From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine
Rarely are the actions of one individual felt by an entire country, but Zuzana Caputova’s fight for environmental safety in her hometown in Slovakia went even further—it became a victory for the population of the entire European Union.
A 42-year-old public interest lawyer and mother of two daughters, Caputova worked for 20 years to shut down a waste dump in her scenic winemaking town that was leaching toxic chemicals into the soil, poisoning the land, air and water. Cancer, respiratory diseases and allergy rates in the area had soared, with one type of leukemia being reported at a rate eight times higher than the national average. Caputova’s uncle and a friend were among those stricken.
The dump, which accepted garbage from neighboring countries in Western Europe, was close to capacity when a well-connected developer pushed through plans to build another one, with the tacit approval of local officials and without input from residents, in violation of a 2002 ordinance that banned new landfills within city limits. “It was a blatant disregard for the law,” she said. “They were taking into consideration nothing but their own interests, stepping on something so precious as health and life.”
She led a grassroots movement to close the old dump and stop the new one from being built, organized a civic protest that drew about a third of the population of 20,000 and collected 8,000 signatures on a petition to the European Parliament. For two years, she challenged the new landfill through Slovakian courts, winning a ruling from the country’s Supreme Court that the dump was illegal and the old site had to be shut down as well. She then took the case to the European Union’s highest court, which affirmed in 2013 that the public throughout the EU has a right to participate in decisions that affect the environment.
“Our community will never be burdened with another senseless environmental risk,” Caputova said. Since 2014, she has helped residents of nine other Slovakian municipalities who are fighting industrial pollution, inspiring them to assert their rights to a clean environment. In April, Zuzana Caputova was honored for her efforts with a $175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize.