Hambach Forest: The movement of the German energy policies of the future

2 Oct 2018

More than two weeks ago the official evictions of activists and demonstrators camping out in the Hambach Forest began. In these two weeks, the protest movement surrounding the planned deforestation of the Hambach Forest has become a symbol against open-pit lignite mining and for a new, progressive environmental policy. It is also gaining support every day. So, surprisingly, the Federal Government of Germany has so far been largely silent on this controversial issue.


The Hambach Forest, or what is left of it, is located between Cologne and Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany, and is owned by the RWE, an open-pit lignite mining company, which has been planning to clear the remaining parts of the forest to increase their lignite supply needed for the nearby power plant.


Of the original 4,100 hectares of forest, 3,900 hectares have already been cleared, so this struggle is about the remaining 200 hectares of the estimated 12,000-year-old forest, which is home to several strictly protected animal species and some rare tree types. For six years activists have been living in more than 70 self-made tree houses to protest against the clearing of the forest. The demonstrators are not only protesting for better environmental strategies, but also to protect their homeland from destruction.


On the first day of the forced police evacuation work, a human chain of 15 activists hindered the police from approaching. When the police broke through, they came to a tripod built from tree trunks to which two activists, called Cuca and Balto, were chained. They said: “We want to defend this forest, our weapon is our presence.”


All activists are aware of the dangers. Many of the three houses are built at a height of about 25 metres and can only be reached by hanging stairs, ladders or ropes. Freddy, sitting on a pallet ten metres above the ground, knows that “If [he] fall[s], it is over.”


Two weeks ago it happened. The first fatal accident.


A 27-year-old video blogger, who wanted to document the events in the forest and the lives of the activists, broke through some planks of a hanging bridge and died on the way to the hospital. This accident brought the evacuation work to a stand still for a few days. While the activists blamed the authorities and wrote on protest sheets, the NRW Minister of the Interior Herbert Reul (CDU) in turn blamed the activists for the accident, saying “the one who built the bridge is responsible for the accident.”


From Berlin? Nothing.


The silence from Berlin is surprising, as the events in the Hambach Forest are increasingly in the focus of international media. For many abroad and at home, this reflects the double standard of Germany’s environmental policy.


On the one hand, there is the Germany, which has been fighting for renewable energy for years and also actively supports the Paris climate agreements; on the other hand, there is also the Germany, which, despite large and far-reaching protests against the expansion of using lignite energy, allows such events to unfold. Many in the federal government are allegedly enthusiastic about environmental protection, but Germany is still one of the world’s largest coal producers.


This silence is particularly interesting because a coal commission has been working for some time on strategies for necessary restructuring on the nation’s way to abolish coal energy by 2030. The commission intends to make a detailed report available to the government at the end of 2018.


Scientists agree that Germany can withdraw from lignite-based energy by 2030. It is possible, but the will and action of politicians is still lacking. Experts do not see any danger for electricity supply following a withdrawal. Claudia Kamfert, an energy expert, says that the power plant at the Hambach Forest can still produce electricity, even if the 200 hectares of Hambach Forest are not cleared. She is certain that “Germany’s energy supply is secure, even if the Hambach Forest is preserved.”


A report by the Fraunenhofer-Forscher also shows, that clearing of the Hambach Forest is not necessary, as Germany still has more than enough lignite available until 2030. Of course, it is not just about electricity supply, but also about jobs. Kemfert says that the power plants will not be closed immediately and since four in five workers in the industry are already above 50-years-old, meaning this restructuring will not affect most of them anyway. "If the government hadn’t delayed the withdrawal from coal for years, we wouldn’t be in this situation," says Kemfert clearly. "The exit from coal is solely a question of political will," says Greenpeace energy expert. "The growing peaceful protest about the Hambach forest shows that many people finally expect effective steps from politics."


The protests have continued to grow since the beginning of the evacuation work. Sunday two weeks ago the first 'forest walk' took place with more than 500 people taking part. Last week it was over 5,000. Again and again new tree houses are found and even built and activists chain themselves to trees or even hide in underground tunnels to prevent heavier vehicles driving over the ground as many of the tunnels are in danger of collapsing.


On Sunday a further protest is planned at which even forester and author of the book Das Geheime Leben Der Bäume Peter Wohlleben and Green Party Bundestags member Anton Hofreiter are expected. The Green Party caused anger with their decision to move their Party conference on 7th October to the Hambach forest, saying, “we Greens want to set an example and support the peaceful protest.”


Reul struggled to understand this decision: “The Greens always demand that the police de-escalate and then they put the party conference there. I have know understanding for this. I hope they’ll reconsider that decision.”


Despite the major public uprisings, RWE CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz remains unyielding. “There is no chance to leave the forest standing”, Schmitz says - not even partially. A solution where only part of the forest is cleared seems to be technically impossible. “We need the earth under the rest of the forest to keep the embankment stable,” Schmitz said.


Clearing work was due to begin on October 1st, but due to a pending decision by the Münster Higher Administrative Court on the legality of the deforestation, RWE has halted the clearing until the 14th October. The evacuation work is coming to an end however, a police spokesperson in Aachen said. Activists still warn that there would still be some surprises in store for the police. “There are still a few hiding places that have not yet been discovered by the police and RWE,” said Kathrin Henneberg from the organisation Ende Gelände.


The evacuation of the forest was ordered by the provincial government, as the tree houses were declared illegal and not in accordance with current building regulations. The choice to evacuate the forest, after the tree houses and activists had been tolerated there for six years, was initiated under aspects of illegality. The connection to the planned deforestation by the RWE was however clear.


The Hambach Forest has become a symbol of environmental protection and the battle in the Hambach Forest developed into a battle for the energy supply of the future. From Berlin however, there is still only silence.



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