I'm currently at the beautiful and romantic North Bohemian baroque chateau of Jezeri. It's about a two hour drive away from Prague and is actually a former Medieval castle that was rebuilt into a renaissance chateau in the sixteenth century, and then once again after a fire in the eighteenth century. Jezeri lies on the wooded southern slopes of the beautiful Krusne Hory, or Krusne Mountains, but instead of overlooking the ancient park that once stretched out for miles below, the chateau is on the edge of a vast opencast coal mining area. Jezeri is close to the old villages of Upper Jiretin and Cernice, which nestle in the foothills. But this may not be for long. Neighbouring Lower Jiretin has already been wiped off the map as the mines have spread to extract the region's rich deposits of brown coal and the two villages could be next in line.
The Czech Republic's long-term energy strategy counts on continued brown coal mining. The geographical limits of North Bohemia's opencast mines were set by the state back in 1991 - but now they may be extended, and the residents of Upper Jiretin and Cernice fear they are next in a list of more than a hundred villages that have been sacrificed for coal over the last century. But the population of a little over 2,000 are not going to give up without a fight. They voted overwhelmingly for their villages to be preserved in a local referendum at the end of February. Branko Glavica is the mayor of Upper Jiretin. He himself ended up in Upper Jiretin a few years ago because he was forced to move there after his old village was demolished to make way for the mines:
"The mood in the village has been fluctuating. Residents actually started to build new family houses or renovate their old homes. But then the threat of the opencast mine reaching our village became quite real. So, we held a referendum on whether or not to agree with the planned expansion of the mine. 76 percent of eligible voters took part and 96 percent of them voted against the expansion. Now, we as the local authorities have to do everything in our power to ensure that the residents' wishes are met. After the referendum, they are more self-confident that the villages will not be demolished."
But, so far, the local authorities have been kept in the dark about the future of their villages. The district authorities have yet to forward their proposed regional planning scheme and the Trade and Industry Ministry has also not made it clear whether or not the mining limits will be extended. The local opencast mining company Mostecka Uhelna told us that the government has no choice but to extend the limits if it wants to depend on locally produced energy. Its spokeswoman Libena Novotna:
"The state really ought to make its position clear this year. Its energy plan says that, in the future, the country should be as self-reliant as possible when it comes to primary energy sources. It also plans to build up Czech energy production mainly on local reserves of brown coal, to reduce the share of foreign energy supplies (oil and natural gas) as much as possible, and reduce the effects of price fluctuation and unstable supplies. So, we need the state to say clearly - 'Yes, we are going to re-evaluate the coal mining limits of 1991 and allow mining there and there and there'."
The state decided to put strict restrictions on coal mining in 1991 because dozens of villages were demolished by the Communist regime to extract North-Western Bohemia's coal deposits. Today, the Trade and Industry Ministry wants to see local energy production grow and new power plants built.
But what about the hundreds of families that would have to be displaced? Upper Jiretin and Cernice were in the so-called Sudetenland, and most of the mainly German-speaking inhabitants were made to leave after World War II, but since then several generations have grown up there, and have helped to develop and revive the villages - often with their bare hands. Today, the area is full of life and the idea of the homes, shops, church, and square, being wiped off the map sends a shiver down your spine, even if you do not live locally. Local pub owner Frantisek Stepan:
"I, just like most of the residents, took part in the referendum and voted against a displacement. My family has been living here for four generations. This is my home and I refuse to leave. It's not just a village. It has a church, a square - there is so much cultural heritage that can't simply be demolished or displaced. We don't want to end up like the other villages!"
Mayor Branko Glavica shares Mr Stepan's view and stresses that Upper Jiretin is not just any village. It is a place with invaluable cultural heritage that the region cannot afford to lose:
"Last year, the village celebrated its 740th anniversary. Since 1968, the threat has been hanging over us that the village could be wiped out, so we stopped investing in it. We have a church that is of great importance to us. It has beautiful frescoes but needs to be restored. There are currently two schools - for infants and juniors. There's also a local community centre, which used to be a really nice hotel. When they demolished Lower Jiretin, they also took away some of the historic cultural artefacts - such as sculptures - from Upper Jiretin. The sculptural group of St. George, for example. St. George is also on our village emblem and we would like it back.
"The Jezeri Chateau is also part of Upper Jiretin. It is not to be demolished but if our village were wiped out, the Chateau would be surrounded by open-cast mines and isolated from the rest of the world. This is not about whether coal-mining is good or bad - ten percent of the population work in the local coal mine - it is about the people who have their homes here, whose ancestors lived here, and who have a special bond with this area. We're practically the last village in the foothills of the Krusne Mountains - all others have been wiped out due to coal mining."
Despite the referendum, it is yet unclear whether or not the two villages will be saved. The mining company Mostecka Uhelna says the referendum was held much too soon. Residents should have waited for the mine to put forward a proposal... such as the complete rebuilding of a new village, for example. It also warns residents of the consequences of limited mining as this could also be bad news for Upper Jiretin and Cernice:
"If the limits are not extended we will have to close down the mining area as early as 2017 and some 2,000 mine employees would lose their jobs as well as thousands of others who have jobs depending on mining. This would affect the purchasing power of the local residents in the service sector as well as other sectors. If the limits were extended, then mining would continue for dozens of years. The deposits of brown coal are believed to be sufficient for a hundred years of mining. If we mine 7 million tonnes a year - the coal reserves are estimated to amount to a total some 750 million tonnes!"
Environmentalists and the Environment Ministry have opposed the state energy strategy, fighting to preserve Upper Jiretin and Cernice. Despite all the effort, they appear to be losing the battle. If the extraction of coal is declared a national interest, the state will have the right to displace people and expropriate land and property.
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