Grove of oak trees, Hambach Forest, Germany

Why we want to save the Hambach Forest

Friends of the Earth Germany had been fighting opencast coal for decades. And then a beautiful ancient woodland in the Rhineland came under threat.
Celeste Hicks
By Celeste Hicks    |      Published:  20 May 2019    |      5 minute read

As the autobahn winds south-west from Düsseldorf in Germany, it's as if an enormous monster has taken several large bites from the landscape.

A number of opencast lignite mines stretch across the landscape, dwarfing anything I've seen in my native north-east England.

The enormous Hambacher surface mine stretches to the horizon
Hambacher surface mine
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

I'm driving with Dirk Jansen and Thomas Kraemerkaemper from BUND (Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland), Friends of the Earth Germany.

Through the car window I can see clouds of dust from the mines rising on the wind. A large lignite-fired power plant sits on a hillside.

Tell the UK government to double tree cover to help tackle the climate emergency.

Lignite rules

I remember being taught at school about the industrial development of the Rhineland. Much of this was built on burning locally-available lignite – low quality or 'brown coal' – to generate electricity.

Lignite is one of the least efficient fuels because it has a high water content, yet it accounts for some 45% of the North Rhine-Westphalia's electricity mix. So much is generated that it's exported to France and the Netherlands.

The lignite lying under the ground in the North Rhine-Westphalia is so prized that a law dating back to the 1930s makes it state-owned property.

BUND's long fight

Dirk Jansen first started fighting opencast lignite mining in the 1980s.

"Originally we were against mining because we felt that communities had no rights," he says. "People's homes were being routinely demolished to make room for the mines. Beautiful landscapes were destroyed."

Dirk Jansen and Thomas Kraemerkaemper From BUND Germany
Dirk Jansen and Thomas Kraemerkaemper From BUND Germany
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

Village after village has been destroyed since then. Compulsory purchase has been used to make way for mines belonging to the RWE electricity production company.

Over 32,500 hectares of land – equivalent to 1 and a half times the area of Düsseldorf – has been claimed by the excavation of lignite. 40,000 people have been re-homed and vast quantities of groundwater have been drained.

Dirk has brought me to a viewing platform overlooking the 48km2 Garzweiler II surface mine. Diggers and lorries crisscross a giant brown scar which stretches to the horizon.

BUND's orchard was on the far left of this image, now replaced by the Garzweiler opencast mine
Garzweiler opencast coal mine wiped out BUND's orchard
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

In 2008 BUND had to watch sadly as a piece of land they owned near Garzweiler was expropriated by RWE.

"We used to own a little orchard, right over there," says Dirk with a sad smile, pointing at a gaping hole in the ground filled with bulldozers.

In 2013 BUND eventually won its court case against the compulsory purchase, but of course it was too late to save the orchard.

Abandoned villages

Next, Dirk and Thomas take us to visit Immerath. In 2018 this village of around 1,150 inhabitants hit the headlines when its Romanesque cathedral church was demolished to make way for the hungry Garzweiler mine.

All that is left now is a couple of abandoned houses. Exotic plants continue to grow in the gardens of a couple of the houses, letter boxes still gleam.

The village of Immerath has been abandoned to make way for opencast coal mining
The village of Immerath has been abandoned to make way for opencast coal mining
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

The people of Immerath were rehoused at the expense of RWE in a new town a few kilometres away. A modern new church was constructed.

Dirk believes the destruction of this latest village was unnecessary.

"Due to our obligations to save the climate, this lignite must remain in the ground. There is no need to destroy villages for lignite anymore.”

Hambach Forest

For many years, Germany's addiction to coal- and lignite-fired power went largely unnoticed.

People always think of Germany as being so green, but in fact our CO2 emissions from burning lignite are much higher than in other countries.Dirk Jansen, BUND

But in 2012, RWE's expansion plans began to seriously encroach on the Hambach Forest, between Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aachen.

The potential destruction of this ancient forest seemed to light a touch paper.

Trees in the ancient Hambach forest Germany
Trees in the Hambach forest Germany
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

Once covering 4,100 acres, the Hambach forest is a remnant of an ancient woodland dating back to when the glaciers retreated some 12,000 years ago. It is one of the last remaining patches of forest which has been largely unaffected by human development.

