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Feature Story
Photo of a Czech landscape
Europe's Black Triangle Turns Green

by Bruce Stutz

Who says environmentalism is nothing but bad news?

For two days it has been cold and pouring continually, but each morning the caravan of scientists rolls out from the inn on the square in the small northwestern Czech village of Horni Blatna and heads an hour north into the mountains. At the group's study site, just a few miles from the German border, the forest is full-grown Norway spruce about a hundred years old. The trees survive on the western edge of the notorious Black Triangle, the heavily industrialized region where Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic meet. During the Communist era, this 12,000 square-mile area was one of the most polluted industrial landscapes on the face of the globe.

The group unpacks its gear -- from pruners that can reach branches 30 feet off the ground to small glass lab dishes in which a single spruce needle can be cut up and preserved -- and hikes into the woods. Barrett Rock, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire, a tall, ruddy-faced, white-haired Vermonter, briefs the researchers on their procedures and they set to work, some at branches, some at trunks, some at roots, like a Lilliputian surgical team operating on a giant. Their patient, however, is not one tree or a single group of trees but the forest itself. They want to know what effects the region's pollution has had on it. And then, they hope, if their measurements and instruments are sensitive enough, their analyses can be used to chart the pathology of this or any other forest. These Czech scientists and students working in the forest with their American counterparts regard its recovery in the Krušné hory -- the Ore Mountains -- as something of an ecological allegory, a tale in which natural fortunes reflect political ones.

I watch Rock drill into one of the tree trunks with a hollow bit. He removes a pencil-thick core more than a foot long and holds it up to show me the growth rings.

"You see how they get wider?" he asks. "I can read the changes in government in the record of the tree rings."

The changes Rock refers to began in 1948. Having just emerged from the grip of Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite. Moscow chose the Most basin, the sprawling plain south of the Krušné hory that is named for its major city, to be Czechoslovakia's industrial center. Known until then for its Bohemian glass, ceramics, and textile industries, the basin had a ready source of fuel -- lignite -- that lay close to the surface and in deposits 300 feet deep.

Lignite is a coal that never fully evolved, no longer peat but only halfway to becoming bituminous, or hard, coal. It's soft, brown, and crumbles easily. It's too delicate to be shipped long distances, and it burns very quickly (disintegrates might be a better way to put it). Pound for pound, lignite generates less heat than hard coal and produces four times the sulfur when it is burned. What recommended lignite to Soviet managers was that it was available and it was cheap.

The lignite strip mines expanded and deepened. As industries moved in -- chemical plants, refineries, steam heating and power plants -- so did workers. To provide heat and electricity for the growing population, more coal was burned. When still more coal was needed, the government had no compunction about bulldozing entire villages so the strip mines could devour more of the landscape. North of the basin, where the three national borders converge, the mountains formed an angular barrier that contained the increasingly polluted air, enveloping the Most basin in ash and ozone. When the wind blew, plumes of pollution swept up into the spruce forests.

Writing in 1987, electrical engineer Eduard Vacka described life in the Black Triangle town of Teplice:

It was one of those miserable fall days, when you wake up in the morning with a throbbing headache. Out the window, it looks like a dark sack has been thrown over the whole town, just as it had all week. "Back into this s***," you mutter under your breath as you close the door. "God, what a stench! What the hell are they putting in the air? It's unbelievable: they're waging chemical warfare against their own people."

If you say you can't breathe, there are two meanings. The first is symbolic, that the mental environment is stifling, choked with lies and hypocrisy: there is no breathing room. The second meaning is more immediate, that the air itself is corrupted and you are literally choking to death.

The first is a sigh of despair; the second a cry for help.

For many Czechs the Black Triangle became a symbol of Soviet callousness toward both nature and their culture. Josef Richter, a physician who heads the department of immunology at the Institute of Public Health in Usti, witnessed the region's decline. Now a stout, barrel-chested man with white hair, Richter has lived all his 70 years in the Most basin. During the Soviet years his father, for the offense of being half-Gypsy, or Roma, had been forced to work in the infamous uranium mines in nearby Jakimov. For him, as for many others, work in the mines with no protective gear was a sentence to a slow but certain death. When the younger Richter had the temerity to express a desire to attend medical school, Communist authorities told him that he, too, had to first serve a year in the mines.

Before I can ask him what it was like, he stands, lifts his shirt, and points to a scar on the right side of his chest.

"Bronchogenic carcinoma. All of us had tumors removed," he says, lowering his shirt and sitting. "I would have to walk with a uranium stone for five kilometers."

After earning his degree Richter came to the Usti hospital.

"The main chemical plant was built here during the time of Hitler," he tells me. "In the Communist era they began building energy plants. Eighty percent of Czechoslovakia's electricity was produced here, and all of it from brown coal."

The population was also changing. Following the war, Richter explains, the Czechs, with clearly justified grievances but with sometimes savage zeal, drove the German population out of Bohemia, the area known by the Germans as Sudetenland. Much of the textile and glass industries went with them. "What we got in exchange were people with little education and with no roots in the region -- many Gypsies, very few with a high school education."

The remark sounds harsh in light of his own heritage, but Richter is a straightforward man.

He adds, "It was a new social-economic construct, and the impact was great."

With no attachments to the place and the land, very few of the newcomers felt they had a stake in the region; few protested the environmental havoc being wreaked around them. Those who objected did so by leaving.

Richter stayed on, and throughout the Soviet years he wrote some 150 papers on the region's pollution and health problems. But under the Communist regime there was no possibility of publishing his work outside Czechoslovakia. The rest of the world never saw his data or their damning conclusions.

I ask him what the Soviet managers said when he warned them how bad the pollution was.

" 'Comrade,' " they told me, 'you must develop men so strong they can live in this pollution.' "

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Return of the Native

Antonin Kratochvil revisits the black triangle for the first time in 14 years.

From a 3,000-foot ridge atop the Czech Republic's Krušné hory, or Ore Mountains, the sight of young spruces in dense stands takes photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil by surprise. When he last visited 14 years ago, the vista was far different.

"I'm telling you," he says, "there was nothing here. These hills were bare except for the stumps of dead trees."


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Bruce Stutz, former editor-in-chief of Natural History, became a contributing editor to OnEarth in the fall of 2004. He is at work on his second book, Chasing Spring, to be published in 2005 by Scribner's.

In his 1997 book, Broken Dream (Monacelli Press), award-winning photographer and frequent OnEarth contributor Antonin Kratochvil documented two decades of conflict in Eastern Europe. Here, his pictures tell a brighter story about the land he once called home.

Map: Blue Marble Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council