The Hambach forest, located in Rhineland, Germany, has been one of the few remaining old growth forests in Germany. It has also been a concession area for the expansion of one of Germany’s largest brown coal open cast mines, operated by the RWE Power AG Company. Since 2012, environmental activists have been occupying the forest to avoid further deforestation as well as CO2 emissions driving climate change (1).
Once covering an area of 5,500ha, the Hambach forest has had a history of 12,000 years of uninterrupted existence and ecological evolution, and as such has been home to many species ranging from rare plants to endangered birds and bats. In 1978, the area came under a brown coal mining concession, granted to the RWE Power AG Company, which soon turned large parts of the forest into a large open cast mine expanding over 8,500ha, requiring the relocation of villages. While nowadays a small forest area is still remaining, almost complete clearing will be required to fully develop the mine until 2030. Moreover, in order to give way for the development of the mine, part of the national Highway A4 needed to be realigned, further driving habitat fragmentation as well as drastically affecting quality of life of the local population.
First efforts to stop mining became strongly visible in 2004, when Greenpeace activist seized a bulldozer for a few days. Moreover, the citizens group “Aktionsgemeinschaft der Bürgerinitiativen gegen die Verlegung der A 4” was created to oppose the highway realignment, filing a lawsuit in 2009 against the company in cooperation with the NGO BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany), which however could not stop it (2). In an effort to save the remaining forest from deforestation and to avoid the devastating environmental impacts associated to open cast mines, such as drastic landscape change, toxic emission of heavy metals, and vast amounts of CO2 emissions (3), environmental activists started to occupy the forest on April 14, 2012 (1). The activists and EJOs blamed the company to develop their activities in spite of the biological uniqueness of the forest, which under EU law should be declared as conservation area (3). However, only a few areas with less than 220ha have been declared as Natura2000 habitats, while the remaining areas were allowed to be further developed. According to BUND, proper environmental impact assessments were not conducted, although required. Until 2030, around 5,200 villagers will have undergone relocation in order to make room for the mine (1;2;3).
Resistance activities are ongoing and have been based on effective organization among activists, targeting the occupation of forest areas and trees to avoid deforestation. While the first occupation endured 6 months, during November 2012, 600 police officers evicted the activists from their tree homes, as well as from an underground tunnel system, build by the activists 6 meters below ground to prevent eviction. However, occupation continued and activists started to establish a base camp at the surrounding meadows to continue organizing their environmental justice activities. Many forest occupations and evictions, but also trials and releases have followed. The situation sharpened in October 2014, when activists were accused of having used violence against security guards and workers (1). Activists however declared that security workers attacked them with pepper spray, beat one of them unconscious and tied them up after trying to block deforestation activities in a non-violent way (4). The conflicts surrounding the remaining forest area are currently ongoing.