"Elections are the only time when decision makers are going to be open to ‘people power.’ During campaign times, candidates are interested in what we have to say. It is easier to schedule meetings. It is the time to achieve something. We have to grab our five minutes.”
Aleksandra Bujarovska, environmental lawyer at Front 21/42
Defining the Campaign Issue
Front and GoGreen are environmental organizations that teamed up in 2013 to launch a campaign in advance of mayoral elections to build support for dismantling old industrial sites that are responsible for a significant amount of pollution in Macedonia.
After communism ended in 1991, old factories were privatized and laws were not in place to require the new owners to take over responsibility for past environmental damage caused by the plants. This led to a variety of environmental challenges for localities. For example, waterways were polluted with heavy metals and old landfills were left unattended. Front and GoGreen call these high pollution areas “hotspots.” The issue was particularly pressing in the small town of Veles, where, in 2013, the local government put out a tender to restart production in an old smelting plant that had caused a lot of pollution. The 50,000 residents lived with the risk of soil that had seven times the international safety limit of heavy metal content. To make matters worse, the tender did not require the new owner to take responsibility for pollution caused by the factory when it was state-run.
Front and GoGreen had considerable experience tackling environmental issues through research and education respectively, but they decided to take a different approach to address the local industrial pollution that plagued Veles and other communities. Mayors and other locally elected officials have responsibility over local zoning laws and urban development plans. With a campaign they called Cool Mayors for Environmental Hotspots, Front and GoGreen decided to try to get mayoral candidates around the country to sign pledges to implement environmentally friendly zoning rules for these hotspots once elected.
The Cool Mayors campaign leaders knew that it would need to engage candidates in numerous mayoral races and therefore build out local activist networks to be successful. The effort began with information gathering by small teams in each of the municipalities with a hotspot. The teams interviewed their neighbors to learn what they knew and didn’t know about the hotspots in their communities. The coalition also developed other content that helped it recruit supporters and educate community members about the pollution created by the hotspots. And it took advantage of close relationships it had with environmentally-minded creative professionals to develop multimedia content.
Drawing competition - Front and GoGreen also reached out to young people to build community support. The coalition organized a drawing competition with the title “In place of the environmental hotspot, I would like to have…” to raise community awareness and recruit volunteers for the campaign. Fifteen primary schools from eight municipalities submitted drawings to put up for a vote through the campaign’s Facebook page. Eight winners were announced for every municipality represented.
Music video - The coalition produced a hip-hop music video about environmental hotspots to circulate through new media and galvanize support from young Macedonians. The video was produced pro-bono by the rappers Puka Kozmetika and Skit Skitara and with the participation of volunteers from the coalition and students from the primary schools that took part in the drawing competition. Prior to production, Front and GoGreen held meetings with the artists to educate them about the environmental hotspots, write the lyrics and conceptualize the video. The video was shot in four days in six locations around Skopje, the capital, and featured 45 volunteers. Within the first 20 days after the video was posted on YouTube, it had 8,000 views.
Visual materials - An advertising agency, sympathetic to their cause, helped GoGreen and Front reach out to the press and develop visual materials for the campaign. An important part of the campaign included grassroot efforts to gain popular support for the movement. Trained activists would go to public places and ask people to sign a letter to candidates demanding that they prioritize pollution once elected.
Candidate education - Front and GoGreen reached out to each of the candidates to educate them on the specific environmental hotspot in their jurisdiction. The coalition sent New Year’s cards to each of the candidates, reminding them about the hotspot in their district and asking them to include it among their priorities. They also received the signatures collected by the local activists.
Front and GoGreen also collected letters from citizens and distributed informational leaflets that included a calendar identifying environmental hotspots. On the right side was a detachable message that could be sent to candidates asking them to act. The calendars were distributed in Macedonian and Albanian. The note to the candidate read:
To the mayor of my municipality,
We live in a municipality with an environmental hotspot. I live next to a “shadow” of the formal system. Today this “shadow” forms what we call historical pollution (for which the former state [Yugoslavia] is responsible). The earth in my neighborhood, as well as the water I drink and the air I breathe are not historical, but are my basic needs. The risk of a serious environmental disaster here is also not a historical, but a present danger, which I refuse to ignore. The right to a safe and clean environment is my constitutional right.
It has been years, even decades since the old system expired. I live in a democratic Macedonia in the twenty-first century. What has not changed, however, is the pollution with which I live every day. With which you and I live every day.
You can and must do something to correct this. I do not care whose fault this is and who is responsible for the cleanup of the environmental hotspot in our municipality. I demand that during your mandate to make this historical pollution part of history!
Citizen and voter in the municipality
Candidate meetings - Front and GoGreen organized meetings with the political coalitions and candidates running for office in the target communities. These events were held in all 13 targeted municipalities and the leafleting and signing were done by members of the coalition and volunteers from the 15 primary schools that participated in the drawing competition.
As a result of the Front and GoGreen campaign, 18 candidates signed the pledge, and five took office. After the election, GoGreen and Front invited the new mayors to a public event where they presented their ideas for addressing the hotspot pollution. In the community of Zletovo, the new mayor made an agreement with the oil company working in the area to clean the soil. According to Front and GoGreen, the mayor said it would be impossible to ignore the pollution in his community given all the information he had received during the Cool Mayors campaign.
The campaign also resulted in some important outcomes for the organizations themselves. Front and GoGreen previously did not know each other’s work. But they now work together easily and benefit from each other’s strengths: GoGreen’s youth committees and Front’s research expertise. Moreover, they can generate a great deal of activity through their grassroots networks and publish stories about community members who are affected by the problems. Their election period advocacy has helped them to be seen as credible interlocutors with government officials on environmental issues.