Martin SKALSKÝ on environment protection: “People must be active and demand changes” (watch video or read)

Skalsky Zoom
17.04.2024 (Caucasian Journal). Our guest today is Martin SKALSKÝ, chairman of the Czech non-governmental organization Arnika and leader of Centre for the Support of Citizens. He coordinates many projects in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Western Balkans in the field of environment protection.

You may watch the video discussion below, and read the full text - further below.  This interview is also available in Georgian language version:

 ქართულად: Video subtitled in Georgian is here. Georgian text version is here.

To be the first to view exclusive interviews, please subscribe here to our YouTube Channel

The text version of interview is below: 


Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Hello and welcome to Caucasian Journal video interviews!

Our guest today is Martin SKALSKÝ, chairman of the Czech non-governmental organization Arnika and leader of Centre for the Support of Citizens. He coordinates many projects in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Western Balkans in the field of environment protection.

Dear Martin, welcome to Caucasian Journal. At the launch of our Journal we have installed an air quality widget right on our main page. So, no wonder that environment protection and especially air quality is our top concern.  Let me start with the alarming phrase from your website “Tbilisi is among Europe's top three most polluted metropolises”. How bad is it now, in simple words? And what are the other two cities?

Martin SKALSKÝ: First of all I would like to thank you for invitation to this interview. I would like to say good morning or good afternoon or good evening to everybody who is watching this interview. This alarming sentence, as you said, is from the report of the World Health Organization that released a comparison of situation in air pollution in over 4,000 cities from 100 countries, and so it's a very wide research. WHO is publishing these reports regularly to compare the situation, and they are mainly focusing on the solid dust particles. They are the major pollutants of air in our cities, because these very small particles of dust are attracting dangerous chemical compounds that are sticking to this dust, and when we breathe polluted air we are breathing in all the chemicals stuck on these particles. So that's a very good indicator of the environmental situation in our cities, and in the in the last published report, unfortunately, Tbilisi was on the on the third position as the third most polluted city in Europe. The other two were Ankara in Turkiye and Skopje in Macedonia.  

The situation is quite serious, because in Tbilisi the level of the pollution is three times higher than the recommended safe levels. Also the report of WHO shows that this pollution is not only “today”, but it’s long-term pollution: People live in polluted environment for very many years, so it's affecting their health. WHO says that almost 40% of people in Tbilisi suffer from lung issues. They compare also the number of deaths and number of the people with serious diseases that are connected to air, and they conclude that every year almost 4,000 people in Georgia die in relation to serious air pollution. So it is definitely something that we should be concerned about.

The situation is quite serious, because in Tbilisi the level of the pollution is three times higher than the recommended safe levels.

It is necessary to mention that it’s difficult to understand how serious the situation is, because of a lack of valid and reliable data in Georgia - something that we are now trying to overcome in our activities, because the state monitoring of air pollution is not fully developed, and there are not many sources of adequate information to assess what is happening.

AK: Let me ask you why Arnika became interested in the South Caucasus, and how did your cooperation start?

MS: Personally I first visited Georgia in 2001, so I know the country since then.  2001 was also the year when my organization Arnika was established. Why we are interested to work in Georgia there are actually very many reasons. One of the most important ones is that Georgia belongs to the environmental and biodiversity “hotspots”: Its amount of untouched nature and variety of landscapes and biodiversity is unique in whole Europe. There are basically only two regions that are similar in whole Europe, and they are Western Balkans and Caucasus. So these areas are extremely valuable concerning the nature conservation and nature values. The environmental organizations are very interested to support efforts to protect and preserve this heritage that you have, because it's really something that you cannot see, for example, in Central Europe - there's nothing comparable.

WHO says that almost 40% of people in Tbilisi suffer from lung issues ... Every year almost 4,000 people in Georgia die in relation to serious air pollution.

That's one aspect. The second, which is also  important to mention, is that Georgia  for decades is somehow balancing the protection of its valuable nature, and social  and economic challenges of development.  So there is a big risk that some values might be lost because of economic projects.

This is what we have seen in many EU countries, and it is very important now to find different ways of development for Georgia to avoid mistakes and damage of those values.

That's another reason. And the third one is that though Czechoslovakia was not part of the Soviet Union, we were under its strong influence, so some of the problems that you are facing are similar, as we have quite long history similar with Georgia. We also have experience of country transformation - from post-Soviet to current version of Czech Republic.  So this is the story that we would like to share, and we would like to tell what our good experiences are, and experiences that we would not suggest repeating.

AK: Can you share some of the brightest impressions or episodes from your experience in Georgia or Armenia?

