‘We were never given the time to mourn’: Activists continue fight for Hambach Forest

Following the death of a journalist, police continue dismantling tree huts in the Hambach Forest between Aachen and Cologne, having cleared 53 as of Wednesday morning, according to Aachen authorities.

'We were never given the time to mourn': Activists continue fight for Hambach Forest
An activist hangs from a rope on Tuesday in the Hambach Forest, as police continue to clear the occupation. Photo: DPA

A week after the death of a 27-year old journalist, police continued to clear the occupied forest. The remaining activists continued their fight for the old-growth forest, which is threatened by deforestation for coal mining.

“North Rhine-Westphalia promised us a time of peace after his death,” an activist in the forest who only wanted to be identified as Hugo told The Local by phone on Wednesday. “But we were never given the time to mourn.”

Six years ago, environmentalists built an estimated 70 tree huts in order to stop German energy giant RWE, who owns the property, from mining lignite there. Many remained in the occupation, situated in an old-growth forest, as police began to take down the structures two weeks ago.  

Around 113 of the activists have been arrested, Aachen police reported on Wednesday. An additional 222 people have been detained, with 670 forced to leave the area. A total of 30 police officers have also been injured by protesters. 

An activist is questioned by police after voluntarily roped down from a tree hut on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

During the protests last Wednesday, the journalist died after falling from a suspension bridge stretching least 15 metres high. As a result, the state government had temporarily stopped the clearance of the tree huts in the forest.

SEE ALSO: Operation to evict Hambach Forest activists suspended after tragic death

An ongoing fight for the forest

As of Wednesday morning, activists formed a barricade around the encampment of “Lorien” – one of the last remaining in the Hambach occupation – in order to stop police officers from clearing it. One women was lightly injured after falling from a platform. But the activists were determined to remain.

“Germany gives an environmentally-friendly image from the outside,” said Hugo. “But there is a clear link between the coal lobby and the state. It’s not the same as the interest of the people.”

In an additional push to preserve ‘Hambi’, as the activists refer to the forest, an online petition now has 750,000 signatures – 300,000 who have signed in the past 14 days alone.

The encampment, they say, lies in the last remaining 10 percent of the ancient forest, which has been logged since the 1970s. Its adjacent Hambach opencast mine generates around 40 million tonnes of coal per year.

The petition is addressed – among others – to Prime Minister Armin Laschet (CDU) and Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD).

'Endangering the climate'

Some politicians have already taken note of the environmental impact, and demand that Hambach’s adjacent open-pit mine – the largest in Europe – be shut down.

“The lignite-fired power station is only blocking our pipelines and endangers the climate,” said Anton Hofreiter, leader of the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag, last week.

The organizations behind the petition – Campact, BUND and Greenpeace – have also called for a demonstration at the Hambach forest on October 6th, days before RWE has said that it plans to begin clear-cutting the forest.

Following the death of the journalist, the company said in a statement they were 'deeply affected' and called for 'sensibility' to avoid other injuries.

Before the incident, RWE's energy chairman Lars Kulik stated that coal was necessary in Germany for “secure and financially-feasible energy”.

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‘Psychological terror’: The German villages threatened by coal mine expansion

Germany is on course to abandon coal-fired power stations but ironically one mine is being allowed to expand - to the fury of local residents who describe the battle to save their homes as "psychological terror".

'Psychological terror': The German villages threatened by coal mine expansion
Police look on as activists stage a sit-in protest against the destruction of the road L277 between Lützerath and Keyenberg near the Garzweiler coal mine in western Germany. AFP

Lost in the countryside of western Germany, the innocuously named L277 road has become a central battleground in a bitter fight over the country's plan to ditch coal. 

“It's psychological terror. The L277 was the last road which separated us from the mine. It was our red line, our border,” 29-year-old David Dresen, a resident of Rhineland village Kuckum, told AFP.

Dresen was one of dozens of residents who came out to protest this week, as work began to dismantle the L277.

The road is to be dug up to make way for the expansion of a neighbouring coal mine, with villages such as Kuckum next in line for demolition.

Germany is officially on course to abandon coal-fired power generation by 2038, with the government finalising its fiercely disputed “coal exit law” earlier this month. 

But ironically, the new law has also ringfenced the enormous Garzweiler mine in the Rhine basin from closure, allowing it to resume its expansion march — to the fury of local residents.  

A sign reading “Kuckum stays” is pictured in Kuckum, near the Garzweiler coal mine in western Germany. AFP

Kuckum and neighbouring villages such as Berverath and Keyenberg sit atop untapped sources of brown coal which mine operator and energy company RWE claims will be “needed from 2024”.

While other mines in the region are slated to close by 2030, the coal exit law allows Garzweiler to keep operating, continuing to supply nearby power plants even as they begin to close down in the coming years.

Under RWE's plans, the mine will thus edge closer and closer to villages such as Kuckum, eventually swallowing them up entirely.

“There will be no coal exit for us,” said Dresen.

Paris goals

A compromise hashed out between Germany's ruling centrist coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the timetable for the so-called “coal exit” has long been criticised by environmentalists. 

Environmental NGOs have slammed the final text of the law — released in early July — as lacking ambition and urgency. 

This picture taken on July 22, 2020, near the Garzweiler coal mine shows a sign indicating the closure of the L277 road between Lützerath and Keyenberg.AFP


They argue that the 2038 deadline is too late if Germany is to fulfil its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. 

The Garzweiler mine is another flashpoint.

The site is regularly occupied by activists from the anti-coal movement, which has grown in significance since Germany's move away from nuclear power in 2011 increased dependence on the fossil fuel.

RWE said that it will be bearing the brunt of the impact of the coal exit and must shut down two-thirds of its power plant capacity in the Rhenish coalfield by 2030.

“The remaining power plants and refineries must continue to be supplied with coal that from 2030 can only be extracted from Garzweiler.

'Lost cause'

For residents like David Dresen, however, it is as much about saving their own homes as saving the planet. 

“I am nearly 30. I have lived all my life on a big farmhouse, where my family has been since the 18th century,” he says. 

Yet the farmhouse is currently set to be torn down with the rest of Kuckum in 2027.

In 2016, the village's residents were officially invited to sell their land to RWE and offered assistance to relocate elsewhere. 

This file photo taken on November 28, 2019 shows the Garzweiler opencast mine of German energy giant RWE in Juechen, western Germany. AFP

Other villages have already disappeared, while some now sit empty, awaiting their impending destruction. 

“It makes you really sad, leaving behind a world that is just being destroyed,” said Fritz Bremer, an elderly Keyenberg resident. 

The 86-year-old believes there is little hope of saving any of the villages.

“I think it's a lost cause. You saw it with the road. People protested, but they dug it up anyway,” he said. 

Yet protester Dresen still holds out hope that Kuckum could be spared such a fate.

“We hope that by 2027, we will have a new government at both federal and regional level, with the Green Party in the coalition,” he says. 

“But if we continue to have a government which doesn't care about climate goals, then it's probably curtains for our village.”