Stay or go: villagers against big coal
December 30, 2021
In western Germany, right on the edge of the Garzweiler 2 open-cast coal mine, lie LÃ¼tzerath and Immerath – two 12th-century villages that will be threatened with destruction if energy giant RWE is able to carry out its mine expansion plans. But a community of local residents and climate activists won’t let them go without a fight.
Despite Germany’s relatively green reputation, the country still depends on coal to generate around a quarter of its electricity needs. About half of its coal supply is mined nationally from surface lignite, or “brown” coal mines.
RWE started as a municipal energy supplier in the nearby city of Essen, but has since grown into a multinational giant. Its website boasts of its efforts to shift to more renewable energy production, but it remains a leader in coal mining in Germany, the lignite capital of the world.
The use of lignite is exceptionally harmful to the environment and to human health. It produces the most carbon and sulfur pollution, per unit of energy, compared to any other type of coal.
RWE extracts 100 million tonnes of lignite each year from the so-called Rhine area. To put that into perspective, if one were to take the coal mined in a single day’s work and load it directly into freight trucks, those trucks would stretch for 250 kilometers in a single line.
Huge bucket shovels, among the largest land vehicles on the planet, are the key to this job. Their giant spinning wheels have tooth-shaped buckets placed around the rim that dig into the ground and scrape loads of dirt the size of a dump truck with each spin.
The next generation
Garzweiler 2 is separated from the first shaft of the Garzweiler mine by a highway. At 48 square kilometers, it’s hard to describe how massive the mine looks from the small village of LÃ¼tzerath.
RWE intends to expand it further and has announced plans to evict and destroy seven other villages. In some of these places, residents have already left after agreeing to RWE’s buyouts for their homes and land. Some have since moved into one of the many new settlements in the surrounding areas, for example named âNew LÃ¼tzerathâ, as a direct replacement for the old villages that will be destroyed.
Yet a few determined residents have turned down RWE’s offers, including farmer Eckardt Heukamp whose land is now directly at the edge of the pit. For Heukamp, ââthe mine’s expansion threatens the only life he knows.
In an attempt to defend his land, Heukamp sued RWE, challenging the expropriation law the company has used to depopulate dozens of villages over the past decades. As legal battles continue, he has temporarily granted use of his land to climate activists who have built a rather entrenched resistance camp named Lutzi over the past year.
“I hope that this protest and this camp will make possible a climate justice movement that is anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and criticizing the national state – this has been my goal since the year I have been here,” said Florian Ãzcan.
An allied group called âAlle DÃ¶rfer Bleibenâ (All Villages Remain) joined forces at the camp. They’ve set up a vigil at one of its entrances and there is constantly a small group of locals watching and sharing the cafe. Many members of Alle DÃ¶rfer Bleiben live there and grew up in the area. Some have already been evicted from their family home and others are hanging on in the hope that theirs will be saved again.
The rising generation of climate activists are also in Lutzi, many of whom were inspired by youth organizations such as Fridays for Future, Greenpeace or the anti-charcoal civil disobedience movement Ende GelÃ¤nde.
“I think this place gives people the opportunity to learn, in a friendly way, that self-organization is possible”
The resistance here has succeeded in creating an impressive intentional community. A huge outdoor kitchen prepares vegetarian meals which are distributed for free, three times a day, to hundreds of campers. Others are building more and more treehouses and structures that serve as shelters, meeting places, press tents and cafes. There are maintained toilets, sinks with drinking and washing water, a bicycle repair stand, space for restorative justice processes, and a huge circus tent where morning meetings and workshops take place. Everything is run entirely through the work of volunteers, and the majority of food and materials used are donated or purchased with donated funds.
âI think this place gives people the opportunity to learn, in a friendly way, that self-organization is possible,â zcan said.
Same story, another mine
Unfortunately, evicting villagers and digging large tracts of land for charcoal is nothing new in this region. About 20 kilometers to the south is the Hambach surface mine and what remains of the Hambach Forest.
Once covering over 5,260 hectares, it was one of the few places in Germany where oak trees and hornbeam still grew. In 1992, when the European Union adopted the Habitats Directive – a law intended to protect 200 endangered plant and animal species – 13 of these species were identified in the Hambach Forest, including several bats, an endangered mouse. vanishing (ironically called the common dormouse), a pair of toads and the agile frog.
That should have been enough to stop the expansion of the Hambach mine indefinitely. Yet RWE has successfully argued that its award of mineral rights in 1978 replaced the Habitats Directive.
Where German courts failed to protect the Hambach Forest, a resistance movement began to build up. As RWE’s excavators went deeper into the forest, an increasing number of climate activists and forest advocates came to Hambach. They have occupied the forest from 2012, building treehouses on top of the tallest trees and living there throughout the logging season every year to try to stop RWE from cutting down the trees.
“If the court rules against us, I’m sure there will be thousands here, because we know that an economic system that cannot respond to the climate crisis has no future.”
The move continued to gain media attention and became a public relations nightmare for RWE. Finally, in 2018, the mine’s expansion into the forest came to a halt.
“It was the first major insurgency against the climate crisis in Germany,” said Indigo, an activist involved in the forest occupation. “It gave a lot of people hope.”
Although this success marked a turning point for the coal resistance movement in Germany, it was a bittersweet victory. A meager 10 percent of Hambach’s forested area remains intact.
Many founders of the Lutzi camp met as part of the Hambach Forest Resistance.
A glimmer of hope
Now the race is on to prevent Garzweiler 2 from expanding. As late as September 2021, the general feeling was that further expansion of the mine was inevitable, but the resistance then received a boon in the form of a newly elected German federal government. The German conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, now retired, failed to win for the first time in 16 years, giving way to socialist, green and libertarian parties to form a new coalition.
This coalition agreed to phase out the use of coal for energy by 2030 – a significant leap from the CDU’s previous commitment which set the target year at 2038.
RWE said it would have no problem complying with the 2030 mandate. “A rapid exit from coal is possible,” a company spokesperson said, stressing the importance of simultaneously expanding sources of coal. renewable energy and appropriate infrastructure. Yet RWE appears determined to continue mining coal for the next eight years.
North Rhine-Westphalia environmentalists have already taken action to save five endangered villages, but LÃ¼tzerath’s fate is at stake.
âAt the start of the negotiations, I was told that it was totally unrealistic to include even a word about the villages in the coalition agreement. But we persevered and were able to save the homes of 491 people, âsaid Kathrin Henneberger, a new green member of the German parliament.
“About LÃ¼tzerath, the courts will decide”, they can read in the newspapers of the coalition.
By the end of January 2022, a verdict is expected on whether Heukamp will be allowed to keep his farmland or forced to cede it to RWE. The company said there would be “no land clearing, tree cutting, house demolition for lignite mining in LÃ¼tzerath” until then.
Meanwhile, camp activists are calling for support to stop a possible destruction in January.
– I don’t know what to expect, said Indigo. “But if the court rules against us, I’m sure there will be thousands here, because we know that an economic system that cannot respond to the climate crisis has no future.”
It remains to be seen whether German courts will actively block RWE and set a precedent to stop destructive projects to mitigate climate change. In LÃ¼tzerath, one thing is certain, if RWE intends to continue expanding the mine, it can expect resistance.
Paul Krantz is an American freelance journalist living in Berlin, Germany. He has written for Deutsche Welle and other publications and has a keen interest in environmental justice.
Leonard Frick is a German journalist based in Berlin who currently works for Handelsblatt and as an independent. He wrote for SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung and Watson. He is interested in human life and everything that surrounds him.
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