
I think they find it important. This is one of those rare moments when they understood something important irrespective of any political approach. I can’t say whether this understanding has financial or perhaps scientific reasons. One thing is for sure: most experts, with a couple of exceptions, say that GMOs have serious environmental and health risks. We try to call consumers’ attention to the fact that there are all kinds of things that we just don’t know about concerning GMOs and their effects. Consumers or housewives are starting to gradually appreciate this. Each Green movement without any exceptions has supported this. They lobbied the parties a lot as well. And the parties understood this. If we don’t produce GMO, it will benefit the economy, since food coming from a GMO-free zone has a higher price in the world market.
Budapest, May 13, 2013
Gyongyi Mangel is a biologist and is involved in various movements in Hungary. She has worked with the Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions, the Danube Circle, the Nature Conservation Club, and so on. She had been involved as well with the Hungarian Green Party but was now thinking of starting another party with some others who shared her opinion that the Green Party was a watermelon (green on the outside, red inside).
Talking with Mangel, I suddenly could see the second wave of movements in Hungary. The first wave — the democratic opposition — toppled the Communist party. The second wave — the Greens, feminists, youth, trade unions, peace activists — is emerging as people realize that politics is not simply the responsibility of parliamentarians. Mangel told me about a newly formed non-violence group that is protesting the sales of guns and rifles; a group of Green women; a new feminist network the Feminist Web); a three-week environmental camp in Hungary called Ecotopia, a peace group called 4-6-0.
“More and more people call me every day,” she said. “They want to help. They want to do something against the noise, against the industries.” Several new centers have been created. Ecoservice will provide advice for the citizens of Budapest. The Independent Ecological Center will open in September and provide information for citizens and movements. Mangel thought that the market would be quite “hungry” and that environmental considerations might fall by the wayside.
Mangel gave me a quick rundown of the history of Hungarian environmental action. The Danube movement, organized in opposition to the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam, was the most important element. There were five major groups involved in the Danube movement: the Danube Circle, Friends of the Danube, the Association of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, the Nature Conservation Club, and the Green Circle of the Technical University. The movement began roughly between 1983-85 and gather strength. In 1986 came the frog actions: young people went out to the country during frog mating season and dug tunnels under the roads for the frogs to use (many had been killed when crossing the highways). In 1988 came Fidesz and the independent trade unions as well as the Democratic Forum. All of these organizations developed their own Green platforms. At the same time, there were official government ecological organizations such as the Nature Conservation Group and the Environmental Protection Club.
And the major environmental problems in Hungary? The drinking water: 600 Hungarian villages don’t even have drinking water. Air pollution: mostly in Budapest, though 12 towns in all have dirty air. Soil contamination: protests have already forced the closing of Metalochemica, a south Budapest factory that had been polluting the neighborhood with lead and copper. This, Mangel admitted, was an ecosocial problem. First she said that the workers supported the Greens even though it meant losing their jobs. Yet, she also said that there had been a demonstration in front of the Health Ministry with 150 workers from this plant demanding jobs. The official trade unions, she said, blamed the closure on the Greens.
Nuclear and toxic waste: the one toxic waste burner is very dangerous because its filters are not very good. There is one nuclear reactor in Paks. The former government wanted to add another block to the reactor but the people in the area protested. More recently, France has encouraged the new government to enlarge the facility so that Paks would provide 50 percent of Hungary’s needs (presently: 30 percent) One problem to emerge recently: a geological fault has been discovered beneath the reactor. As for the nuclear fuel, it was once sent to the USSR; now, however, the USSR doesn’t want the waste and Hungary has to find its own solution.
A final problem she mentioned was the planned EXPO for 1995 for Budapest and Vienna. Ecological groups and the AFD have protested. The economic reasons are: the Hungarian government hasn’t the money to sponsor the event. Further, the EXPO will only further the imbalance between Budapest (two million people) and the rest of the country (eight million). Highways will be expanded between Vienna and Budapest but the transportation in the rest of the country will remain undeveloped. The ecological reasons: there will be a lot of air pollution from the increased traffic: there are not enough channels for the waste; there are not enough parking spaces; green areas will be threatened by increased construction. 14 million people are expected in Budapest in a six-month period. That is more than a doubling of the population each month.