Creating a Modern Revolution in Romania – Fighting Trash, Activizing People

It might seem like an exaggeration to say that a single event revolutionized Romania, but the „Let’s Do It!“ cleanup initiative in September 2010 – a volunteer civic campaign dedicated to clearing the countryside of illegal trash – had some elements of the 1989 Romanian Revolution itself. With undaunted determination, and with the secret service watching over their shoulders, a team of over 1200 Romanians galvanized hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens to take part in the massive civic action. The number of volunteers – 200,000 – almost matched the size of the national uprising in 1989. The success of the venture also led to surprising reinvigoration of the country’s social, economic and environmental framework – and a book, 200 000, which was released June 28th.

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Liana Buzea. Photo: Liana Buzea

Romania, having emerged not that many years previously from Soviet occupation, was still a „new country,“ so the idea of undertaking something that unheard of was daunting. Volunteerism, for example, was despised – seen as the work of „unenlightened“ (politely put) foreigners. And government sponsorship would only have raised strong trust issues. But for NGO activist Liana Buzea, a five-minute video from Estonia propelled her (and then her co-leader Anamaria Hancu, both with innate environmental sensitivity) into brave new territory. The Let’s Do It! cleanup campaign, which had brought 50,000 Estonians out of their similarly sheltered occupation to tackle illegal trash in the country’s forests in a single day in May, 2008, was a success story compelling enough to have created a copycat effect.

Seeing that their guarded enthusiasm would be backed by the experience and massive numbers in five other countries (Latvia and Lithuania followed Estonia in Spring 2009 with a combined 250 000; Portugal brought out 200 000 volunteers in March 2010, and Slovenia quickly followed, breaking all records with 273 000 people in June), and help from an able and engaged team in Estonia, Liana and Anamaria decided Romania, too, could do it. On September 25, 2010, after four months of re-imagining the soviet concept of „hard labor“ as something positive, Romania brought out 200,000 people and became the sixth country to raise high the Estonian „seven happy face“ logo, translate it, and give birth to a new spirit.

Almost the size of the Romanian Revolution in 1989

”The first thing it did, to the surprise of everyone (including other green NGOs),“ Liana reports, „was to show that a society so apathetic and submissive and non-reactive as ours (this is how we saw ourselves) could actually pull off something this huge. It was almost the size of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – of course without the bloodshed.” But not without echoes of more violent uprisings. “To nobody’s surprise, the secret service was watching us.” The first inkling was provided by a soldier who recognized someone from the Romanian Information Service at a meeting with a local agency; confirmation came from an employee of the environmental ministry, who admitted to seeing Liana’s personal record at the RIS. When asked if it was a joke, the clerk replied, “Does that seem like a joke to you?” Liana  continues, “It was a very interesting story, really a case study – as I imagine it was in any country from the communist bloc.“

Volunteers cleaned up event the water bodies. Photo: Liana Buzea

Volunteers cleaned up event the water bodies. Photo: Liana Buzea

Thus, Liana’s reflections on the entire project, after the fact, lead her to a new challenge: she decided to write a book. „I wanted to understand what we actually were able to do, and put it in writing for others.“  The book, 200,000, released on line June 28th, will be followed in coming months by an English edition and a print edition in Romanian.

The Romanian Let’s Do It! experience had good material for an author to explore. Financial issues were a recurring sub-theme. “Mercantile interests had reactions to volunteering or offering their own time and expertise for free,“ Liana writes. And accessing funding for the project was not easy. „It took a long time to get sponsorships and donations; we almost „choked” because of lack of resources; but it was a genuine, honest and tough start. It really was built from the grassroots,“ she added. And she was emboldened by the five countries who had succeeded: „Nobody had grounds to actually state that we, as a country, could not do the cleanup.“ Despite the predictable human resistance, even negativity, discouragement, the team was uplifted with a positive surprise. „In our case it was the support of a national TV channel that made things get better,“ Liana affirmed.

“From zero to hero” effect – now advising the state and other countries

And it can be said that, in the ensuing years, things continue to get better for her country. The event itself spawned a still growing environmental consciousness: a national movement towards regenerative, „Zero Waste“ circular economics; regular cleanups of newly identified trash sites in addition to the annual event, and the country’s Let’s Do It! team, whose staff has doubled, advises the Ministry of the Environment on waste management issues. Romania has also developed collaboration with other countries for an education-based Danube river clean up involving school children, and has even provided financial support to Let’s Do It! Moldova. (Initial co-initiator, Anamaria Hancu, remains aligned with the movement; Andrei Cosuleanu currently serves as the Let’s Do It! Romania leader.)

