6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?
Activists have uprooted their lives to save a German forest from being sacrificed to a gigantic coal mine. Now, German police are overseeing the clearing of the Hambach forest as the plans for mining go ahead.
At the heart of Europe, in western Germany, near the border to France and Belgium, a scrap of ancient forest holds thousand-year-old trees along with abundant wildlife. But there's another species living there in the forest as well — our own.
Life among the treetops
About 150 people currently live in what's left of Hambach forest, many in makeshift tree houses. Although living in a tree house may appear idyllic, many of the environmental activists have uprooted their lives for the better part of six years — living without electricity and running water — to protect the forest, and take a stance against the power of the fossil fuel industry.
Several hundred police officers accompanied RWE workers for protection as they visited the forest on Wednesday, September 5, to expel the protesters in preparation for clearing. Although the operation was mostly peaceful, one activist was arrested after resisting police.
Activists joke about their "dangerous weapons," such as an empty fire extinguisher. Just days before the police action on September 5, Herbert Reul, the interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, warned that police and RWE staff in the Hambach forest were dealing with "extremely violent left-wing extremists." Members of the protest group have denied Reul's description.
Not the first forest confrontation
Over the years, police have clashed with protesters in the Hambach forest. In 2017, police employed pepper spray to disperse protesters in advance of planned logging. The looming eviction is likely to result in the largest confrontation there yet.
Trees for coal
Here is the result of a recent RWE clearing campaign, which ran from October 2016 to March 2017. In the background, the smokestacks of the Niederaussem power station can be seen. With a CO2 output of more than 29 million tons yearly, this is Europe's third-dirtiest power plant. Due to massive toxic emissions such as mercury and sulfur, it is also considered Germany's second-most-toxic power plant.
'Critical turning point' for climate policy
"Clumsy" has lived among the treetops in the Hambach forest since the resistance against the RWE coalmine project began in 2012. He believes the battle over the forest is a critical turning point for German climate policy, and the government's decision is one between "giving in to the lignite hardliners, [or] protecting our life support basis on this planet."
Small forest with big stakes
Only about 10 percent of the once sprawling Hambach forest has survived the mine's onslaught. What's left appears miniscule in comparison to the vast expanse of the mine, which already covers about 85 square kilometers (33 square miles). But environmentalists say the forest holds enormous ecological value, and is home to abundant and biodiverse ecology, including endangered animal species.
Ever-hungry coal industry
The Hambach mine, located between Aachen and Cologne, is Germany's largest open-cast mine. Here, RWE uses enormous excavators to extract brown coal, also known as lignite, from the earth. Lignite is among the fossil fuels that emit the most carbon dioxide when burned. What remains of Hambach forest is the last bastion in a long battle against the expansion of the mine.
Save the forest, save the world
Environmental activists have undertaken nonviolent resistance against the RWE coal mine expansion for more than six years. Through their actions, they claim to not only want to save the Hambach forest from destruction, but also send a message to the world about the dangerous consequences of prioritizing fossil fuel extraction over important ecological sites.
Activists from all over the world have supported the action by staying for days or weeks at a time. Over the past six years, activists have literally built up an alternative community within the forest. Although it is still unclear what exactly will happen in the struggle between the protesters and the fossil fuel giant, potential eviction is an ever-present possibility for the forest dwellers.