MS: Since my first visit in 2001 till nowadays I'm always impressed by extreme hospitality and welcoming attitude of Georgians, especially when I go to any rural area.  That's related also to very nice cuisine and traditions that are preserved. So for me working in Georgia is always positive and nice experience, because the people are extremely friendly.

AK: May I ask you about your local partners: What can be improved in the local organizations, from your view point? What are the know-hows that Arnika can contribute through your cooperation activities?

MS: What we see as a very big benefit of them is how they work with the public, and how they work with the information. They are able to influence very large segment of Georgian society. Because they are young, they are not afraid of sensitive topics or some controversial campaigns, and this is something that we really like. We think that they need more stable financial support, which we are now trying to provide - because if an organization is young there is always a risk that the resources will end up, and they will not be able to continue. They need to have more stable structure to be able to continue their activism.  

The other thing that we are bringing is technical knowledge. Our organization is not young anymore, we have a lot of expertise and experience with previous projects; we have many experts inside, and we also work with external experts - from several universities in Czech Republic, and we also have good relationships with the state authorities in the Czech Republic. All these connections, experts, and some of the experience is something that we would like to transfer to our partner organizations, so they can work more professionally.

Because activism is most important anyway, but what is also very important is expertise and arguments based on facts, and that is something that we consider absolutely necessary for any public campaign.

AK: Now perhaps can we talk about the concrete projects that you have implemented, or will be developing in the future?

MS: We are now working only for the second year in Georgia, so we are very new concerning projects. We were interested in Georgia for a long time, but we didn't really have activities as such in the country.

What we started now to develop together with “My City Kills” is the citizen monitoring of air pollution.  As I mentioned at the beginning of our interview, there's a lack of reliable data for Georgia.  Now we are manufacturing relatively cheap devices that can measure the air quality, and we are creating a network of volunteers who will participate in the monitoring network. In a few years there will be hopefully enough people interested to join, and enough devices to measure, so we will have much more clear picture of situation in the country.

The project is quite unique, because that's the first project of “Citizen Science” in Georgia. The approach of building a network of volunteers is not quite unique, but it’s a little bit innovative. We are not trying to build a structure that will need huge financing in the future, so everything is volunteer-based. At the end of 2025 we will see some result, hopefully, and then we will decide what to do next.

AK: I wish you a lot of good luck with this. We have seen your data on Georgia’s air pollution as seen from the space, which is very impressive. But even more important is the follow-up activity. Is there something that must be done to make your findings more widely known and better understood? How to ensure that the countermeasures would be adequate – and what about the Czech experience in this regard?

MS: Yes, this is actually crucial, how to make sure that something will happen.  It is also our question, and we are still not sure about the answer. But the most important as a first step is the knowledge and access to information. So, the fact that we are now talking with each other today is very important, because you as a journalist are helping us to distribute information - to general people, and to authorities, municipalities, decision-makers.  That's the first step, and  we need to focus on this first  step a lot, because now still  many people in Georgia are not  fully aware of the situation, and many decision-makers are not  fully aware.

After that there's very important role of the civil society and NGOs active in the field of environmental protection, because those actors usually initiate the changes. So we would like to support some more civil organizations this year in other cities. “My City Kills” campaigns work mainly in Tbilisi, but as we see from our recent report, there is very concerning situation also in Rustavi, Kaspi, and other places in Georgia. Now we would like to focus more on these locations to support active civil society organizations that are there.

Then we believe that slowly some municipalities will start joining, because those are also the actors that are on the low level, and are in daily touch with the situation. In the future it will be necessary to affect the political decisions, but this is the most difficult, as Georgia is lacking some regulations of the industries, and other legal and political tools to change the situation.

AK: How can you compare the environmental situation in Georgia or Armenia with other countries, in Europe or elsewhere, so we could see our situation in a global context?

MS: Now actually European Union is one of the leaders of nature conservation and protection of environment. But if we look at the past, then EU countries mainly destroyed their nature because of industrialization. We are now in EU protecting what we still have, but most of what we had before is already destroyed. So Georgia now has a unique chance not to repeat the same mistakes and somehow find more sustainable solutions.

What is also the experience of the Czech Republic in particular is that Czechoslovakia was an industrial country during last 200 years or even longer, and this caused a lot of problems. At the end of communism in 1980-90s Czechoslovakia was one of the most polluted countries in whole Europe, and our levels of air pollution were absolutely extreme.  The first demonstrations in Czechoslovakia were not demanding democracy or freedom, but clean air. Nowadays - 30 years later - we still have industries but they are not polluting that much because the technologies changed. Georgia should also not focus on industries too much. You should keep focus on nature, tourism, services, some smart technologies.

