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Forced relocation: A German village makes way for a mine

Mine expansion can have very human consequences. In western Germany, thousands of families are facing relocation as mines there are being expanded. DW was in the village of Pesch to meet one of them: the Hoffmanns.

The main street in the western German village of Erkelenz-Pesch

Erkelenz-Pesch is all but completely abandoned

Hans-Peter Hoffmann and his family have been living in the village of Erkelenz-Pesch for 26 years. Soon they will have to leave their home, once the expanding Garzweiler II open-cast mine has swallowed up their village.

The residents of Pesch and villages like it have the choice to either move away on their own, or to remain part of the village and be moved to a new, nearby location.

For the Hoffmann family, the decision to take part in the relocation process, though not pleasant, was an easy one.

A German family forced to relocate: the Hoffmanns

The Hoffmanns are hoping to be relocated soon

"We wanted to stay near our friends, mostly," says Hans-Peter. "And we also felt a strong bond to our community. But the process is taking so long. They told us five years ago that we would be relocated, and still we are waiting. Now most of our old neighbors and friends from Pesch have moved away to other places. And here we are - still waiting."

Gradual dilapidation

Hans-Peter and his wife say the most unpleasant part of their "relocation process" has been watching their home of Pesch - which they are proud to say was once an idyllic village with 250 inhabitants - slowly turn into a kind of ghost town.

"It's gotten really bad the last three years," says Hans-Peter's wife. "Pesch used to be clean and tidy. I used to love taking the dogs for a walk. But now where should I go? I don't want to look at the scoops and the trucks and how they're destroying our home. For 26 years I planted flowers here, but now what's the point. It's just no more fun."

A sign on the wall of a house - still inhabited - in Erkelenz-Pesch

"There are still people living here!"

The destruction of Pesch has already begun, though most of the houses are still standing. The abandoned properties no longer have house numbers, and the windows are boarded up with wooden and metal slabs.

On one of the houses, you can see a white sign with red and black lettering that reads: "There are people still living here - nothing is for free here!" The message is meant for the people who come to Pesch to scavenge and vandalize the abandoned houses - something that's been going on for years.

"At first, when the people started moving away, it wasn't so bad. But now, there are only a few families left here, and scavenging and vandalism became a real problem. They stole doors, windows, even things like copper wire and insulation. Now all the houses are boarded up, and the security vehicles that drive through here every night have scared them off."

The RWE electric power company, Germany's second largest electricity producer, pays for those security services, as it is the owner of the mine and therefore in charge of the resettlement process.

The Garzweiler II open-cast mine

Every other house in North Rhine-Westphalia gets its power from brown coal mined here

For the common good?

Erik Schroeddert, a senior manager at RWE responsible for the relocation of thousands of families like the Hoffmanns, says the situation is an unfortunate - yet necessary - consequence of Germany's energy needs.

"Brown coal has been mined in this region for close to a century. It is one of Germany's greatest energy sources; some say it's Germany's oil. The government broadly supports our operation because what we are doing is for the greater good. So with the public interest in mind, and a political consensus to back it up, it's natural that we must relocate these villages."

Erik Schroeddert, head of resettlements at the RWE power company

Schroeddert is in charge of relocating entire villages

Schroeddert's job is not just to relocate each individual family or household. It's to relocate entire villages and communities - square meter by square meter.

"The new location is normally never more than a few hundred meters, or a few kilometers, away from where the old village was. And the new village is literally made brand new," he said. "Every street, park, or other piece of property is there - just moved from one place to the other. And the entire process is based on agreement with the villages themselves. So, I think it's fair to say that we've succeeded in developing very attractive new locations."

Destruction has begun in Erkelenz-Pesch

Soon the old Pesch will become part of the new mine

Hope remains

Back in Pesch, however, and in many of the nearby villages also being relocated, the people themselves wouldn't exactly agree with Schroeddert's assessment.

Hans-Peter Hoffmann, for one, will tell you the process has been far from attractive.

"Sure, they'll argue that what they're doing is for the common good. But, honestly, what is the greater good or RWE doing for us? They're paying for our move as part of their 'compensation' package, but what about the emotional anguish we've suffered? There's no compensation for that. What about our children? They're starting to ask us: 'What's going to happen in the future?' My wife and I, too, want to know where this will all lead."

Despite their frustration with the present situation, however, the Hoffmanns say they still continue to hope. No longer for their old home of Pesch, but for a new Pesch, which is at least somewhat similar - and just a few kilometers down the road.

Author: Gabriel Borrud
Editor: Rob Turner

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