German energy giant clears climate protesters from Hambach forest

German energy giant clears climate protesters from Hambach forest
By Hans von der BrelieRobert Hackwill
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Central Europe's last primordial forest in Germany is about to be obliterated to dig up dirty and inefficient lignite coal, despite Berlin's trumpeted green credentials. Insiders talks to all sides of the story, but RWE refuses to comment.

Dawn is close as INSIDERS shadows a huge police operation around Hambach Forest, on the edge of Germany's biggest lignite opencast coal mine. Hundreds and hundreds of police are moving in. Their objective? To expel protesters.

A press card opens our way into the closed-off security zone. where climate activists have been under police siege. They are angry that the mine is about to expand.

This occupation is illegal, but the protesters don't care. They want to save Hambach forest, for sure, but these are no mere treehuggers; lignite is one of the filthiest fossil fuels, and disastrous for greenhouse gas emissions.

Police special forces with climbing expertise have been summoned to operate in the trees, where some 60 tree-top houses perch. The expulsion is slow work, as protesters have chained or strapped themselves to their wooden constructions.

One of the tree-house villages is called "Gaul". Protesters are barricaded inside. One young woman calls herself "Ghost".

"We are living in the tree tops, so they can not reach us. They can not clearcut the forest when it is full of people. Over there is a huge opencast pit. It's been getting bigger for 40 years. Now they even want to clearcut this last remaining woodland so that they can haul the lignite out of the ground beneath. But we don't need lignite any longer, we're in the midst of an energy revolution. We are not using violence, just sitting here. We are just in the trees and we hope to stay. But we don't use violence," she says.

I ask "Ghost" if I can join her. No way! But she pulls up our Go-Pro camera. Everyone here is prepared for a long siege. Having stored water and food, they will resist as long as they can.

A dozen people have been squeezed inside for the last 30 hours.

Just minutes after our chat with "Ghost", heavy machinery under police guard breaks through and cuts a way towards "Gaul". Ground-level supporters try to slow down the evacuation.

"Maybe it's covered by law what they are doing. But it is absurd. In Berlin right now politicians discuss the phasing-out of coal. We all know the end of coal is coming," says student Kai Neumann.

"It is unbelievable what is happening in Germany, these days. Supposedly we are the trailblazer in climate politics. This forest could have been the symbol to exit coal. But right now this forest is being destroyed right in front of our eyes. That's an absurdity, it cannot be," says another student, Julia Brinner.

4000 hectares of pristine forest have been clawed up, leaving gaping pits behind. After 40 years, the mine is still hungry.

Some 2000 police officers are taking part in the evacuation, labelled the biggest security operation ever in the Nordrhein-Westfalen region. Most occupiers opt for what they call civil disobedience. But some don't, we learn from Erhard Nimtz, spokesperson of Kerpen, a town right at the edge of the strip mining area.

"One evening, when we were leaving the forest, the police car we were travelling in was attacked by two hooded, masked persons throwing Molotov cocktails, and they exploded," he says.

The regional government issued warnings that protests could become violent. Indeed, a warning shot was fired by police, after several masked people attacked them with stones.

"Well, ditches have been dug here all around and barricades are up to slow police cars down. The forest occupiers prepared themselves well," reports euronews' Hans von der Brelie. "I will try to have a talk with them, so I'm heading off to Beech Town, one of, I was told, seven treetop villages around here. Let's hit the forest trail."

But we get lost, ending up in "Cosy Town", which sounds more like a childrens' TV show than a radical bunker. Yet a group of masked people order us to stop filming. We need to gain their trust, and finally the "Cosy Town" community greenlights our INSIDERS filming. Some of the activists have lived here for six years, sleeping in treehouses up to 25 meters above the ground.

"Shiva" joined about a year ago. Her high-altitude "Moon-House" is not easy to evacuate.

Shiva has doubts about democracy. The concept of equal power-sharing, representation and participation does not work out well, she believes. Has she participated in acts of sabotage? She won't answer. But she is ready to speak with us about violence, red lines and illegality.

"RWE is a huge energy company with a lot of money. They just go for the coal and the cash. What we are doing here is against the law. It's a fight using illegal means, not respecting the laws. This site, this land, belongs to RWE. It should have been declared a nature sanctuary, but they bought it. When you damage a power shovel you get the same sentence as if attacking a human being. That's not right, things should be separated. Vandalizing some of those damned machines, that's not violence. But I would never use violence against a living creature or against a human being," she insists.