AK: Would you like to mention any of your organization’s achievements in other countries, or at home in Czechia?

MS: Relatively recently we managed, in cooperation with a local organization in Alaverdi (Armenia), to close down the factory that was in Alaverdi. There was also a metallurgical plant that was heavily polluting the town. We see it as a good improvement, because the factory was not able to modernize, so it was better to close it down. Also Alaverdi is a place with amazing nature around, and there are very old monasteries that are now not much visited, because the town was known as a polluted place.  

We invited Ministry of Environment to the project, but they were not interested, and didn't want our citizen monitoring to start... We were very surprised.

AK: Let me ask you about the relations with the government agencies. Do you find the state bodies helpful and friendly to the public-initiated projects in our countries? Can you comment on your experience of interacting with the official environment protection agencies?

MS: This is not a very positive experience. We invited your Ministry of Environment to the project, because we expected  that they would be interested in  getting new information about air pollution, and we also offered them  bringing experts from the Czech  institutions to Georgia, and making some  workshops, trainings  or discussions with the Georgian  state officials, to exchange  experience and maybe bring some knowledge from the Czech governmental organizations to Georgia.  But they were not interested in anything, in any cooperation, and they also didn't want our citizen monitoring to start. They were even asking our donors to cancel the project, because they were saying that it is illegal for the civil society organizations to do air pollution monitoring, because it's a duty of the state organizations. We were very surprised, because we expected that our offer of experts, resources and knowledge can be useful for your Ministry.

Unfortunately we are not able to find some understanding till nowadays. Even after several reports that we published, the governmental structures of Georgia are not interested at all. So we hope - for us it's also something that we would like to see - more interaction and more friendly communication.

We are criticizing government a little bit - it is true that the government is not doing enough - but it is also our role as NGO. At the same time we are offering cooperation, experience and knowledge from the Czech Republic.  We will see what will happen next.

We have quite positive communication with some of the members of the parliament, and at lower levels of the state administration, with municipalities and some state organizations, so it's not entirely negative experience. But at the high level of the ministry, unfortunately, we still cannot find positive communication.

We finished installation of 30 stations last year, and we expect to have maybe 30 more this year. Now we have quite a lot of people who are interested to join the network - which is amazing.

AK: Is such a problem unique to Georgia, or you had similar negative experiences with governmental agencies in other countries, or in Czech Republic?

MS: The situation in each country is unique, so in some cases we have more friendly communication with the governments, in some countries not. It's also very much affected by elections, and which political parties are currently at the power. For example at the beginning of the Czech Republic in '90s there was a very strong will to deal with environmental legislation and environmental concerns. It was basically one of the priorities of our new government. Now it's a little bit different, and in past years environment was not a priority at all.

AK: I have a very concrete question. Thanks to your activities many air quality monitors have been installed in Georgia, and many people – including myself – would like to install them, too.  But what else can the people do, in practice? What actions must the citizens in Georgia take to ensure the environment is in fact improved?

MS: We are very happy that people are interested in installation of the citizen science pollution monitoring stations.  Our production capacity is not very big We finished installation of 30 stations last year, and we expect to have maybe 30 more this year. Now we have quite a lot of people who are interested to join the network - which is amazing. Now the stations are mainly installed in Tbilisi, some in Rustavi and Kaspi, but we need to expand the network to cover whole Georgia.

The necessary next step is that people must be active and demand some changes. It's also important to support some local NGOs, or maybe establish your own NGO. It is also important to mention that we all need a good political representation. Georgia will have elections soon, and if we will not help those who have some environmental focus, then we will have politicians with completely different agenda. So this is really crucial, it can change many things if you will have better political representation.  

Maybe the last thing I would like to mention is that people should also think about their personal impact on nature and environment – to avoid buying things of plastic, or driving a car. Sometimes we can just implement small changes in our lives that will help to save our planet for the future generations, and it's also very important.

AK: Thank you very much, and we wish you a lot of success in this very important work. Of course if there is anything that we can do for you as Caucasian Journal please contact us - we would be very happy to assist. Again thank you very much!

MS: Thank you, it was a pleasure on my side. See you soon again.

Read or watch the Georgian language versions here.  

Caucasian Journal appreciates kind support of the Transition Promotion Program of the Czech Republic and the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

You are welcome to follow Caucasian Journal at:

GoogleNews  |  X  |  Facebook  |  NEW: WhatsApp  |   Telegram  |  Medium  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  RSS

To request an email subscription to Caucasian Journal, enter your email address:

No comments:

Post a Comment