Grass Always Greener and Air Truly Cleaner? 

  •  August 22, 2022

The “Fun Navan” (Fun Outside) festival in the picturesque town of Tryavna offered an increasingly familiar sight: carefree children playing outside, volunteers serving local craft beer in reusable cups, the air buzzing with the banter of young parents, some of whom had just recently relocated to the area from Bulgaria’s major cities or even abroad. On the surface, such tempting migrations offer a relatively reliable escape from the drawbacks of urban living: noise, clutter, pollution, yet more sinister – and less visible – risks persist.  

According to the World Health Organisation, all citizens of the 10 biggest cities in Bulgaria are exposed to the harms of air pollution. High concentrations of the most common pollutants, such as fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, are estimated to cause about 12,000 premature deaths – a year. Though Sofia, the capital, has a notoriously poor record in this regard, it is far from being the only hotspot. The residents of smaller, seemingly pristine, settlements in the vicinity of coal power plants or logging sites are disproportionately affected and seldom given enough publicity and access to decision-makers. Hence the acute need for community mobilizing and green activism at the local level, which the Bulgarian Fund for Women encourages through its Clean Air and Climate Justice Programme*. The festival was an opportunity to interview three local leaders undertaking projects through the fund and learn more about how they collaborate, inspire each other, and overcome some of the inevitable frustrations of trying to move these issues to the forefront of regional and national politics.  

Helena Hudek, a hydrobiologist from Croatia who moved to the area with her family, Roman Rachkov, a prominent member of the Greens and plant ecology expert, and Margarita Simeonova, the community organizer behind the “Fun Navan” event and several initiatives for new settlers, all pointed to awareness raising as essential to their broader efforts.  

Margarita shared that she conceptualized the event as an “eco festival” from the start. She had observed the discrepancy between the promise of a greener quieter life Tryavna offers to the newly settled and the shortcomings of that promise, stemming in part from sustainable consumption’s position as a marginal issue for local residents and in part from the influence of a powerful logging lobby in the municipal council. Her apparent answer: “You have to start them young!” As a case in point, she is continuously surrounded by volunteers in the event, aged 7-20, who ask for guidance or report the latest sales figures from the food and drinks stands. She shared the willingness of young residents who have moved elsewhere in pursuit of better opportunities to return for such events and contribute, summer after summer, is reward enough for her efforts.   

Zara Rancheva from BFW’s team speaks to Margarita Simeonova, organizer of Fun Navan Festival.

While the development of the global climate justice movement suggests it is often youth who bring prior generations on board, rather than the other way around, Helena is optimistic that those with a more longshot view can appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis. “I do think more people are willing to engage, as they can sense that the planet has changed, even within their own lifetime”. One challenge that plagues these efforts is that, unlike steeply climbing temperatures, some threats are more elusive and harder to track while similarly pernicious. When it comes to air quality, in particular, misconceptions and disinformation abound. Roman stressed that residents who are rightly worried about the fumes of an industrial plant might not even know about other contributing pollutants, such as fine particulate matter. “Someone might not even think twice about the impact of not washing the city streets in summer – as it often happens in Veliko Tarnovo”, he added.  

It was fascinating to see both the overlapping objectives and the unique emphasis of each project. Helena and Margarita rely on the educational and affective potential of accessible art. Helena developed a travelling exhibition “Breathe wisely!” in collaboration with three women artists, who also partake in the struggle for cleaner air in Veliko Tarnovo. The drawings’ purely aesthetic appeal does not detract from their urgent, albeit grim, message about a health hazard which is often as neglected as it is acute. The ultimate hope is that the works spark a conversation – between citizens themselves and citizens and their local representatives, as Helena hopes to also produce and disseminate videos of viewers’ reactions to the works and thus speak truth to power.

Margarita’s project, by contrast, aspires to create a constant tangible reminder, embedded in the urban environment itself, of air quality’s constant effects. By turning one of the bus stops in Tryavna into a piece of public art that also summarizes the latest air quality and health trends data from the region accessibly, she hopes to sensitize local residents and foster personal accountability. In line with the “broken windows” theory, her prior efforts to transform another stop in the town have contributed to decreasing vandalism rates in the entire surrounding area. Driven by the belief that environment and individual can mutually elevate one another, she hopes to expand the initiative and broach controversial topics, such as gender justice, that hardly enter private discussions, let alone public discourse, in smaller towns by creatively transforming something as mundane as public transport infrastructure.  

Perhaps the most technically ambitious project of the entire cohort, Roman’s, aims to empower ordinary citizens to independently collect and analyze data on air pollution. He shared he had already designed and built five portable mini stations for measuring nitrogen dioxide, a volatile compound that is elusive to track yet immediately harmful to health. ria) and put up a website with a manual and open-source code for collecting and analyzing the data. Rather than seeing his initiative as a challenge to central regulators, he emphasizes its complementary function. It is a means to demonstrate that a problem exists and then hold institutions accountable, hoping to better the latter for the common good. Seemingly tireless at mobilizing local communities, Roman remains somewhat skeptical about the presence of a critical mass of citizens sufficiently engaged with environmental issues and the potential of activism through legal means, given the resistance of the judicial system to influence from EU bodies and internal reform.   

Our team believes the admissions of slight disheartenment and frustration in the face of unlikely odds of activists are all the more reason to acknowledge, admire, and support their efforts in any way we can. And as they affect our very way of life and the air we all breathe, we have little choice but to live with the consequences of their ultimate success or lack thereof.  

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