Times for vegetarians in the Czech Republic are gradually changing for the better, no doubt. Just ten years ago when Tereza Vandrovcová, a sociologist and founder of the volunteer-run animal-rights initiative Veggie Parade that is coordinating Veggie Month, went meatless, she didn’t have much more to go on than potatoes and carrots.
Although vegetarians are no longer looked at as roots-munching occult crazies, Vandrovcová says that Czechs are notably less informed about a plant-based diet than western Europeans are.
The global Vegetarian Awareness Month of October, first celebrated in 1977 by activists from the North American Vegetarian Society and dubbed “Veggie měsíc” locally, is one of the major events held in the country to spread awareness of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle as well as incite fellow vegetarians across the country to action.
Veggie Month’s coordinators are hoping to improve on last year’s attendance by decentralizing events and lending total freedom to groups in more than 14 cities to stage events as they please. “The organizers in individual cities know their environment best, so it’s better to leave it to them to decide on the nature of the events,” Silvestr Špaček of Veggie Parade told Czech Position.
The only centralizing done by Veggie Parade is an online calendar listing all the veg-friendly events, city by city (for complete events listing, visit http://veggiemesic.net/).
The second edition, which kicked off on 1 October with Vegetarian Day, features presentations, street fairs, film screenings and cruelty-free food tastings.
The main Prague-based events include a European conference dealing with animal rights on the occasion of World Food Day and The International Day of Action Against McDonald’s, a remembrance ceremony for all animals killed by humans, and World Vegan Day to wrap up on Nov. 1. Events in other cities will continue to pop up as the month progresses, says Michaela Černá, who oversees the organizational aspects at Veggie Parade.
By connecting activists, artists and vegetarians of all trades, Vandrovcová is hoping to incite more self-reliant activity throughout the country. But, essentially, Veggie Month is about spreading the word and flaunting vegetarianism in the best possible light.
“While it is improving, people are still really uninformed about vegetarianism,” Vandrovcová said. “They perceive lots of things in a distorted way, be it the conditions that animals live in or the health aspects — that vegetarianism and veganism are beneficial for health and are balanced diets — or the lack of awareness about vegans and vegetarians in people’s own circles.”
This lack of awareness goes both for the countryside and cities, she says. While in smaller towns and villages people tend to relate to animals in a utilitarian way, urbanites are more likely to turn a blind eye to where their food comes from, she said.
Public events like Veggie Month try to do away with skewed beliefs and unrealistic stereotypes by presenting a “positive referential group” — a group of people that brings out the best of vegetarian lifestyle and with whom non-vegetarians can identify. Vandrovcová says that this was also the reason for renaming Veggie Pride to Veggie Parade, which feels less elitist and off-putting — a celebration rather than a demonstration.
Reaching out to one and all
When Vandrovcová, who avoids using and consuming animal products, went vegetarian a decade ago, it was for ethical reasons. “I was raised to respect animals, but in a more superficial way — as in cats and dogs,” she said. “With time, I started looking into where meat comes from. It was around the time when my dog died and I suddenly realized that I’m crying here because of one dog while there are 100,000 pigs out there, and that’s when I decided to become a vegetarian.”
But Veggie Month doesn’t center around the ethics of a meat-free lifestyle. It communicates the ethical, health and environmental aspects of going vegetarian, in hope to appeal to a wide range of people.
“It’s important to address the public in varied ways,” Vandrovcová said. “Someone might be more emotionally oriented and respond to a screening from a slaughterhouse; another is more rationally oriented and might prefer seminars; others might approach it from an economical perspective, and others from a taste standpoint.”
From Vandrovcová’s experience, most people convert to a plant-based diet during certain turning points in their lives, most often in their teenage years or early 20s and 30s, though last year’s Veggie Month — especially the banquet — drew older generations as well. While not-so-recent latest statistics from 1999 by StemMark estimate vegetarians at two percent of the population, Vandrovcová considers six percent more realistic for 2011.
As a member of the Green Party’s (SZ) committee for animal rights, she knows that awareness projects are just one, though key, channel for putting animal rights on the agenda.
During the Veggie Month, she’ll also be introducing a newly-recognized academic field, called animal-human studies, which explores the position of animals in our society, the parallels between animal abuse and human violence and animals’ status.
“It’s important to always work on creating activist, scientific and political pressure,” Vandrovcová said. Though, when there’s desire from below, changes, including those legislative, happen more easily.
Martina Čermáková is a Prague-based freelance writer