An Environmental Ombudsman: Sándor Fülöp, Hungary’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations


Eszter Rodé

In 2007, after years of lobbying by nongovernmental organizations, Hungary’s parliament created an environmental steward for future generations. Sándor Fülöp, 53, is halfway through his six-year term as the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations. Preferring to work without a secretary, Fülöp is accessible, friendly, and happy to talk at length about past accomplishments, present challenges, and future prospects. What follows is an edited transcript combining a conversation between Fülöp and Green Horizon editor Nathan Johnson, which took place in April 2010 in Budapest, and a follow-up interview for Solutions conducted by Christina Asquith.

Your mission is to ensure the sustainability of the environment. This encompasses the enforcement of environmental law, as well as other areas contributing to sustainability, such as cultural heritage protection and state budget planning. Tell us more about your job.

Our office has three functions. First of all, we field complaints and provide inexpensive legal alternatives to going to court. Naturally, we lack executive branch-type powers. We are, rather, a parliamentary body that advises on constitutional matters. Even if a decision can be interpreted to be true to the letter of the law, we can challenge the constitutional “spirit” of the law in question and suggest that it violates, say, the right of future generations to a healthy environment.

Our second function is parliamentary advocacy. We offer opinions on legal drafts and draw up plans, policies, and programs concerning the environment.

Our third function is to conduct research that supports our policy recommendations on environmental issues.

To venture something of an understatement, Hungary’s principal rival parties don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. Is there any sense of a broader political consensus where environment and long-term thinking are concerned?

Hungarians tend to be a rather pessimistic lot, so elections, instead of representing a political opportunity, are viewed by many as just another political tragedy. From the very beginning, our office has attempted to urge rival parties not to conduct a race to the bottom, but to establish, at the very least, some sort of minimum environmental standard to protect things like climate, biodiversity, drinking water, and agricultural land—for instance, to protect green areas from urban sprawl.

Something that came as a surprise to us is that in working with the Parliamentary Environmental Committee, in practically every case we have received almost unanimous support—we have encountered minimal or no resistance from government opposition members.

During the 14 months of its operation, the commissioner’s office has received 600 complaints and 30 legislative drafts. Your office is empowered to comment on ongoing environmental cases, and you frequently appear in the media as a government advocate for the environment. The office of the commissioner, or the commissioner, has been mentioned in 353 articles and has appeared or been mentioned 258 times on television or radio channels. What are some of the highlights and disappointments that you’ve experienced while leading this new office?

As far as individual cases are concerned, I’m particularly proud of our statement regarding the proposed Szerencs power plant. [This 50-megawatt biomass facility near Hungary’s famous Tokaj wine-growing region, if completed, would be the country’s largest, but the project has met with huge resistance from local citizens and environmental groups. —Ed.] The statement that our office produced was the result of complex and concentrated study, and it had several wide-ranging effects, even if we weren’t able to achieve a desired breakthrough immediately. As things stand now, the case is at the Supreme Court.

I am also happy that we were successful in helping to protect a number of historic buildings in Budapest’s former Jewish quarter. Some city government officials had quite shamelessly handed them over to investors and property developers, who had pulled them down or rebuilt them with no regard for preserving the original architecture. In both these cases we produced 40- to 50-page analyses, and were able to raise the profiles of both the Szerencs-Tokaj region and the Jewish quarter in Budapest as World Heritage buffer zones and help revive a stalemated debate on establishing the Hungarian World Heritage Act.

Increasing urbanization is a worldwide trend, and smog pollution in Budapest has emerged as a real health problem. Nonetheless, the local government has been unwilling to enforce its own “smog alert” traffic restrictions. What can be done to address this?

The best thing we can do in our capacity is to make widely available the best information and public health data. We sit here right above Nádor Street [in downtown Budapest, not far from Parliament —Ed.], where there is a lot of traffic, and it’s quite unhealthy. And yet there are still demographic groups in this city, or this region—say, males between the ages of 25 and 50—who feel that it’s a form of humiliation to ride public transport. This is a difficult problem to overcome.

Give us a few examples of cases you have received.

The two largest cases might be worth a little more detailed description.

The first case was about a planned military radar station above Pécs, a major Hungarian city with a population of 160,000. No one actually knows the long-term effects of non-ionizing radiation on the human body. In addition to the possible danger of radiation exposure, the radar station was to be built in the protective zone of the drinking water reservoir for one part of the city. The city and an NGO sued the Ministry of Defense, and we supported them, at their request, as a friend of the court. After two years of litigation, the plaintiffs, supported by four lengthy letters of argument from our office, won the case: the Supreme Court has cancelled the Ministry’s building permit.

The other large case was the Szerencs straw-fired power plant. It is always a tragic conflict for us when an environmental investment itself causes serious environmental concerns. But this plant was to have a capacity of 50 megawatts. This wasn’t the usual, environmentally friendly 3–4-megawatt plant that serves one or two villages. The operator of this plant would have to bring the fuel in from as far away as 80 kilometers, requiring 200 round-trips by large trucks every day. Energy-grass production was also considered as a fuel solution, which would have reshaped the landscape. Szerencs is very close to the Tokaj vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the representatives of Tokaj villages protested in vain: all the permits were issued, and even the cultural heritage authorities remained silent. Upon receiving several complaints, we analyzed the case from national, international, legal, and professional angles and suggested that the government actively implement the World Heritage Convention, to which Hungary is a party. We also criticized the decision to allow the plant to proceed because it failed to evaluate the ramifications (transport, changing of the landscape) of the project, and we suggested that it be reversed. We even filed a suit, but lost the case. Now the case has gone to the Supreme Court. But the investor’s financial supporters, having realized that this plan is the cause of a long-standing local conflict, seem to have abandoned it. Another indirect effect of our intervention was that the Cultural Ministry started a new legislative procedure, and has even involved us in drafting the World Heritage Act (after having failed to create it for more than 20 years).

We have learned that careful interdisciplinary analyses can be good weapons in the hands of local or professional groups fighting for environmental protection. Another important lesson we have learned is the necessity of widespread consultations in each case. We try to enhance our findings and legal analyses, and their social effects, with a reiterative procedure: we go to the scene, we talk to the local people and the officials who actually worked on the case, and before we finalize our legal opinion, we prepare a draft statement and send it to the concerned parties. This methodology gives our findings and our opinions more credibility.

You are an environmental steward for future generations. In a best-case scenario, how do you envision environmental life in Hungary for your grandchildren? What do we need to be doing now to reach that vision?

In the best scenario, the Hungarian countryside has been revitalized within two or three generations and the majority of people live in sustainable local communities. The structure of these communities is most probably different from that of today’s communities, but they certainly will safeguard and build on the dignity of the individuals and will effectively use renewable energy and raw materials in a way that is rational and fair to future generations. A special stress will be put on environmental health, including poison-free air, safe drinking water, and organic food. In order to realize this vision, we need to be open-hearted, creative, and very determined.

In early October, a large reservoir in Western Hungary filled with toxic red sludge ruptured and caused widespread environmental damage. What has been your office’s reaction?

Naturally, our small office is dealing with the case, too. We went to the scene and are talking with the experts, but our time to work comes after administrative measures are taken, that is, our job will be to evaluate the whole situation and point out the system faults that made this whole thing possible and that threaten us with similar disasters in the future.