Pezinok is a town in western Slovakia famous for its vineyards, which play a key role in the local economy. Soil pollution began affecting wine farmers, however, starting from the 1960s . Part of a trend of neighboring countries illegally dumping waste nationwide for a cheap price, Pezinok’s first illegal, unregulated dump, or rather a ditch without any drainage, ventilation, or containment capacity, was dug only 150 meters from residential areas [1, 4]. Nicknamed “the old landfill,” it held more than 1,000,000 cubic meters of garbage that leaked into groundwater . These residents consequently developed icreasing rates of cancer, respiratory diseases, allergies, and leukemia allegedly at more than 80 times the national average [1, 4]. The landfill stored toxic wastes from places such as foreign chemical factories and hospitals . Authorities also once found over 300,000 liters of used oil shipped to Pezinok on two lorries from Austria and the Czech Republic . In 1996, the old landfill was privatised by CEO of waste company Ekologická Skládka Ján Man Senior, an important sponsor for the SMER political party and various associated politicians, through whom he could get fake permits. He let the Pezinok brickworks factory begin dumping more of its waste there, increasing the dump’s capacity to 65,000 tonnes annually .
In 2002, a new law banned landfills within city limits. Yet as the dump became full, in September 2002, Ján Man planned to build another dumping ground called “the new landfill” anyway without prior and informed consent from residents . The proposed site was 280 meters from homes and 400 meters from the city center. Locals strongly objected to the new landfill, but authorities ignored them. Pezinok itself already had advanced recycling capacity and did not need a landfill, which reports stated would greatly exceed regional demands. Instead, the landfill was built specifically to receive foreign waste .
Sick of the smell of the landfill and dangerous chemicals threatening the health of her young daughters, Zuzana Čaputová, a local attorney working at public law NGO Via Iuris, began organizing a wide variety of collection actions against the proposed landfill . Protest activities included artistic mobilization such as concerts, photo exhibitions, and community newsletters; demonstrations such as over 20 protests, marches, campaigns, cycling tours, and public discussions; as well as legal action such as petitions and complaints filed to the European Parliament, Prime Minister, Civic Guard, and Ministry of Environment. To support these activities, Čaputová united a wide variety of people targeting all segments of the Pezinok community such as artists, local businesses, wine producers, students, church leaders and reaching out to local and international media [1, 10, 15]. Although people of the movement came from diverse walks of life, everyone was motivated to join under the slogan “Skládka do mesta nepatrí (Dumps don’t belong in towns)” because everyone had sick people in their family. The landfills directly affected their lives [1, 4].
In August 2008, the movement had its largest protest with over 7,000 participants in response to the Slovak Environment Inspectorate (IZP) approving construction of the new landfill [11, 14]. At the time, Čaputová already had photographs and other evidence indicating that construction began illegally as early as March before the project was approved . The IZP refused to release the reasoning and details around the decision, calling it a “trade secret” and preventing anyone from questioning the licensing procedure . Yet despite investors having very close connections to decision-makers, the size and zeal of the movement slowly began convincing some of the local politicians . Čaputová and her supporters, including celebrity singers Jana Kirschner and Peter Cmorík, accused public authorities of violating not only laws, but also the basic principles of democracy, demanding action from authorities at every level [13, 14]. Continuing the fight, Čaputová brought the case all the way to the European Union Court of Justice. On August 20, 2013, she managed a landmark victory as the Slovakian Supreme Court officially declared that the landfill proposal was illegal and ordered Ekologická Skládka to shut down [5, 8]. The Court of Justice also ruled that the public has the right to give input to urban planning decisions, especially those that affect the environment. Protecting trade secrets is not a valid reason to deny this right [1, 12]. Both landfills are now closed, but the abandoned ditches are still sitting there without any proper move to clean them up .
In December 2017, Čaputová left Via Iuris to enter the political scene, focusing on environmental issues. She eventually ran for president in May 2018 after her friend journalist Ján Kuciak and his wife were killed for exposing corrupt deals between the government and Italian mafia [2, 7]. Čaputová ran on the slogan “stand up to evil,” complaining about corruption and cronyism among Slovakia’s ruling elite. However, she resolutely refused to engage in personal attacks on her opponents, instead focusing on institutional reform . She was successfully inaugurated as president of the Sloval Republic on June 15, 2019 . Her experience with the landfill shaped her political approach as focusing on combatting the corruption perpetuating structural issues, and hopes her candidacy will inspire women to enter politics despite the male-dominated field being so hostile toward women in high office as without “proper manners” .