'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".
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.
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.
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."