Her voice is measured and her dark eyes maintain direct contact. While elsewhere in the forest the police speeds up the evacuation, she offers us tea.

Shiva still remembers the moment when she decided to join "Cosy Town". It happened when she stood overlooking the opencast pit.

"I just saw a vast expanse of dead land. Horrifying, like a moonscape. And on the horizon, coal-fired power plants lined up. I saw the smog streaming from the chimneys, a smoggy fog floating through the air, and I was shocked, I could almost feel the absence of clean air. Then I turned around and saw this gorgeous forest, full of sounds, full of life, full of chirping, chirruping, twittering birds, full of wind moving everything, full of harmony, full of colours. I still get goose bumps when I remember this very moment, it was"

INSIDERS | Germany's coal stand-off - Part 1

At the opencast pit itself we are told stopping the strip mining comes at a price. RWE, one of Germany's energy majors, insists on going ahead with lignite extraction, as leaving Hambach's coal underground would cost four to five billion euros.

"This opencast pit is truly a massive hole, and is set to expand to 85 square kilometers. We had a confirmed interview appointment with RWE, but it's just been cancelled. What a pity. Anyway, RWE has some good arguments on their side, too: 21,000 jobs are still directly linked to coal, all over Germany. In this region there are 10,000 coal jobs. That can't be ignored. On the other hand there is environmental destruction and the CO2 problem," says Hans von der Brelie.

The main pro-coal argument made by RWE is about securing a reliable energy supply. Coal power plants deliver electricity to energy-intensive industries around the clock, whereas solar and wind power are not always available.

But visitors we meet at the strip mine's viewing platform are in favour of quick and far-reaching structural changes, and that's an opinion most Germans hold.

"We are wasting the lives of our upcoming generations. There is a problem of responsability. Those who continue lignite extraction are shirking theirs," says one woman.

Phasing out nuclear power and coal at the same time could create a serious problem in terms of stable year-round energy supply say some researchers. Wrong, say others. Germany can shoulder both at the same time.

"You need endless trainloads of this lignite to meet energy needs, as it's the poorest-quality fossil fuel. Somehow it's a joke: Germany pretends to be at the cutting-edge of climate protection, but this does not match with the figures. Some 37% of German electricity is still generated by burning coal. And that's the reason why Germany does NOT meet its climate targets," says Hans von der Brelie.

The village of Morschenich will also be razed to the ground - just like the forest. In 2024 Morschenich will be part of history. Some two-thirds of the residents already have already left.

But there is a surprise: quite a few locals here around like lignite. Petra Heller is the widow of a RWE worker, and she's proud of her lignite oven.

"If we exited coal overnight, this would destroy all the jobs linked to coal. Just imagine what is going to happen to all those families with children. It is not just about the environment. The question is what is going to happen to all the children, if hundreds, if thousands of fathers lose their work," she says.

The question is, should coal be unplugged quickly or should there be a long transition period?

"You cannot unplug coal overnight. You simply just cannot unplug a country of our size overnight. Just saying "let's switch completely to green energy" will not work out," says another resident, Michel Felten.

His neighbour Bianca Bielmann agrees:

"It won't work. All these huge industrial companies around here need cheap coal energy produced by RWE. If today RWE decided to turn it off, tomorrow we would all be sitting in the dark. That's a fact. Alternative energy concepts are not advanced enough, yet," she says.

"As long as coal, the "black gold" is here beneath us, it should be brought up in order to keep everything around here going. That's my opinion," says Petra Heller, another resident.

RWE's infrastructure gets vandalized, transformers burnt, lignite trains damaged, and cars and machinery attacked. But a local shepherd is also angry with the climate activists. He had some real trouble recovering his sheep one day.

"I use an electric fence, and they have stolen the battery and control box when it was turned off. And they have cut my fences. They are sick, professional criminals. They cut 10 of my fences, each fence is 50 meters long, and every single fence was cut at least three times, some of them even four or five times," grumbles Wendelin Schwartz.

