Martin Kovác

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
This description of Martin Kovác's work was prepared when Martin Kovác was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.


Martin Kovác is promoting local initiatives that build alliances between corporate Slovakia and emerging citizens' organizations to protect and restore Slovakia's rapidly vanishing historic resources.

The New Idea

Martin Kovác is promoting the repair of historic buildings and monuments in Slovakia by building coalitions between members of Slovakia's new private business sector, local and national governments, concerned citizens and, sometimes, the owners of the properties. His work challenges the common belief that their repair is the sole responsibility of the government and that insufficient funds make the task impossible. Martin is convinced that if people can recapture a sense of value for their historic sites and learn some skills of community planning and coordination, they will be able to find the necessary money. His work demonstrates that key individuals working in concert to preserve a monument do make a powerful team: business people often have access to sources of capital or have experience in raising money; though public funds may be short, government officials bring whatever support they can; and citizens' organizations provide contact with the local community surrounding any historic site. Martin's work is consciously modeled after the well-known British National Trust for historic structures. Two features, however, distinguish its adaptation to the Slovak context. First, Martin has transcended a pervasive mistrust that is a legacy of the country's totalitarian past: the coalitions he builds between social and economic sectors are new for Slovaks. Second, though his project secures preservation for its own sake, Martin believes it has implications far beyond that end. By developing mechanisms to involve the public with their local conservation projects, he hopes to channel growing nationalist tendencies among the citizens of the newly independent country into healthy patriotism.

The Problem

With a history that spans more than a millennium, Slovakia is rich in historic resources that are significant to many of the region's cultures, including that of the Slovaks, Germans, Czechs and Hungarians. Approximately 15,000 sites or items are on the government's list of historic and cultural heritage, and there are additional thousands of unofficial symbols of Slovakia's multicultural past.

During the Communist era, the state owned and was responsible for the preservation of the vast majority of historic monuments. Unfortunately, because of financial constraints and (in some cases) ideological reasons these monuments suffered a gradual deterioration due to neglect and poor management. Consequently, more than 25 percent of immobile monuments were in severe need of repair by the early 1990s, according to statistics supplied by Martin.

After the political changes of 1989, new restitution laws returned many monuments to the original owners or their descendants. Sadly, these "new" owners often lack the necessary capital to pay for the restoration. Others, unaware of historic value, are further damaging the monuments as they seek to profit by them. For example, one owner of an archeological site that dates back to the first millennium, considered building a shopping center over the ruins. These trends, coupled with the new regime's restrictive budget and loss of control over historic sites, have meant that as of 1994 only seven percent of all monuments were under renovation.

The Strategy

Martin's strategy stands on three pillars: assistance in the formation of local renovation projects; encouragement of professionals and business owners to underwrite innovative approaches to conservation; and education of the public about the importance of protecting historic resources.

To implement and spread his idea, Martin has organized the National Trust of Slovakia for Historic Places and Landscapes. The Trust, in cooperation with other nongovernmental organizations, searches for monuments that are potentially viable rehabilitation projects. After identifying a project, it develops a plan to build the support of the local community and locate resources and partners. The Trust also provides any necessary training to interested community members so that they may participate in the restoration and management of the monument.

Martin and his organization are always open to new ideas, and they have been able to attract a large number of dynamic professionals into their organization. These professionals have developed some interesting financing strategies including a revolving conservation fund and a cultural tourism scheme that will promote the rich multicultural history of Slovakia while earning money for the continued care of historic sites.

In addition, the Trust has initiated a comprehensive national media and public relations campaign to educate the general public about its work and to help spread its ideas to neighboring countries. They have conducted numerous public events that highlight various historic sights; currently, the Trust is working on a book about unused historic buildings that will be released soon.

Martin believes that a successful public education effort will not only increase the public's awareness about the issue of conservation but will also lead to a stronger and broader funding base for his organization, thus securing it for the long term. Moreover, Martin believes that growing concern for Slovakia's historical resources will also nurture a sense of stewardship for the environment generally.

The Person

While he was still in school, studying civil engineering, Martin established an organization for students who were interested in historic preservation. It restored a 150-year-old iron foundry in the rural northern region of Slovakia. Hundreds of youths from all over the country volunteered their services. After four years of work, the foundry began smelting iron ore by traditional techniques. This project attracted the attention of the local government, citizens and businesses. As a result, a dispute erupted over ownership. Martin intervened and mediated the conflict and created a local association comprised of key community members who now administer the foundry.