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Hambach Forest: Police clearing treehouses again

September 16, 2018

Police have resumed efforts to clear treehouses in Hambach Forest. It comes after thousands on Sunday demonstrated against energy giant RWE's plan to fell more trees to expand its coal mine there.

Protest camps in Hambacher Forst
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Police have started clearing treehouses from Hambach Forest again, a woodland area between the western cities of Cologne and Aachen. A spokeswoman said 28 out of some 50 treehouses had been cleared and 19 of those dismantled.

On Sunday, police detained 14 environmental activists hidden in trees and tunnels  in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Authorities have faced stiff resistance from  protesters occupying the Hambach Forest since last week, when the first forced evictions began. Several activists chained themselves to tree trunks or holed themselves up in treehouses to protest against plans to expand one of Europe's largest coal mines.

Sunday saw some of the fiercest demonstrations yet, as some 4,000 activists marched towards the woodland between Cologne and Aachen. Some activist groups said the number of protesters could be as high as 9,000.

Hambach forest standoff

While authorities have quietly tolerated the activists' occupation of the Hambach Forest since 2012, protests have come to head in recent days, after authorities ordered the woods to be cleared immediately, citing fire hazards. 

German energy giant RWE, which owns the land, also announced it plans to begin clearing half of the forest's remaining 200 hectares (500 acres) of woodlands from mid-October.

Energy impasse

RWE intends to expand its open-pit lignite mine, which is already the largest in Europe. Each year, it produces some 40 million tons of lignite — a brown, low-grade coal considered to be one of the most polluting fossil fuels.

Read more: Protesters raise spirits of treehouse dwellers

RWE owns the land and is legally allowed to cut down the trees during the annual logging season. The energy giant insists the clearing is necessary to meet Germany's immediate energy needs. Germany continues to remain heavily reliant on coal, partly to offset Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2011 to phase out nuclear power by 2022.

Environmental activists, meanwhile, condemned the ongoing use of polluting fuel and warned the pit expansion would threatened several protected species and the forest's centuries-old beech and oak trees.

Read more: How far is Germany from a complete coal exit?

Hambach forest to be cleared for coal mining: Claudia Kemfert (DIW) speaks to DW

Energy exit dates adds to fuel to dispute

Activists' hopes were raised after German weekly Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that a government-appointed energy committee had drawn up plans to close the last remaining coal-fired power plants between 2035 and 2038.

The environmental group Greenpeace demanded that RWE and authorities halt all evacuations until the commission's findings are officially unveiled. "Perhaps the Hambach forest will no longer have to be cleared," said Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace's managing director in Germany and a member of the committee.

The committee is due to present its strategy for phasing out coal energy by the end of the year.

However, several lawmakers and industry figures distanced themselves from the Spiegel report, adding that an unconfirmed timetable would have no bearing on events in the Hambach Forest.

Read more: The end of an era: hard coal in Germany

North Rhine-Westphalia's Economy Minister, Andreas Pinkwart from the Free Democrats, told the DPA news agency that the committee still had a lot of work ahead. "It is therefore all the more incomprehensible that prospective exit dates are being mentioned at such an early point in time," he said.

Michael Vassiliadis, head of the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industries Union, warned that if committee chair Ronald Pofalla already began entertaining potential exit dates, "he will negligently undermine the delicate trust that forms the basis this group."

Even the leader of the Green party's parliamentary group Anton Hofreiter warned that "preliminary decisions and secret agreements will make the committee's work unnecessarily difficult."

ng, dm/rg (dpa, AFP, AP)

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