INSIDERS | Germany's coal stand-off - Part 2

At the weekend groups of protesters from all over the region converge towards Hambach forest, playing cat and mouse with the police, who try to kettle them, or worse.

"We crossed the street and started running. I ran on the other side of the crash barrier. The police then jumped over the barrier and one policeman hit me from above, with his truncheon, while running," claimed one protester.

Buir train station is one whistle stop from the mine and close to the forest. Most people participating in the demonstration stick to the officially approved route, at least in the beginning.

Michael Zobel is the organiser of these Sunday Hambach Forest Walks.

"For decades, this company, Rheinbraun, today it's called RWE, built up an incredibly far-reaching network reaching out deep into politics, into the media, into trade unions. It's difficult to fight back. Have a look at their propaganda, it doesn't match with the real facts. Germany wants to fix a coal exit timeline by the end of this year. A real challenge. But at least you should freeze logging and they should stop razing villages until they have got their exit agenda. We have to put an end to this destruction of our livelihood," he says.

When Zobel started his Sunday Walks a few years ago, some 50 people joined him. The regional government's evacuation order transformed the walk into a demonstration. Now some 6000 protesters are marching.

"We are protesting against coal-mining. Coal-mining is the most shitty way to produce electric energy, it has the most CO2 emissions. Today we are planting new trees in the forest to extend the forest - instead of killing it," says protester Manuel Stratmann.

We went looking for Martin Kaiser, the head of Greenpeace Germany. He's part of the very official "coal commission" - a high-level consultative body created earlier this year by the Berlin government.

Pro-coal voices and coal opponents, politicians and experts argue around a table to find a compromise on the exact exit timeline. The government expects them to hand over a timed proposal by the year's end.

"Chancellor Merkel has promised to reduce CO2 emissions by 2020. The German target is 40 percent less CO2 compared to 1990, but we are way off," says Kaiser. "All those European countries still burning coal should unplug their coal power plants by the end of 2030. For Germany that means that half of the coal-power plants have to be turned off by 2020, and the remaining ones by 2030."

Also present is Antje Grothus. She is at the head of a NGO gathering the concerns of locals living close to the opencast pit. Chancelor Merkel appointed her to be a member of the "coal commission" too.

"Germany had a good start in alternative energies, but then the politicians lost courage. Why? The coal lobby is very strong in Germany, it's frightening. Companies such as RWE are extremely powerful. I experience this myself: there are attempts to blow up this coal commission from outside. Of course, RWE does not want us to find a compromise. We all know, sustainable jobs are jobs related to renewable energies, not those related to coal. And: we should handle energy more efficiently. We should use less energy," she says.

Approaching Hambach forest, a handful of protesters split away from the authorized demonstration route and try to break through the police lines.

They want to join the forest occupiers and delay the evacuation and destruction of the tree-top villages even more.

Germany aims to raise wind and solar power's share of energy generation from a third now to 65 percent by 2030.

Two out of three Germans are in favour of phasing out coal. They believe that stopping coal will foster German modernisation.

"Today we had... well, what is it called?... a demonstration. And we participated in it. And right now we planted some trees. Initially we wanted to plant them inside Hambach forest. But now we planted them right here," says the young daughter of a protester, Johanna, already aware that it's her future at stake.

"Lignite was necessary, once upon a time, it would be wrong to demonize it completely. But today, we have alternatives. We should move on, dismantle the old and build up the new. I am not saying that everything should get unplugged overnight. But it makes sense to copy-paste the nuclear energy phase-out for coal and, at the same time, boost alternative energies," says another protester. Another, Biene, agrees that history is on their side.

"This forest has existed for some 12,000 years and because of lignite extraction it will be clearcut. The forest will be the victim of an outdated energy concept that will not last for long."

The Hambach Forest conflict kicked off a still-ongoing movement: now every Sunday huge numbers of people are coming out to demonstrate - not just to save the woods of Hambach, not just here around the opencast pit. They are demonstrating all over Germany to put an end to dirty coal energy, to put an end to climate change, and to speed up energy transition.

The end of coal is coming closer.

INSIDERS | Germany's coal stand-off - Part 3

Sad news reached us shortly after we filmed this report. A young man fell to his death from a rope bridge between two treehouses, a journalist and blogger working closely with the forest occupiers, trying to document their point of view.

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