The struggle to defend a 200-hectare forest has sparked Germany’s biggest environmental protests for at least a decade.
The Hambacher Forest (aka “Hambi”) is the last remaining corner of a much larger area of woodland that has been eaten up by a huge open-cut lignite mine, owned by European energy giant RWE.
Lignite is the dirtiest form of coal in terms of pollution. The lignite-fired power stations around the mine form the biggest sources of airborne pollution in the European Union.
The mine currently covers an area of more than 85 square kilometres. In recent months, several churches have been destroyed in communities earmarked for demolition by the mine.
The remaining part of the Hambacher Forest has been occupied for the past six years by environmental activists living in tree houses.
The German federal government recently established its so-called “Coal Commission” to find a way to phase out the country’s remaining coalmines. This was established to help fulfill its obligations under the Paris Agreement.
But at the start of September, RWE announced its intention to cut down the remaining trees, without waiting for the Coal Commission to finish its deliberations.
Herbert Reul, the interior minister of North-Rhein Westphalia (NRW), the state where Hambi is located, then declared the tree-house occupations illegal “on fire safety” grounds — and mobilised police to evict protestors. Reul, well known for his pro-fossil fuel lobbying activity, is still on the payroll of an RWE subsidiary company.
Hambi defenders have used the eviction attempts to mobilise supporters from around the country to come to the forest. Up to 10,000 people have been involved in peaceful direct actions in and around the forest, confronted by about 2000 police in full riot gear with armoured vehicles and water cannon.
A recent survey put national support for the protests and preservation of the forest at about 75%. More than half a million people have signed a petition calling on the national government to intervene to protect the forest.
However, the labour movement is decidedly split on the issue. The NRW branch of the United Services Union has publicly called for a stop to evictions and further destruction of the forest.
Meanwhile, the miners’ union IG BCE is firmly on the side of the energy company, regarding the expansion of the mine as a way of securing jobs.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD), at both state and federal level, has been indifferent towards the struggle to save the forest.
The once-radical German Green Party has consistently supported a rapid phase-out of coal to meet Germany’s Paris Agreement commitments and avoid further catastrophic climate change. However, the party lacks serious credibility with the unions. Its concentration on parliamentary activity means it is seen by the new wave of climate activists as being almost irrelevant to their struggles.
But paradoxically, thanks to its bloody-minded intransigence, RWE has provided the German environmental movement with the shot in the arm that it has been sorely missing in recent years.
Solidarity actions have been taking place throughout the country, as well as abroad, and are being led by radical direct action groups such as Ende Gelaende, an explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-fossil fuel coalition movement.
Things came to a head recently when a young environmental journalist fell from a tree and died during police operations. In spite of a self-declared “moratorium” on further evictions by the NRW government as a mark of respect, police returned to continue evictions within a few days.
A nationwide demonstration is planned for October 6, and resistance looks set to continue throughout the coming month.
[Follow developments on social media at #HambiBleibt or #HambacherForst or visit hambachforest.org and ende-gelaende.org/en/.]