What was it like to take on such a massive project? For Liana Buzea, although she says she made the decision „in about one minute or less,“ her previous experience was a necessary precursor. „I had been organizing similar events with the NGO I had founded a year-and-a-half earlier and had done other projects related to waste, just not on a national scale. When I saw the 5-minute film, I said to myself: ’Wow! What would it be like to organise something like that here? I wanna see myself doing that!’ The right information reached me in the right moment and with the right background (I had something solid to give me the opportunity to take that decision).” And she genuinely, enthusiastically took it on and began to build a team.

Enthusiasm without base is not what takes to organize a massive cleanup

To others contemplating such a challenge, she advises, „Do not ignore the solid background. In my case, had I not presided over my own NGO, had I not had the experience in all the events prior to that one, I would not have taken that decision. I was grounded in that kind of project. Enthusiasm without a base…would have not fitted my work style.“

And she acknowledges the professional struggle. „I did have my own fire to burn, to begin with, but that was more in terms of initiative, vision, perseverance and self-discipline,“ she comments. „But relating with other people, really understanding that we are different and having patience with the ones I could not find common grounds with…that was extremely tough. Especially since I felt a lot of pressure on my back. I learned this part, which is essential for someone working with a big team, the very, very hard way.“

But there were positives, as well. „Firstly,“ Liana states, [„I learned] that I was more capable than I had given myself credit for, actually. First, in terms of leadership. That was my big lesson from it all. Secondly, that I was genuinely fit for long-term social projects. I do mean this. Many people start their NGOs, but not so many people are truly a fit for this type of work. And also, that I was doing one thing right: I never asked of anybody else what I did not do myself. That was crucial, actually.“

Not just an one-off action

And, in response to naysayers who see such events as „one-offs“, Liana cites the movement’s potential to address lingering problems in Romania, some of which would find resonance in other countries: „public services within the city or between cities that are simply ineffective or filled with corruption; public authorities who are inefficient and obsolete in terms of administrative work and managerial decisions and capabilities; ways in which people themselves behave towards society, nature, economy, politics and so on. We are still apathetic or lethargic in the big sense, so we still need an inspiration or proof that we can have prosperity, performance, well-being (material, social, democratic and so on).“

Let's Do It! is a biggest social movement in Romania now. The organization is now involved in various environmental and civic decision making processes. Photo from the cleanup action in 2013. Photo: Let's Do It! Romania

Let’s Do It! is the biggest social movement in Romania now. The organization is involved in various environmental and civic decision making processes. Organizers in 2013 on the cleanup day. Photo: Let’s Do It! Romania

Given the challenges of the project itself, and its personal toll, would she encourage others to take on a massive cleanup project? „Definitely. The Estonian team, especially Rainer Nõlvak, Toomas Trapido, Tiina Urm, and Kadri Allikmäe, were supportive, recommending us through the European Parliament and to multinational companies that had been part of Estonia’s initial efforts. And Nara Petrovic, leading Slovenia’s campaign was an important source of help. That all mattered tremendously,“ Liana recalls.

And what would she add, for potential leaders? „In 2010, I thought it would have been helpful to give people heads up about the internal and personal efforts one would have to undertake. Building a social movement can take a lot of energy out of you, especially when society is not yet so open to seeing things from a different perspective, not to mention changing their behaviour. I am not saying that people should be mothered, not at all. You do assume your initiative and your actions. But to have a clearer idea in the start, can help you prevent some situations. Of course, everyone is different and there is no unique recipe for giving someone a healthy start. But a little light into what is lying ahead can be very helpful.“

Amping it up – organizing the biggest civic action in the world

Currently, the visionaries and key personnel who launched the initial Let’s Do It! Estonia campaign have taken on and recently announced a new challenge: a 150-country strong, one-day, worldwide cleanup of illegal trash, September 8, 2018, starting in Japan, travelling westward, country by country, ending the day in Hawaii. The aim is to draw attention to the massive waste problem and tell the global community, “Wake up! We know the idea is ambitious and maybe even crazy, but so was the original idea to clean up all of Estonia in just one day.” The rest is history.

And, from Romania, Liana Buzea stands with Estonian team members who are quick to point out that „it can no longer be argued that it can’t be done.“

Help to find ambitious people like Liana!

Let’s Do It! World is encouraging people everywhere to recommend a talented and courageous person like Liana, who would take up the challenge and accomplish something remarkable – to clean up his/her country from rubbish in a single day on the World Cleanup Day 2018. Anyone can recommend a leader here: www.letsdoitworld.org/cleanworldleaders and read more about the ambitioUs plan to fight against waste in a way that has never been done before.
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By Peg Oetjen, Let’s Do It! World PR team