In the Q&A below, we catch up with 2017 Goldman Prize winner Uroš Macerl, an organic farmer from Slovenia who successfully stopped a Lafarge cement kiln from co-incinerating petcoke with hazardous industrial waste by rallying legal support from fellow Eko Krog activists and leveraging his status as the only citizen allowed to challenge the plant’s permits. Translated from the original Slovenian.
Tell us about where you were born and raised, and how you came to be an organic farmer.
I grew up on the same farm I own today. When I was 23, I became the owner and manager of the farm. My grandfather owned it originally. The farm used to have fruit trees—apples, cherries, plums, and pears. There were also many vineyards. After the heavy industry came, the woods and fruit trees were destroyed. The income was lost, but also the knowledge of the trees and the forest. As a farmer, this knowledge is pivotal. All that was left was grass, so I started raising sheep.
The heavy industry takes away the clean air, soil, and water. These are the core elements any farmer needs to survive and keep his land moving. Factories and any other type of industry are different—and farmers are impacted the most.
How did your life and Lafarge’s operations collide?
The cement kiln is about 130 years old. In the beginning, there were small kilns but then they grew along with the industry and population. Lafarge took over the kiln in early 2003. The cement kiln intended to burn industrial waste. The local municipality had a meeting in 2004 where Lafarge presented its intentions. After that, I began collecting information with my friends. I was president of the township at that time and I was invited to speak as well. This was the first time I spoke out about the co-incineration. I then found out that Lafarge was going to take over the kiln when they applied for expanded zoning that overlapped with my farm.
What was the turning point of the campaign? What was it that made it successful?
There was team of experts with different profiles, from environmental specialists to doctors and lawyers. At first they tried to have discussions with Lafarge but they soon realized there was no way they could make them change—the company did not care about anything except money.
The most important thing for us was disputing Lafarge’s environmental permit. The problem was that Lafarge paid the experts to do the impact assessment, which resulted in the 500-meter area of influence, which was obviously not accurate. These findings were made public, so we did our own measurements, along with the local municipality.
As a next step, we needed to organize supporters and learn about the legal procedures they would embark on. Our aim was to prove that Lafarge’s operations impacted the environment. During this time of research, we realized that the entire permitting process was influenced by Lafarge’s connections.
Eventually, the courts ordered Lafarge to stop burning petcoke, but Lafarge ignored the ruling. This showed just how powerful Lafarge really was, as it was an exception to the rule for the company to ignore the court’s ruling. The Slovenian government turned a blind eye. In fact, the minister for the environment even backed Lafarge and tried to help the company figure out how to continue co-incineration.
The final straw in shutting down Lafarge’s operations came in 2015. It was the second time that Lafarge lost the permit. This time was different because the European Commission put pressure on Slovenia at a national level. The Commission said that if Lafarge continued to operate, Slovenia would have to pay hefty penalty fees. This changed things overnight and the Slovenian government finally became more strict with its ruling to shut down the plant.
Have you noticed improvements in air quality for residents after the kiln shutdown?
Absolutely—there is a huge difference. We measured the quality of the air before Lafarge shut down, as well as after, through an air quality monitor. In 2005, according to air quality measurements, they had 160-150 days where air quality exceeded acceptable levels. Now, it’s closer to 30-45 days out of the year.
How have you responded to critics who say that the plant closure eliminated valuable jobs in town?
Sadly, some people will have to move—and already are—because of lost jobs from Lafarge and other plants that have shut down. But I think that jobs need to change to help the entire region. This trend is already starting. Dewesoft is a successful startup company in Trbovlje that has provided many jobs. Developing agro-tourism or other green jobs could also help during the painful transition from reliance on heavy industry jobs.
Has Lafarge ever tried to buy the farm from you?
No, but they certainly offered to buy me. There were seven different managers of the plant over the course of our fight. One of the managers visited my farm and bribed me by offering to pay rent or give me money. I said that I would rather eat dry bread for my entire life than take money from Lafarge.
Many people who hear about your story will want to know how they can help. What can we tell them?
It all comes down to changing behavior, reducing waste, recycling more, and using less.
What’s the most important thing you’d like people to remember about this campaign?
The cement plants operate under the same auspices no matter where they are. They first choose locations with histories of high pollution, as well as areas with limited social support and high unemployment rates. They deliberately select these areas and present themselves as being environmentally and socially responsible. They support small community events and act as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” so to speak. They then work with politicians and begin procedures to obtain environmental permits—doing everything they can to exclude civil society from the procedures and say they use clean fuel, even though it is not.
People need to be careful, because once the plants begin operating, they grow into dragons with seven different heads (experts, PR, marketing, lobbyists, etc.). Then, those heads begin to bite. Civil society then needs a large army to fight these dragons. We all need to be very loud to clearly state these problems and ensure that we don’t have to keep fighting them.