The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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Bedrich Moldan

Photo: Alexei Iarochevitch

Bedrich Moldan

Bedrich Moldan (b. 1935) is a Czech ecologist, publicist and politician. He is a professor of environmental science and is the founder and director of the Charles University Environment Center. From 1990 to 1991, Moldan was the first minister of environment of the Czech Republic, then part of Czechoslovakia. From 2001 to 2004 he was coordinating lead author of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. He is a founding member of the Civic Democratic Party. In 2004 he was elected to the Senate of the Czech Republic. In 2010 he received the SCOPE-Zhongyu Environmental Lifetime Achievement Award from the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment and Zhongyu Environmental Technologies Corporation in China.

From 2001 to 2004 you were coordinating lead author of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA). What were the main findings related to our region?
First of all, there were very few participants from this region. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t a very favourable selection of people from this region. This certainly translates into a certain delay in disseminating the results for this region. On the other hand, people do or did understand the main results of how the ecosystems were evaluated, so from this point of view, step by step and gradually, the knowledge and these ideas penetrated — but only very, very slowly.

Which groups of people were you trying to get involved in this assessment?
It was mostly limited to the scientific establishment, and especially biologists and natural scientists. I don’t think that the general public or government officials were involved to any reasonable degree. And from this point of view the results were rather limited.

What are the biggest changes that have taken place in the years that followed 2004, when the MEA was concluded?
I think that we should start with what was the most significant milestone, which was the end of the communist regime. This is absolutely crucial, because for many other countries in this region the changes were so deep and profound — politically, socially, economically. But, of course, one of the most significant facts related to the outgoing regime was that the environment was very much damaged. And even if the information was suppressed by the government — or, paradoxically, even because of this fact — people did realise that the situation was very bad. And they attributed the situation to the communist rulers. This was the case in many of these countries, not only in the Czech Republic, which is my country and certainly where I have the most experience.

Let’s take Hungary as an example. In Hungary there was a very big fight over a proposed giant dam at Nagymaros. And it was widely thought that this was a “communist” proposal — not only environmentally bad but also politically motivated. These things were connected, and you can understand why the general public’s resistance to such projects was very great. This translated into political action — namely that people from the environmental movement were made part of the early governments of most of these countries. This was particularly clear to see in Slovenia, where environmentalists were part of the government, and in Slovakia as well. This was very important.

And this was not a purely political issue: it translated into concrete action. The end result of all this was a very rapid and massive improvement of the environmental situation with some of the new regimes in the early 1990s. Then, at some point in the early 2000s, the improvements were so visible and so massive that the people became somehow satisfied and no longer thought it necessary to pay much attention to these issues. They became a little bit complacent in the first half of the first decade of the new millennium. There was a turn away from environmental concerns to other concerns — economic, social and political ones. So the situation during those years was not so conducive to supporting further environmental improvements. People just thought things were okay and that it was now more important to build highways and other things, to try and become wealthy and so forth.

Given what you’ve just talked about, what are some new ways to strengthen environmental governance?
I think that the situation now — for the political elite, scientists and university teachers, and environmentalists in general — is much more difficult than it was before. We definitely have to find new ways to approach the public, and there are several ways of doing so. One is to rely more on the development of civil society, and certainly the REC is very important in this regard. And these civil society groups and institutions must find the most effective ways to reach the general public, which is very, very difficult. In my country, for example, the official attitude towards civil society groups is not very favourable. They are viewed with suspicion. Some are viewed as credible and reliable, but the governmental sectors rarely. The public generally feels that their goals and the government’s goals are not aligned. They feel that these groups are holding back economic development or exploiting the NIMBY effect — “not in my backyard”. They also see that these groups are sometimes involved with ostensibly environmental projects that in reality have nothing at all to do with the environment, but have to do rather with land use or real estate concerns. This undermines credibility for sure.

A second thing that’s needed is solid science and solid pedagogical work in schools. In many of these countries there is a lack of solid “boundary organisations” — that is, organisations that occupy the boundary between politics and science. There are different think-tanks that might, for example, work with scientific language to make it more understandable to policy makers and the general public. This means focusing on the interface between science and what becomes policy or a political position on environmental issues. This is really an important task that we should focus on. Again, in this respect I think that REC involvement with high-ranking officials is notable — which I noticed during the last General Assembly meeting. And this is a strategy that I highly recommend and promote.

Given your familiarity with the REC’s work in the past, how do you see the organisation moving forward in both a regional and global context?
The role is certainly changing because the REC is now just one of many civil society institutions, whereas it was more unique at the beginning. So now it needs to find its specific niche amidst these other institutions, and this is no easy task. In fact it’s a continuous challenge. One thing I think is very important is the REC’s role in countries that are new EU members, like Bulgaria and Romania, as well as with non-EU members, particularly in the Western Balkans. The REC has lots of lessons to teach through working with older EU countries that have struggled for years in facing the same issues, such as Hungary and the Visegrad countries. This is very important, but also, on the other hand, the REC can bring its knowledge from working with these countries back to the region. This is another promising direction.

What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
As a former chair of the board I have lots of experiences with the REC, but what really pops into my mind is the unique location of the current headquarters in Szentendre, with the Danube nearby and the whole natural surroundings. That’s an important image for me.

Can you share a REC-related anecdote?
I recall the old location of the REC in Budapest, on Miklos Square, and how the people there were struggling to get some more space. Even though it was difficult for people to get around there was some staff opposition when it was proposed to move to Szentendre. But there were some funny situations at the old location — it was so crowded that people were working in the corridors. That was a fun and interesting time.

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