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The ancient town, at the foot of the Ore Mountains, it is located on a coal seam and risks being sacrificed for energetic needs

Hunger for coal from the nearby thermoelectric power stations may soon cause the removal of a town in north-western Bohemia – that of Horní Jiřetín, just over two thousand inhabitants – that has the misfortune of being on top of a huge reservoir of untapped lignite.

The small town lies at the foot of the Ore Mountains. On one side it borders with the woods and on the other with a vast surface mine, owned by the giant coal company Severní energetická. The name of the mining site reminds us of the past: Lom Československé armády, the Mine of the Czechoslovak army.

We are about two kilometres from Litvínov, the industrial town, also known for being the birthplace of the supermodel Eva Herzigová and a little further north, on the other side of the mountains, we have German Saxony. In the centre of Horní Jiřetín – which was once the domain of the Lobkowicz family – is the church of the Assumption, in Baroque style, which was built in the late eighteenth century. A few miles farther on, outside the residential area, there is Zámek Jezeří, a rather neglected castle.

The old manor, surrounded by trees and perched on the rocks, seems almost like an outpost, built to defend the village. There is nobody around and the atmosphere is disquieting. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the ‘80s, a team of American filmmakers came here to shoot some of the most chilling sequences of the film Howling, a story of lycanthropy.

42 horni jiretin - Copia (2)A few hundred meters below, in a huge lunar landscape, huge excavators loom against the sky. They stand there impatiently and look as if they can’t wait to start digging and demolish everything: the houses in Horní Jiřetín, the church and as well as the castle. The deep silence is occasionally shaken by the ferocious roar of the power shovels.

In the past 150 years, about five billion tons of lignite have been extracted in this part of Bohemia, but it would seem that there is still a great deal to be exploited, if it wasn’t for Horní Jiřetín.

The last defence of the village is a decree of 1991, when the first post-Communist government decided to set a limit to coal mining. At the time, the prevailing reason was mainly environmental, so as to curb pollution, that in these areas has reached European record levels.

In recent years, however, despite the battles carried out by environmental organizations, there is still concern on the part of many, who argue that it is necessary to knock down these limits. “Because for our Country it does not make sense to give up this vital source of energy, that still offers many job opportunities to local residents”, critics say. A heated supporter in favour of giving the green light to the mechanical shovels is chairman Miloš Zeman, who repeatedly spoke in favour of abrogating the 1991 decree.

It is estimated that, on the basis of these limits, the exploitation of the seam will last at the most for another ten years. If the constraints were abolished, there would still be almost 800 million more tons to extract, which is clearly quite tempting. In the debate there is also the opinion of the socalled “coal barons”, the owners of the mining companies, who with their lobbying power are in a favourable position to shift the scale of power.

Thus, the desire to give the green light to excavators is even greater, because alternative sources of energy in the Czech Republic are showing signs of weaknesses, starting from renewable sources which – despite the incentives of the past couple of years – still represent a very small quota of the general national energy mix. Public subsidies have also fuelled a corrupt system of exploitation of green energy, especially in the field of photovoltaic, that has led to growing unpopularity.

Delays in the expansion plans for the Temelín nuclear power plant and the need to reduce energy dependence on Russia, have simply given greater force to the arguments of those who would prefer to sacrifice Horní Jiřetín.

According to a recent survey, conducted at national level, on the initiative of Greenpeace, 68% of Czechs are against the idea of sacrificing residential areas for purposes connected to the exploitation of coal deposits in northern Bohemia. Two out of three citizens want these limits to remain as established by the government in 1991, or to be done in such a way so as to respect the survival of the municipalities involved.

But even such a high rate of opposition does not seem to be able to save Horní Jiřetín, because the local inhabitants are beginning to show strong signs of discouragement over the future of this area. “It’s clear that I would like to stay in my own house, but in the end, I believe they will find a way to make us go away. They will give us replacement housing elsewhere, or grant us some form of reparation. The fact though is that sooner or later they will get us to leave”, explains a dejected resident from his garden. Of the same opinion and somewhat subdued are 70% of his fellow villagers. Try to explain this to the furious dog on the other side of the fence, an Alsatian dog, which seems even less willing to move out than his master does.

Causing anguish to the people is the climate of insecurity and the prospect that even from an economic point of view this area – one of the most afflicted by the scourge of unemployment – will have no alternative to the exploitation of coal. A few inhabitants are in fact starting to sell their homes or at least, not rejecting negotiations with the emissaries of the extractive companies. A climate of resignation that gives the impression that Horní Jiřetín’s fate is already marked.

by Giovanni Usai