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A revolution with green roots: this young Slovak activist began by planting trees and ended up inspiring his country's youth.

Marek Kapusta is only 32 but already has been called "the grandfather of four political revolutions." The national coordinator for Slovakia's 1998 version of a Rock the Vote campaign, Kapusta went on to advise opposition groups in Serbia, where dictator Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000, and in Ukraine, where the opposition's 2004 victory was dubbed the "Orange Revolution."

But what most people don't know is that this "grandfather" honed his activism skills by planting trees.

Marek Kapusta's political efforts seem far removed from his earlier work to help establish Global ReLeaf Slovakia, an international branch of AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf program. That was done with his father Milan, a prominent leader of Slovakia's nascent environmental movement in the 1990s. But Marek's story of bringing change to Eastern Europe begins, like many others' stories, with the simple act of planting trees.

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Following the overthrow of communism in 1989, the two countries emerging from the former Czechoslovakia pursued different paths to democracy. Whereas the Czechs had personalities like Vaclav Havel, who could bring "democratic concepts like a gift that people accepted," as Marek describes it, Slovakia's process was more "bottom to top," and so far more difficult and time-consuming.

The role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the public sphere was essential to building a strong democratic society, but in Slovakia democratic reforms were slipping away. It was in this atmosphere that the Rock volieb '98 campaign was conceived by a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to increase turnout among disaffected and largely apathetic youth.

Marek was hired to coordinate the national effort, but, like many Slovaks, he was "highly skeptical that some small NGO can make a significant impact."

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As part of a multi-pronged and staunchly nonpartisan effort, Rock volieb organized a national media campaign on radio, television, and even in movie theaters; hosted a series of major concerts; created a Voter Awareness bus tour; disseminated printed materials; and held other grassroots activities.

Media outlets tried to extract a statement of support for one party or another, Marek recalls, adding, "I think it was one of our success factors--youth appreciated that we were not telling them whom to vote for."

That campaign produced dramatic results: More than 80 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds in Slovakia voted, four times as many as pre-election polls had projected.

In planning the campaign, Marek says he drew upon his work with trees. His father sent him on a study trip to AMERICAN FORESTS' Washington, DC, headquarters in the fall of 1993. After that visit, Marek "changed my life a lot," starting a student branch of Global ReLeaf at his school and applying project organization and management lessons he'd learned in America.

"What I always liked about AMERICAN FORESTS and its mission is the simplicity of its idea, the passion people give to care for trees, and how through a simple concept people can understand and achieve big goals," he says. Marek began as an administrative assistant for the fledgling Global ReLeaf Slovakia program, then progressively got more involved in tree planting.

At one early project, he remembers, "We could see the reactions of people living in ugly communist-style, concrete, gray housing estates. They woke up early in the morning and came to plant trees in big numbers in spite of the fact that it was a cold, rainy day. It was great to see how other neighbors reacted. After watching from the comfort of their homes [and seeing] other people working, they started to bring hot tea, refreshments, additional tools .... the event ended up with more people participating than we had trees to plant."

He went on to organize a benefit Concert for Trees, which, he admits, was not as successful as he had hoped, yet proved to be a good lesson over time. Marek continued working with Global ReLeaf following his father's tragic death in a hiking accident in September 1995, establishing a Memorial Forest in Milan's name in cooperation with AMERICAN FORESTS.

And his activism found a new outlet. An opportunity to organize volunteers to facilitate elections in war-torn Bosnia proved "an emotional experience" that led him to his later electoral activism successes.

Asked to draw a link between environmental actions such as tree planting and public participation in a democratic society, he says, "Environmental NGOs represent the roots of civil society in Slovakia."

Today Marek is less involved in politics and more concerned about improving and beautifying his hometown of Banska Stiavnica. He is back in the environmental field, managing a development project for the city that starts with waste management and ends with its use to spur green spaces, parks, and playgrounds.

Reflecting on the sum of his experiences, Marek concludes, "Work with motivated people, people that believe in something. If there is a critical mass of them--you can change the world!"

Mircea Raianu was a 2007 intern in AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf Center; he currently attends the University of California-Berkeley.
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Title Annotation:EARTHKEEPERS
Author:Raianu, Mircea
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Words:824
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