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Why is Tesla's expansion near Berlin so controversial?

Paul Krantz
Paul Krantz - [email protected]
Why is Tesla's expansion near Berlin so controversial?
Roughly 1,000 protestors joined the "Tesla, Nein Danke" (Tesla, No Thanks!), demonstration in Grünheide on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

US electric car company Tesla's plans to expand its Gigafactory near Berlin have become a heated point of contention. Following a large demonstration against Tesla's expansion on Sunday, The Local takes a look at why the project is opposed by a growing group of local residents and environmental activists.

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Around 1,000 protestors demonstrated against Tesla’s expansion plans in Grünheide near Berlin on Sunday. Organised by members of the ‘Tesla Stoppen’ initiative, activists gathered at Fangschleuse Bahnhof in the afternoon and marched to the front of Grünheide Town Hall.

The demonstration was peaceful but for a couple of skirmishes with counter protestors. The far-left Volcano Group, which claimed responsibility for starting a fire that cut power to the Tesla Gigafactory (and some nearby villages) last week, was not represented at the protest. 

Why stop Tesla?

Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide has been controversial from its start. Local residents and environmentalists voiced numerous concerns as the Gigafactory was being planned, but in the end Tesla was granted permission to build on its initial site by the Brandenburg government.

Now Tesla has announced plans to expand the site even further, proposing a project that would claim another 100 hectares of forest for an expanded freight yard, warehouses, and a company kindergarten.

For most citizens of Grünheide, what Tesla wants is too much. The proposal was put to a vote, and two-thirds of local residents voted against the expansion.

Then protestors moved into the forest, setting up camp in treehouses on the land that would be cleared by Tesla's proposed expansion. 

‘Tesla Stoppen’ supporters are calling on the local government to honour the citizens’ vote and officially block Tesla’s expansion. They name the protection of drinking water resources among their primary concerns. 

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“It's important that we protect the local water resources we have here,” Annika Fuchs, who spoke at Sunday's protest on behalf of the environmental group Robin Wood, told The Local. 

The Tesla Gigafactory is among the bigger water users in a region that has seen groundwater levels dropping due to drought in recent years. The factory has also exceeded pollution limits in its wastewater which is released into the River Spree.

According to reporting by The Telegraph, officials from the local water authority requested that Tesla’s wastewater line be closed after phosphorus and nitrogen levels in its wastewater were found to be six times greater than regulatory limits.

Tesla stoppen protestors

One protestor's sign translates to, "I recharge my battery in the forest." Members of the Tesla Stoppen initiative suggest that natural resources such as forests and groundwater are vitally important and should be protected from further development. Photo by Paul Krantz

'Tesla Stoppen' members also want to support the wishes of local residents, which they fear could be overlooked in future government decisions. Additionally, they aim to protect the forest in Grünheide, and raise awareness about the issues related to electric vehicle production.

“What we want to make clear here is that we cannot focus completely on e-mobility [as a climate solution],” said Fuchs, adding that further investment in public transportation infrastructure is what is really needed to create more sustainable and equitable mobility.

Nina Noblé, who attended Sunday’s protest along with Berlin Autofrei, agreed. “We stand for a city with less cars, and this includes electric vehicles,” she told The Local. “Their production and use still has negative climate impacts, they still take up public space, and they still hurt and kill people.”

Who are the activists occupying the forest near Tesla?

Tucked into a patch of forest between Fangschleuse Bahnhof and the Tesla Gigafactory, the 'Tesla Stoppen' protest camp is growing by the day. 

Seen on a quiet afternoon, the camp has an almost mystical quality. The ground is completely carpeted by fluffy green moss which muffles the sounds of hand saws and hammers floating through the forest.

During Sunday’s rally just a small group of activists hung back in the camp, some working on their treehouse shelters and others learning how to climb and repel in harnesses.

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By establishing treehouse structures where activists can stay suspended in the trees, they hope to block efforts by Tesla to fell the forest in the future, and also to make a forced eviction by the police very difficult.

Local police had previously said that the forest occupation in Grünheide was permitted until March 15th. If an extension is not granted, it’s possible that police could move to evict campers starting from Friday.

Some of the camp’s organisers are experienced in forest occupations, having previously participated in the actions at Hambach Forest or Lützerath, where determined activists used similar tactics to try and block the expansion of open pit coal mines in a battle that stretched out for years.

READ ALSO: 'We were never given the time to mourn': Activists continue fight for Hambach Forest

Tesla protestors climb trees in the forest

Two 'Tesla Stoppen' protestors practice their climbing skills in the Grünheide forest occupation on Sunday. Photo by Paul Krantz

“Normally it takes two or three days to build a platform in the trees. Maybe a week to add the walls and roof, and fix up the inside for living,” an activist named Sulti told The Local. Sulti says they’ve been involved in the climate movement in Germany since 2017 when they joined the Hambach Forest occupation. 

Asked if they expect to be removed from the forest forcefully, Sulti said, “I am staying here until Tesla is stopped.” They added that they do expect to be confronted by “the capitalist system”, in this case meaning police carrying out orders from state or municipal governments on behalf of Tesla.

Who are the counter protestors?

A group of a couple dozen counter protestors gathered in Grünheide in support of Tesla’s expansion on Sunday. 

Silas Heineken, who grew up nearby and currently attends the local high school, was among them. “We’re standing for an open dialogue…for trying to work this out together with Tesla,” Heineken told The Local.

But considering the two-thirds of Grünheide residents who already voted against Tesla’s expansion, it seems the open dialogue has already concluded.

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Members of the 'Tesla Stoppen' rally noted some concern about alt-right influences on counter protests. One woman holding a banner that read “Gegen Musk = Gegen Rechts” (against Musk = against the right) said she was worried that Elon Musk had far-right supporters in Germany.

In September 2023, Elon Musk took to his social media platform X to criticise the German government's handling of illegal migration and backed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

READ ALSO: Elon Musk slams German-funded migrants rescue med operations

Sunday’s protest did catalyse a couple skirmishes. In one instance an alt-right Youtuber was chased out of the crowd. According to DPA, police recorded five complaints during the event, including one against someone who was said to have shown the banned Hitler salute to a group of protestors.

But by and large the protest was peaceful. Counter protestors were vastly outnumbered, and some local pedestrians in Grünheide greeted protestors with smiles and waves.

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