After decades of protest, in October 2019, the forest “Dannenröder Forst” was occupied by environmental activists. They protest against the partial clearing of the “Danni” and adjacent forests for the further construction of the highway A49, which would connect the cities of Gießen and Kassel (where a road section already exists but currently leads nowhere). 85ha of the ancient forests are projected to be felled in total. 27ha of them are located in the Dannenrod Forest . Activists set up protest camps around the forest, as well as a system of barricades and treehouses. Some of these activist groups were also present in the defence of the Hambach Forest (see EJAtlas case: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/occupation-of-the-hambacher-forst-against-brown-coal-mining-germany) .
The European Investment Bank (EIB) is providing €264 million to support the construction of a 31 km section of the A49 motorway. The 30-year long-term loan from the EU bank for the A49 is backed by a guarantee from the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), under the Investment Plan for Europe.
The construction of the highway A49 is implemented by “Deutsche Einheit Fernstraßenplanungs- und -bau GmbH (DEGES)”, a road construction company for public infrastructure acting on behalf of their client, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. DEGES, in turn, relies on a public-private partnership (PPP) for the construction of the highway. According to DEGES, this is supposed to be economically advantageous . A fact that is criticized by many political and civil actors, as PPPs usually appear to be significantly more expensive to the detriment of taxpayers, while private partners benefit . The contract for the construction was awarded to the Austrian company STRABAG, one of the largest construction companies in Europe .
The project affects an ecologically very valuable area. The forest itself is considered particularly healthy due to its composition of tree types. These are more resilient to the ongoing climate-change-induced, forest extinction in Europe. In fact, due to its special characteristics, the forest is a very suitable natural area for combating climate change. Combined with the widely discussed political project of a sustainable transportation and mobility change in Germany (“Verkehrswende”) the deforestation for a new highway represents an even more controversial topic . At the same time, the planned route of the A49 runs through water protection areas and crosses three designated nature conservation areas. The former represents an important source of drinking water for the surrounding area and could pose a serious threat to the supply of clean drinking water if contaminated by the highway .
The construction company DEGES says that not all the trees in the Dannenrod forest are that old and that the forest is also used for forestry. DEGES also refers to a large number of compensatory and replacement measures that are to be implemented on an area of about 750 hectares. For example, near-natural forests are to be developed elsewhere or arable land is to be converted into grassland. Part of the Dannenröder forest will also be taken out of forestry use in the long term . A measure that critics again see as ecologically insufficient and an empty promise .
The infrastructure measure was initially planned in the 1960s and was always preceded by protests of local and regional nature conservation organisations and citizens' associations. Several attempts were made to take legal action against the expansion of the highway and the underlying studies and assessment procedures .
However, the final decision on whether the A49 may be realized in this way was not made until July 2020, when the Federal Administrative Court dismissed the last appeals by environmentalists and residents . A demand for a moratorium on the part of the federal Greens in the German parliament “Bundestag” was also rejected in the meantime . The expansion is now being pushed ahead under the current state government, in which the Green Party is also involved. This poses a political and ideological problem for the once radical environmentalist party, as they have benefited from the emerging climate movement in recent years in their understanding as its parliamentary representation. Hence, it created a difficult situation in which leading party politicians at the federal level vehemently opposed the project, but at the state level the same party pushed for its implementation, using its own obligation to existing laws and political decisions as justification . The activists' protest is therefore also increasingly directed against the party, which in their eyes betrays its own ideals, an effective climate policy and the protection of nature itself .
The final legal situation and political room for manoeuvre is disputed, while some continue to call for a possible halt to what is seen as an outdated project, some actors declare an inevitable implementation . These include, above all, the currently ruling, conservative Christian-democratic party as well as some local supporter groups that expect the project to boost the region's economy .
However, the beginning of the eviction work in autumn 2020, in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, is considered illegitimate and a violent act of injustice by the activists . After parts of surrounding forest areas were initially felled under protest, there were also repeated clashes with the police and reports of excessive and unjustified violence in the Dannenrod forest. Several people were injured, and the case received increased national and international attention from both media and other activist groups . At the same time, activists held demonstrations, human chains, and other protests in surrounding and other locations throughout the republic. Several well-known activists from other areas showed solidarity with the protests and public events with music and forest walks took place, with increased participation from the local population as well . There were also some protest actions where activists abseiled from several highway bridges, bringing traffic to a standstill. During these actions, there have been car accidents, for which the police hold the activists responsible, whereas the activists argue these are the result of a failed traffic policy in general. Subsequently, there were several arrests .
Nevertheless, the eviction work continued in the past weeks, with repeated violence and serious accidents. The police were accused of cutting ropes that activists had used to attach themselves to the treetops, resulting in falls from great heights and grave injuries . In addition, a water cannon was used on the fringes of a demonstration in minus degrees, causing frostbite, hypothermia, and other injuries .