Coal clash

RWE getting tired of activists' Hambach Forest occupation

hambach forest occupation, police
The more you know. Source: DPA

Police on Thursday entered the Hambach Forest in western Germany to eject activists who have been living in improvised tree houses for years. The 12,000-year-old woodland has become a symbol in German environmentalists’ fight against coal. Energy giant RWE wants to expand its open-pit mining for brown coal, or lignite, even as Germany hopes to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.

The share of renewable energy used in Germany is now at 35 percent, but coal power currently still accounts for 40 percent. RWE, Germany’s largest electrical utility, relies exclusively on conventional fuels including coal, gas and nuclear.

The utility’s open-pit mining will require razing half of the remaining Hambach Forest after ejecting the more than 250 activists living in the trees. RWE CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz and environmental groups met in Essen on Monday in hopes of de-escalating the conflict in Hambach but were unable to reach any kind of agreement.

Afterward, in a statement, RWE said it offered to push back the forest clearing date to Dec. 15, which the environmentalists refused to accept, so it remained scheduled for Oct. 14 but the city of Kerpen on Thursday said it was kicking the activists out because their improvised structures weren’t permitted and lacked the proper safety equipment.

Police in Aachen reported on Wednesday that a number of masked people came out of the forest and threw stones at officers, who then fired a warning shot in the air. On Monday, unknown people had thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at police and a utility worker. Aachen’s chief of police said seven officers have been injured on the ground in Hambach in the last few weeks, one seriously.

The activists said in a statement it is clear who bears the responsibility for the violent conflicts in and around the Hambacher Forest: RWE and the North Rhine-Westphalia police. A journalist on the scene said they did not see any broken bottles like would be left over from a Molotov cocktail, calling the police report into doubt.

“While not everyone involved in the struggle for forest conservation and an immediate coal exit agrees with the militant tactics of some autonomous activists, it is obvious that a wide variety of resistance tactics are invaluable, and not only legitimate but necessary for the preservation of the Hambach Forest,” the activists wrote.

hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
Bunny business Occupy Wald Street As the Hambach Forest occupation has gained more attention, activists from all over Europe have come to North Rhine-Westphalia, some of them more radical than others. Source: DPA
hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
Bird's eye view The forest in question RWE wants to clear 100 of the remaining 200 hectares of the forest to expand its open-pit mining of brown coal, which it says is necessary to meet its short-term energy goals. Source: DPA
hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
Police action A forest clearing Since last week, police have begun clearing out barricades and ground structures. Activists have been accused of throwing rocks at RWE workers and their police escorts. Source: DPA
hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
The protesters Resistance from above Activists have been living in tree houses in the Hambach Forest for years, and are getting support from environmental organizations as well as religious and local groups. Source: DPA
hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
The supporters A different drum RWE has set the date for razing the forest for Oct. 14. Until then, supporters are organizing vigils and protests in Hambach and in nearby cities. Source: DPA
hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
Powerful friends Inside the camps Top members of Germany's Green Party have voiced their support for the Hambach occupation. A blurry Anton Hofreiter, co-chair of the Greens in parliament, visited the camps last week. Source: DPA
hambach forest occupation, rwe coal mining
What's next? The waiting game Both sides are worried about the conflict escalating, but neither RWE or the environmentalists are backing down. Source: DPA

Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace, who is also part of a coal commission in Berlin, said RWE’s insistence on razing the forest makes any kind of compromise impossible.

The coal commission is determining how Germany should reduce its reliance on the traditional energy source in favor of renewable energy. By the end of this year, the coal commission, composed of political, industry, academic and community representatives, will set a target date for Germany’s coal exit. The activists want RWE to wait to clear the forest until the plan is revealed. “The future is not coal, it is trees,” Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a Green party leader said in a general debate of the German parliament Wednesday.

RWE says clearing the forest is needed for it to meet coal energy needs in the next two years; it has nothing to do with the long-term goal of Germany’s coal exit. The company’s statement pointed out it has planted more than 10 million trees in the Rhineland area. But if Germany does phase out coal production in the next few decades, is it worth felling 50- and 150- and 250-year-old trees now?

Only 200 hectares remain of the ancient forest that was once more than 4,000. To get to the Hambach Forest, you first have to take a commuter train to Buir, a small town midway between Cologne and Aachen. From there it’s about a half hour by bike into the woods.

A number of demonstrations and vigils are planned through the rest of September in hopes of saving the Hambach Forest. Police have increased patrols of the forest perimeter and started screening passengers at the train station in Buir. Tools and knives are being confiscated. Police started clearing out barricades and ground structures from the forest last Thursday, which activists described as Day X, sending out a cry for help in the final days of their days in the woods.

Handelsblatt’s Jürgen Flauger contributed to this report. Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author:

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