Jan Rovenský: the evergreen environment campaigner

Jan Rovenský

For most of the last 17 years Jan Rovenský has been in the thick of most big environmental campaigns, apart from a short but enjoyable spell as a nature protection official at a state park. His latest high profile position is as Greenpeace’s campaigner on climate change and energy policy. That often puts him at odds with local coal companies, power giant ČEZ, the Czech government and President Václav Klaus. We met up with the 35-year-old and asked him what had stimulated his initial interest in the environment.

Jan Rovenský
“I grew up in Pilsen, a relatively big Czech city in West Bohemia. It is a very industrial city, when I was young a third or half of the people there worked at one big factory. So the environment during my childhood was not very good. And I should say that both my mother and grandmother were focused on nature protection even under the old Communist regime. So I had quite a good family background on this.

“I think that the Scout movement represented another important factor because I spent my best years exploring nature. And finally, I was very influenced at the start by the animal rights movement which was originally the area of my first public engagement. And then when I was 17, around 17 years ago, I joined some environmental groups and I have been focused on the environment for that time.”

I was doing some research on the internet and I think the first mention of you was concerning some campaign against battery farms. Was that actually the first campaign you were on?

“When we campaigned against these farms it was more of an environmental than an animal welfare case. The impact on the local environment from these farms was even worse than the impact of the animals inside. But there were two pillars of my campaigning then. It was in 1999 and at that time another major experience for me concerned the campaign against the motorway by-pass for Pilsen. It was a very important issue there. We did not finally win. After five years of struggle we were rolled over by the local government. But it was a very interesting and important experience.”

But there was some sort of compromise there, there was a tunnel built on the motorway?

The tunnel on the Plzeň by-pass,  photo: Wikipedia
“Well, it was some sort of stinking compromise. We were against the by-pass and we were only in favour of a variant that was friendlier to the environment and that would have been finished earlier. I will believe to my last days that the decision of the government was wrong. There was a compromise. There was a tunnel which made the whole project more expensive and I do not think it was a helpful solution.”

I think that you were a student in Pilsen. Did you study anything to do with the environment?

“It is a really funny story, but it might be lost on those people outside the Czech Republic. I studied at the law faculty in Pilsen, a faculty which is now a synonym for corruption and clientelism in the Czech Republic. But I did not finish the course, so I cannot be accused of participating in the dirty business there. And now in my thirties, I now study at the law faculty in Prague.”

So you were not tempted to wear a suit and became a lawyer and represent some big companies or anything like that?

“I do not think there would have been a big chance of me representing any big companies. Maybe some big companies focused on the environment, but that was not very likely. I spent one year in the state nature protection department in north-east Bohemia and I really liked this experience. And if I change my life in the future I would probably head back to that department.”

You joined Greenpeace and are now the main campaigner for climate change and energy policy. How did that come about, was it just a logical progression?

Photo: European Commission
“Yes, most of my activist years I spent in the public sector and decision making environment and supporting the rights of the local public. So energy and climate was a shift. But in campaigning work it is far more important to know how campaigns work than the basic expert knowledge. You need that definitely, but you can learn it and we are not an expert organization. We have our experts, but generally we are a campaigning organization. So we try to use the scientific evidence in the political field. So in this sense it was not so difficult to re-orientate from nature protection and public campaigning to climate and energy.”

How difficult is it to be a Greenpeace campaigner in the Czech Republic, not so much as regards the campaigns where you can always get some publicity, but more about getting results against powerful lobby groups and a sometimes not very open or honest government?

“Well, it is harder than in Western Europe, in the original members of the European Union. It is very connected with the political environment here. But I believe it is improving. If I look at things 17 years ago and now, I think that the relevance of NGOs has increased. And I believe that people are not so tolerant about the wrongdoings of politicians. So I am cautiously optimistic.”

And the campaigns themselves, you have been up a 100-meter chimney, and there was the occupation of the government building roof, maybe you were not on that. Do you think they are really useful?

“Sometimes it works. It has to be some part of a wider campaign so it is not just actions for the sake of action. And we carefully decide when to use this and when not. The majority of our work is lobbying work and I spend around 350 days sitting in front of a computer and around five days climbing somewhere. This tool has proved effective in some areas. Greenpeace has used it since the 1970’s and I could not imagine that we would change it.”

And does climbing chimneys come naturally to you? A hundred metres up a chimney is not something that I would like.

“Generally in Greenpeace we have specialised climbers. Campaigners are usually on the ground making their stance known to the media while volunteers climb up there. But I am a caver and I take the risk of mixing the roles.”