Participants in a 'Save the Forest! Stop Coal!' demo gather in a field next to the Hambach forest on Saturday. Photo: DPA
The ancient forest near Cologne has been occupied by activists for the past six years, becoming a symbol of resistance against coal mining in Germany, a country that despite its green reputation remains heavily reliant on the polluting fossil fuel.
Young people, families and pensioners gathered on a field next to the forest in a festival-like atmosphere, a day after a higher administrative court decided it needed more time to consider an environmental complaint against RWE's upcoming clearing operations.
Chanting “Hambi bleibt!” (Hambi stays) and cheering loudly, demonstrators listened to live music and speeches, many holding up banners and balloons demanding an immediate exit from coal energy.
“The mood is great,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Gesche Juergens, welcoming “the strong signal” sent by the court. “But it's only a first step. The battle goes on to start phasing out coal.”
The forest's days had appeared numbered after its owner RWE announced plans to clear half of the remaining 200 hectares (500 acres) from October 15 to expand its massive nearby open-pit coal mine.
Police last month began dismantling activists' treehouses in a forced eviction that took nearly three weeks and sparked widespread outrage and fanned support for the activists' cause.
In a second win for the forest occupiers on Friday, a separate court in Aachen overturned a police ban on Saturday's demonstration, saying it did not see any security concerns.
'They can't keep us down'
By midday, a police spokesman at the demo estimated the turnout at some 5,000 people.
Buoyed by both court decisions, activists said they were more determined than ever to save the forest even after police destroyed all 86 of their tree structures.
“We have already started rebuilding,” smiled forest occupier Musel, a dreadlocked man in his early 50s. “They can't keep us down.”
RWE on Friday said it believed a final judgement in the court case could take until late 2020, sending its share price plunging. RWE has long argued that the mine's expansion is necessary to fuel coal-fired power plants in the region — which are among the most polluting in the European Union.
But judges said RWE had not sufficiently proved that the logging work was urgently needed to ensure energy supply. They ruled that RWE could not create an “irreversible” situation in the forest while judges considered the case brought by environmental group BUND.
The plaintiffs argue that the forest is home to rare species like Bechstein's bat and qualifies as a protected area under EU legislation.