Hambach mine: destroying the forest

Part two of a two-part Shoal report from Germany.

There is more than one way to kill a forest.

The first, most blatant, method has long been used by German power giant
RWE as it clearcuts huge swathes of Hambach Forest for its lignite
mining.

The scale and and horror of what this business has done to a once
verdant corner of Nordrhein-Westfalen is staggering.

Their opencast method is utterly destroying an area of 85 square km,
destroying literally everything in its path and leaving a devastated
wasteland of a landscape, rimmed with great mountains of displaced rock
and soil.

But a forest is a complex living organism and can also be severely
damaged long before its trees are physically felled.

Wherever you walk in the woods, 24 hours a day and seven days a week,
you are followed by the sinister rumbling of the industrial mining
operation. We can be sure that it is not only humans who find this
unsettling.

The air pollution around the mine is also alarming. When there are
thunder storms, locals report great yellow clouds rising up from the
site. But these freak events are just giving visibility to something
that is always in the air.

Cancer rates are high in the Hambach area. Activists who have invaded
the site report adverse effects on their health.

For the last six years, Hambach Forest has been protected by the tree
houses and barricades of determined young eco-activists.

Some of these dwellings are so high up in the branches that they are
most easily spotted by the compost toilets near the bottom of the tree.

There is the strong sense here that the activists are not just trying to
halt the nightmarish plans of RWE but are also building an embryonic
version of a new and different world.

“I’m here because I’m an anarchist,” N told me. “It’s a laboratory for
experiencing an anarchist society. I wanted to see that for myself.
Living like this is the only way of surviving on the planet”.

Groups of masked activists patrol the forest either on foot or on cycle.
These mobile units were crucial during the resistance to last summer’s
eviction attempts.

The cumbersome pace of the police, with their heavy equipment and their
health and safety regulations, gave people plenty of time to mobilise
their defence.

As a result, the authorities failed to dislodge the Hambach resistance,
although tragically their invasion led to the death of 27-year-old
independent journalist Steffen Meyn. Now there is an uneasy moratorium,
due to expire in October 2020.

Tension remains. The front line between the existing mine and the forest
is marked by a fortified RWE security base.

Under the ground there is tension, too. The massive diggers used by RWE
are much closer to the forest beneath the surface than is obvious to the
eye. Some people think they are already excavating under the remaining
forest, undermining its health.

Trees on the edge of the forest certainly look unhealthy and some are
already dead.

Water is also a big issue. RWE needs huge amounts of water for its
operations and sucks up the groundwater from miles around – the
countryside around Hambach is littered with its pumping stations.

The soil is rapidly drying out as a result. While I was visiting, a fire
had broken out on the strip of land between the mine and the forest.
This was the third blaze in a couple of days, which is not at all
normal, as locals walking in the woods were keen to point out.

In the far distance, across the vast wastes of the opencast mine, the
horizon was punctuated by wind turbines, symbols of the
environmentally-friendly future into which we are supposedly moving.

But their presence here, alongside rather than instead of the fossil
fuel mine, was just a reminder that all such talk is illusory.

Turbines and lignite are just different ways of turning nature into
electricity and thus feeding an industrial capitalist cancer which
refuses to stop growing, even though this will inevitably lead to the
death of the earthly body off which it lives.

“May your soul live for ever in a beautiful wood”, says a message on the
shrine to Steffen which has been built on the spot where he fell to his
death.

And may beautiful woods live for ever too, together with the human
desire to defend them, not just in Hambach but everywhere.

Part one, Hambach mine: destroying communities