In a win for the environment, Hambach Forest stands (for now)

Late on Thursday evening, the 4th of October, tens of thousands of dedicated environmentalists were preparing for a battle. Shovels, axes, saws? Ready. Spray bottles to get tear gas out of your eyes? Filled. Masks to remain anonymous? Packed. L. Michael Buchsbaum reports from the Hambacher Forest.

Environmentalists demonstrated on Saturday peacefully to preserve the Hambacher Forest

The Hambach forest must be preserved (Copyright L. Michael Buchsbaum)

With all the tree houses destroyed, one dead and hundreds arrested, legal options to save the embattled Hambach Forest from destruction by utility RWE were seemingly running out. All that was left were prayers, public pressure, political appeals, media attention, courage, and re-occupation: meaning the building of more barricades and tree houses. Meaning once again facing down over about 4,000 exhausted police officers.

After almost six years of occupations and training, activists from around Germany and Europe were being called in for a final stand. The “beloved” Hambi would be their Alamo. Special trains were organized. Over 150 busses of activists from Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin and every other corner of Germany (three from Freiburg alone) were booked. Dozens more were coming in from Poland, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

The word was passed: this weekend was the zero hour.

Though 20,000 were expected to come to a demonstration organized by the Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), Greenpeace, the campact, Buir für Buir, EndeGelände, the Greens, and other groups, they hoped that 50,000 or more would arrive – undeterred by its illegality. Envisioned as something between a protest and a “Hambistock-like” festival with bands, folk musicians, and international celebrities playing. The goal was to create a great and beautiful noise before joining a final battle to prevent RWE’s ever-hungry machines from tearing out the roots and life force of the Hambi.

But then on Friday the news: First, the Higher Administrative Court of Münster ruled that a complaint before it made by the BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) regarding the legality of RWE’s mining plan through 2020, including the impacts of cutting down the Hambach Forest, were too challenging to quickly decide upon. Stating a need to clarify whether the ancient woodland is covered by EU environmental rules due to its population of protected bat species, the Court ruled that such “unusually complex factual and legal questions arising from this matter” could not be answered quickly. Though RWE could continue mining activities, it can “not expand operations to the forest area…[and] create irreversible facts,” they said in a press release.

Additionally, the court argued that RWE had not persuasively shown why an immediate clearing of the Hambach Forest was necessary to “avoid severe and concrete danger” at the mine and ensure power supply security in the region or in Germany as a whole. They then kicked the decision up to another court in Cologne to review the entire matter—effectively putting judgment off until 2020.

As the elated activists read the news, another court in nearby Aachen overthrew the ban on demonstrating nearby and within the forest. And, just like that, what was planned as a protest turned into a party.

The demonstration ended as a peaceful party for environmental rights

Environmentalists demonstrate peacefully (Copyright L. Michael Buchsbaum)

As the dust settled, the police ended what had become the largest and probably most expensive police operation in North Rhine-Westphalia’s state history. Over the course of the last weeks, the police and RWE’s teams had cleared several hectares of the woodland in order to destroy a total of 86 tree houses and prepare the forest for demolition. Though hundreds of police were still present on Saturday, it seemed they were mostly there to prevent activists from storming into the pit itself. Despite NRW Interior Minister Herbert Reul (CDU) plea begging for “order and peace”, on Saturday within the Hambach, activists resumed constructing tree houses and barricades.

Indeed, with surveys showing that 79% of respondents in NRW are for the preservation of Hambacher forest (including 71 percent of CDU supporters), public opinion had clearly turned against the regional government.  However NRW Prime Minister Armin Laschet (CDU) refused to “align my policy to surveys.” Just the same, looking to Berlin, he intoned “We need an answer [to the question], how do we secure the energy? Indeed, the decision is “an opportunity to reflect and look for solutions that secure the energy supply and jobs as well as protect the environment.

Apparently caught off-guard, RWE put out a statement on Friday warning of hundreds of millions of lost revenue from 2019 onwards. “The company now expects there to be substantial short-term operational effects on the scheduled development of the Hambach mine as early as next year. First, the equipment at the top-most level, which is already right in front of the forest, will have to stop operating. This will trigger a domino effect, with the excavators in the lower layers being prevented from uncovering coal. Meaning in the near term, RWE would no longer be able to supply the connected power plants. The company’s value on the stock market correspondingly fell by almost 9% on Friday and into this week.

With the excavtors near the forest now stopped, it’s clear the activists won this round. In so doing, they elevated the subject of coal, the environment and the flagging Energiewende to the front pages of every German newspaper, to the first five minutes of most newscasts, and to the front of many citizen’s thoughts.

However, one of the other fires fueling this battle is likely the overall uncertainty hanging over coal’s future in Germany . This is already the last year that hard coal will be mined—that’s decided. And increasingly, older lignite power plants and individual units are going into a strategic reserve. It’s clear to nearly everyone that coal’s days, epecially lignite’s, are coming to an end. It’s just a question of how and when. Indeed, that’s the task of the Coal Commission, or more officially, the Commission for Growth, Structural Change and Employment. Their first report is due within the month. But if it doesn’t include a political solution that saves the Hambach, expect more treehouses to be built, more battles in the courts, public opinion and in the forest to come. Some might deem this energy democracy in action. Hambi bliebt.



L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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