The occupations and protests at Hambach Forest in Germany are a global flashpoint for the climate movement

Hambach Forest was a 12,000 year old, 5,500 hectare behemoth, but over the last 40 years 90% of it has been cut down for coal mining. Rich in biodiversity, the sliver of forestland left is still home to 142 types of birds and 13 protected species.

Hambach Forest, or rather its remains, are due to be cut down in order to expand the world’s biggest opencast coal mine, run by the German energy giant RWE. In an emergency ruling a couple of weeks ago, a German court stayed the clearing of Hambach Forest temporarily to investigate claims the clearing will endanger protected species, but it’s unclear how much time this will buy the forest and the protesters that live in it.

Since 2012, activists have been camping in the trees and woodlands of Hambach forest, obstructing annual clearing operations by the energy corporation. However, after RWE’s announcement in September their ranks swelled. As repeated police and private security operations attempted to clear their camps and treehouses, 7,000 people came to the forest in protest on 23 September, far exceeding the expected turnout of 2,000. And then over 50,000 came last Saturday in what organisers describe as one of the largest events of its kind the region had ever seen, despite a police ban on protest.

German police prepare to evict climate activists. Photo: Hambacher Forst/Flickr

This may seem like a dispute centred around protecting a local forest, in a nation which otherwise has a very green reputation, but it is anything but. In reality Germany mines and burns a lot of coal, the worst fossil fuel responsible for a third of the entire world’s annual emissions. Germany doesn’t just mine and burn coal, but also lignite coal - the dirtiest of them all. In fact Germany mines the most lignite coal in the world, and German lignite-burning plants make up seven out of ten of Europe’s worst polluting facilities, with thanks to RWE.

RWE is the 45th largest corporation of any type in Europe, and is heavily dependent on coal mines and plants of all kinds throughout Germany. The vast majority of RWE’s power generation is from hard and lignite coal (70%) compared to a shred of power (3.1%) that it generates from renewables. Apart from being the operator of Hambach surface mine, RWE runs several other coal mines and plants in the Rhinelands alone, as well as the UK’s dirtiest power station, Aberthaw power station.

Clearing out the remains of an ancient forest is how RWE flexes its power. This is because it's widely believed that expanding the coal mine over what's left of the forest isn't actually necessary for another two to three years. Then why did RWE bring forward this scheduled expansion? It’s likely because Germany’s federal government convened a “Coal Exit Commission”, due to report at the end of the year, is widely expected to tell the government to phase out coal completely.

A barricade put up by activists to stop RWE and police vehicles. Photo: Infoletta Hambach/Flickr

Did RWE intentionally start its forest clearing early to make it less likely the coal commission would prevent it? The expansion is clearly of paramount importance to the company, with the chief executive saying recently that any halt to the expansion would cost the company $5.9 billion, almost half its market capitalisation. Judging by how important the expansion is to RWE’s profitability, such a motive is probable.

This is what protestors of the forest clearing are calling ‘creating facts on the ground’. With expansion already underway it will make profits a greater certainty for RWE whatever the outcome of the commission.

This, along with RWE’s corporate giant status, perhaps goes some way to explaining why police and private security have been so violently uprooting protestors protecting the forest. Activists have reported numerous instances of police brutality, from beatings, attacks with vehicles, pepper spraying, broken bones, and threats of rape. In one case, police even drew guns on activists bringing in supplies for the camps.

The Hambach Surface Mine, the largest opencast coal mine in the world. Photo: Rens Spanjaard

What makes Hambach forest an issue of wider concern than just Germany’s emissions targets, or saving a unique and biodiverse habitat, or protecting the right to protest from a violent police force, is the grave context of climate breakdown this is happening in.

Germany’s emissions reductions targets were agreed as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, which limits global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, with an aim to keep it to no more than 1.5 degrees. These aren’t arbitrary numbers, it could be the difference between 50cm of sea level rise and 10m.

If warming is to continue as it is, it’s estimated that anywhere from 140 to 600 million people  will have to flee their homes (almost 10% of the world’s population) due to the destruction of climate change in the next few decades. Some estimates show that 700 million people could fall back into poverty due to the effects of climate breakdown on nature-dependent livelihoods, such as 90% of Africa’s agriculture sector which is currently rain-fed.

The destruction of climate breakdown will push vulnerable nations into collapse. In Syria, a civil war that partially resulted from the worst drought in over 900 years has led to five million people having to flee the country for their lives. The Environmental Justice Foundation estimates that 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, are considered to be at high risk of violent conflict due to the combined effects of climate change and ongoing socio-economic and political problems.

The processes described here have been underway for years and over a million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes already due to rising seas and stronger storms.

Flashpoints like Hambach forest are where the power of business interest meets popular opposition, and where the future of climate change is written. If we start expanding coal mines instead of shutting them down, millions of lives across the world are at risk.

Hambach Forest. Photo: Kimba Reimer

So what can we do about this?

We can join the protests ourselves to begin with. Ende Gelande, the international alliance, is planning a wave of civil disobedience later in the month from 25th-29th October, and cheap coaches to the site in Germany are being organised for anyone who wants to go. Here are the details of coaches going from London:

If you don’t live in Germany, or can’t go to the forest to protest, there are plenty of ways you can help right now. The Hambach forest protectors have said that they need supplies, as well as monetary donations and any skills teaching that people think is useful and are willing to give. This page has the details of what kind of goods they need and how to send it to them:

Apart from donating money, skills or goods, they recommend organising solidarity events abroad, or informative evenings to spread the word. You can even write to activists in prison in Germany. The details of how to do all of these things are here (albeit needing some google translation):

Lead photo: Activists’ ramshackle treehouses, erected to stop RWE employees from felling the trees. Photo: Marica Vitt


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