Tears and tree houses: The occupation in Germany's Hambach Forest

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Fight for Hambach Forest

The trees may soon have to give way to a coal mine expansion. But activists are building tree houses and blocking roads. DW spent three days in the ancient forest with them.

Michael Zobel is feeling dejected and has tears in his eyes. Soon he may have to say goodbye to the Hambach forest, which has become a big part of his life. "Perhaps this will be the last time we see the forest in all its beauty," he says. 

Nature and Environment | 08.11.2017

Zobel is a forest guide and offers tours through the 12,000-year-old forest once a month. But that could soon be over. Energy company RWE wants to begin clearing the forest away completely on Sunday, to make room for the nearby open-pit lignite mine. The clearing is set to begin the very next day. 

Tree houses as barricades

Zobel is not alone: several hundred people are worried. "The mood is very tense," says Zobel. And around 200 people plan to put up a fight and defend their home.

Activists such as Pello refuse to let the forest disappear. "I have decided to spend the winter here in the forest to protect it," he says. Pello means business; he has even postponed his master's degree for a year. 

Deutschland - Besetzung des Hambacher Forsts durch Aktivisten

Activists set up blockades and build tree houses in a bid to protect the forest from clearing

Approximately a hundred people now live permanently in the Hambach Forest near Cologne. They have built tree houses which they hope will help them survive the winter. "Most are insulated and even have an oven installed," explains one activist who has lived in the forest for several years now. There are over 20 tree houses, which are between 16 and 25 meters off the ground. Many are connected by rope ladders to form a kind of tree house village.

"The tree houses should serve as barricades," says Pello. "As long as someone is in it, the tree cannot be felled." It would be up to the police to remove people from the houses. But it won't be an easy task. "We have come to protect the forest and we'll stay up there for as long as we can," says Pello.

Deutschland - Besetzung des Hambacher Forsts durch Aktivisten

One of the many tree houses built by activists in Hambach Forest

Everyone does as they please

The occupation of Hambach Forest began five years ago with six activists. Now, there are more than 200 people gathered there – from Germany and around the world. "It's a beautiful community life here," says Pello.

You have freedom in the forest, one activist explains: "Anyone can do what they want here, they do not have to do anything." Within the camp there is no hierarchy or leader. And everybody can decide for themselves how they wish to defend the forest. "Most of us want to defend [the trees] peacefully, but there are also a few here who are willing to use force," says a longtime forest dweller.

Day one: Stones and pepperspray

"It was a bit exhausting for me emotionally and I barely slept on Monday," says Zobel. He is particularly anxious because his girlfriend has now joined him in the forest. "It was clear that the clearing would start on Monday, but no one knew exactly what would happen."

The day begins with noise from above. It is still dark when a helicopter hovers over Hambach Forest. A little while later, the police arrive. The officers block the access road to the forest. The first clearing begins on the right side of the road, while on the left side the activists watch. The RWE security personnel and the police stand between them.

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Police spray activists with pepper spray

Pello explains her tactics: "We will block the forest roads and try to prevent the machines from getting through. We want to delay the clearing for as long as possible or even prevent it." At the same time, a group of around 50 people are trying to break up the police chain.

As activists walk up the embankment, they are forced back by police with pepper spray. The police accuse them of throwing stones, which they admit to, but only after the police began to use pepper spray.

Day two: Exciting news

On Tuesday a group of activists attempt to break up the police again – without any success. "The police are outnumbered, it's a cat-and-mouse game between us and the police," explains one activist.

Some are growing frustrated with the situation. But for RWE, everything is going according to plan: "Thanks to the police presence – without which this work cannot take place unfortunately – there has been no significant disturbances," RWE spokesman Guido Steffen told DW.

According to estimates, RWE managed to clear about two hectares of forest by Tuesday evening. But then comes some surprising news – the environmental organization Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) was successful with an emergency application in court to stop the clearing of Hambach Forest. RWE is ordered to halt work by 6pm on Tuesday. They may only resume clearing if the Higher Administrative Court decides in a few week's time if the deforestation is legal.

Deutschland - Besetzung des Hambacher Forsts durch Aktivisten

From 'Meadow' to 'Death Trap'...whole villages have been created in Hambach Forest

Only a small win

That evening the police leave Hambach Forest. And the activists, together with their supporters, celebrate their small victory as the forest is saved – at least for now. "Nothing final has been decided yet," says Zobel. However, after many days of stress, the forest guide can now relax a bit: "I have cried a lot lately, so this news is great."

The forest is once again calmer. The activists return to their tree houses. The court decision was also a surprise for RWE. But they are nonetheless confident in their future plans: "The decision is not a [final] decision regarding the matter and we are confident that work will be resumed soon," says Steffen.

Zobel will also return to the forest: "The next tour will be in early December – with more people than ever before." For him, the ongoing struggle in Hambach Forest is only a symptom of many other environmental conflicts worldwide: "It's all about the symbolism, getting out of coal is inevitable and that has now come to the attention of the public all around the world."

Nature and Environment

Exit coal - now!

One day before COP23, thousands of anti-coal mining activists gathered to urge a complete phase out of coal for use in power stations. The protesters, dressed with in protective white suits, walked for about 10 kilometers — from a nearby village to the Hambach coal mine.

Nature and Environment

Block the destruction

Hambach is the largest CO2 emitter in Europe. Its expansion has already partially cleared out a 1,000-year-old forest and left several ghost villages behind — with more to come. Activists believe the climate talks going on in Bonn, only 50 kilometers away, are a complete nonsense while the mine keeps running.

Nature and Environment

Fighting in peace

Despite a heavy police presence, the mood for Sunday's protest was very peaceful. The protagonists waved colourful banners and wore painted faces. Some brought guitars and played music - at least during the first part of the day.

Nature and Environment

Attention: danger to life

As protesters approached the mine, police officers moved in and began blocking the march. With loud speakers, they warned the demostrators that they were trepassing on private property and they posed a risk to security.

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Run, run, run

As the drew closer to the mine, the long line of demonstrators suddenly burst into life, with many people running and shouting, forgetting the many kilometers they had already walked.

Nature and Environment

A one-day success

Activists said that blocking this type of coal infrastructure was the best way to make their voices heard for an immediate transition away from coal. And yes, at least for a while, the giant digger stopped operating. The hundreds of activists who made it to the coal mine hailed the stoppage as a great success.

Nature and Environment

No more coal for climate

Anti-coal activists say no other place in Europe represents the dependence on coal for electricity as well as the Hambach mine. Among the many signs carried by protesters, one of the often repeated ones was: Exit coal, protect the climate.

Nature and Environment

Far from an end

Towards the end of Sunday's march, two more groups who had gotten separated from the main demonstration, joined up with their comrades. Here you can see the police have lined up to prevent their advance.

Nature and Environment

Time for action

The activists were successful in shutting down parts of the Hambach mine for just a day. But whether politicians will take any long-term measures regarding coal mining during the COP23 climate conference remains to be seen.

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