The forest is a unique habitat because of its age. It's the largest oak-hornbeam woodland within the Atlantic biogeographical region of Germany.

It's thought there are at least 80 female Bechstein's bats here, a critically-endangered protected species under European law. The bats live in holes in mature oak trees made by middle spotted woodpeckers.

Bechstein's bats nest in holes made by woodpeckers in oak trees
Bechstein's bats nest in oak trees in Hambach Forest
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

It's home to over 2,000 species of invertebrates, spring frogs and dormice. On the day I visited I saw 2 larks rising gloriously in song from the edges of the wood.

Tree houses

But since 1978 an aggressive programme of tree-felling to reach the underground lignite has shrunk its total area to just 800 acres.

In 2012 protestors decided to take to the trees to defend what was left. They erected tree houses and platforms and lived in them full time, making it difficult to fell the trees.

In 2018 the confrontation between environmental activists and RWE escalated. A change in government in North Rhine-Westphalia led to the police being called in to clear the protestors from the forest, says Dirk. The state authorities argued that the treehouses did not comply with fire regulations.

Many protestors were arrested. And sadly in September 2018, a journalist making a film about the tree protestors fell from a tree house and died.

Parts of a protest camp in the Hambach Forest
Parts of a protest camp in the Hambach Forest
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

BUND uses the law to defend the forest

BUND is not directly connected to the treehouse protestors, a disparate group of activists.

BUND has instead focused on using the courts to defend the forest. The array of legal labyrinths explored by Dirk is mind-boggling.

Dirk currently has 4 court cases underway. Two of these cases relate to attempts by RWE to expropriate land belonging to BUND which lies in the path of the clearances, similar to the failed orchard case.

"This is our little patch of land," says Dirk when he takes me to see a yellow cross in a field which marks the 500m2 plot. "You can see the encroaching mine from here. We won't give it up without a fight."

Dirk and Thomas defend their patch of land in the Hambach Forest
Dirk and Thomas at BUND's plot near the Hambach Forest
Credit: Celeste HIck/Friends of the Earth

Another case relates to the Bechstein's bat. BUND is suing for the violation of European environmental law, because Bechstein's bats are protected by the European Habitats Directive.

The final case relates to the level of tree clearance allowed under German law over the next few years, and also involves the breaching of the Habitats Directive.

Still another victory was in October 2018. A senior administrative court in Münster resulted in an order that RWE must immediately cease felling trees pending a decision on a case brought by Dirk.

Tell the UK government to double tree cover to help tackle the climate emergency.

Germany moves away from coal

The fight over the Hambach Forest has come at a crucial time for Germany.

Despite appearing to be a world leader on some of its environmental pledges, Germany still relies on coal- and lignite-fired power plants for some 35% of its energy. This is much higher than the UK (around 6% in 2017).

Around 10% of the country's entire CO2 emissions come from lignite burning in North Rhine-Westphalia. It is the number-one carbon-polluting region in Europe. Every tonne of lignite burned releases a tonne of carbon dioxide.

The Hambach Forest has already been cleared to make way for the Hambach surface mine
Edge of the forest next to Hambach surface mine
Credit: Celeste HIck/Friends of the Earth

The end of coal

Partly in response to the outcry over Hambach, in 2018 the federal government agreed to update its energy strategy. It set up a commission unofficially known as the 'coal exit commission'.

Dirk was initially torn about whether to be involved, but eventually decided he could make a difference by advising politicians.

In February 2019 the commission came out firmly in favour of phasing out coal. The first coal-fired power plants are to be switched off by 2022. All coal- and lignite-fired power generation must end at the latest by 2038.

"This is a great victory," says Dirk. "But those dates are still too late. We will continue to campaign to speed this all up in order to meet our climate obligations."

Saving Hambach

Thankfully, Dirk believes the new rules on coal should be enough to stop the further destruction of the ancient forest. He believes that with the help of the Münster court ruling from 2018 stalling the clearance of the forest, the economic justification of continuing to expand the mine is weakened.

"It just doesn't make any sense to clear Hambach now. It doesn't make any sense to put any more villages through destruction. They won't be able to burn that lignite. It's already too late."

Friends of the Earth International

BUND is part of the biggest network of environmental groups around the world. Friends of the Earth International has a network of 75 groups, including Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland.