Enforcing ecological catastrophe at all costs

After an activist is hospitalized in Germany following police action, Andrea Brock reflects on the criminalization of, and violence against, environmental defenders in Europe by state and private actors.

Dannenröder Forest occupation pictured in August 2020. Credit: Leonhard Lenz

Across the world, environmental defenders are being threatened, intimidated, repressed, injured, and sometimes even killed for acting to protect their communities and ecosystems.

In the West, we often hear these stories emerge from the Global South: Brazil, Peru, and Indonesia… and our governments are quick to point fingers and criticize. But, we don’t need to look so far to find violent oppression of people defending the environment.

On Saturday 14 November, an activist in the Dannenröder forest in central Germany was seriously injured after a four-meter fall from a tripod. Police officers had cut the safety rope which held the tripod in place during an ongoing eight-day operation to evict activists’ occupation of the ‘Danni’ forest. The forest is due to be cleared to make way for the construction of the A49 motorway. Throughout the eviction, forest defenders have reported the cutting of safety ropes and police violence.

For over a year, environmental defenders have occupied and lived in the forest, built barricades and tree-houses and taken direct action as part of an alliance of initiatives and movements that are taking political and legal action against the highway.

Direct action works and it’s contagious. It can stop ecological destruction and empower people to stand up to governments and corporations and to live differently

The Dannenröder forest has a unique ecosystem, home to the protected great crested newt, among others, as well as a water protection area and local nature reserve. The road project is an ecological disaster, expected to lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions, biodiversity loss, air and noise pollution and contamination of drinking water. A new highway in the 21st century, in the midst of the climate catastrophe and mass extinction – pure stupidity, according to activists and many scientists.

What politicians and police forces are presumably trying to avoid is a repetition of what happened in Hambacher Forest where an eight-year occupation – together with legal challenges and a range of other initiatives – forced politicians in the nearby Rhineland to give in to demands to protect the 12,000-year-old forest from energy giant RWE’s expanding lignite coal mine.

The Hambach mine is the world’s largest opencast lignite coal mine, not only contributing to the climate crisis but also destroying unique ecosystems and displacing entire villages. The strategies and tactics by the Rhinish police and RWE’s private security forces are well-documented, laying bare the collusion between, and entanglement of, state and corporate interests, and the paying-off of local politicians by RWE.

During the last eviction of the camp in 2018 – a 20-day operation involving thousands of police officers under dubious ‘fire protection’ justifications – a journalist and environmental defender fell off a treehouse and died after police forces prevented him from filming on the ground. Forest protectors suffered years of abuse, assaults, injuries, and harsh criminalization, with jail sentences of up to nine months.

Direct action is contagious

In the UK, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, police and private eviction teams have been busy evicting and assaulting protesters taking action against the government’s high-speed railway project HS2, endangering lives through reckless behaviour and injuring environmental defenders.

Just like in the Dannenröder forest, eviction teams and police forces have illustrated their disregard for human lives and our ecosystems. They cut safety ropes, causing environmental defenders to fall from a rope walkway onto a riverbed, one person requiring hospitalization. Assaults, insults, and intimidations have been commonplace.

At the same time, there has been harsher criminalization of protest and the increased use of ‘privately bought’ injunctions against environmental defenders. This is part of a broader trend of policing of environmental protest in the UK, characterized by systematic violations of protesters’ rights, harassment, targeting of individuals based on gender and disability, and frequent exercise of actual bodily harm – with complaints rarely investigated and upheld.

The management and oppression of anti-fracking protest in particular has laid bare how the state has worked to protect corporate interests and the strong links between the two. Despite manipulation and oppression of resistance – with tactics including greenwashing activities in local schools and harsh policing of dissent involving sexualised violence and targeting of protesters with disabilities – years of resistance have paid out. While fracking is by no means a thing of the past – continuing under a different name in the Wield, south England, and elsewhere – Britain’s 2019 moratorium was a clear consequence of years of direct and legal actions.

In other words – direct action works, and it’s contagious. It can stop ecological destruction and empower people to stand up to governments and corporations, and to live differently. It is therefore not surprising that in Europe and across the world there is increasingly harsh criminalization and repression of environmental defenders by the state and their corporate collaborators. In Italy, people have long resisted the construction of the high-speed railway between Lyon and Turin, triggering a military occupation.

In France, a number of autonomous zones challenge corporate and state projects, most famously the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes, which successfully resisted plans to build a new airport – and was invaded by 2,500 riot police, armoured vehicles, helicopters, and tanks in 2018. Other ‘zones à défendre’ oppose energy and infrastructure projects – including the Sivens Dam, where police killed an environmental defender in 2014, and land grabs for large-scale ‘green’ energy infrastructure.

Stigmatization and repression have always been part and parcel of state violence against ‘undesired subjects’

Protecting business as usual

What these struggles have in common is how people put their bodies in the way to stop destruction and refuse to take part in the capitalist machinery that drives social degradation and ecocide. Their way of life threatens the state and its drive for social control. And the state responds: through criminalization, repression, intimidation, stigmatization, painting people as ‘eco-terrorists’ or ‘domestic extremists’.

Not only to push through these projects, but also to eliminate the ideas and ideologies behind the resistance, alternative ways of life which might hinder the dominant ideology of economic growth. The abolition of ‘idleness’ to increase productivity has always been necessary for elite accumulation, industrialization and social control.

Stigmatization and repression have always been part and parcel of state violence against ‘undesired subjects’ – from travellers, dispossessed, migrants to political ‘dissidents’. States often classify many of these projects as ‘critical infrastructure projects’, with special by-laws that facilitate the prosecution of activists as terrorists.

Police forces, militaries, paramilitaries, and private security forces have always defended mining and other industrial projects at all costs and cracked down on communities that resist them.

But the importance of policing goes beyond defending mines, highway projects, high-speed railways, and other such modernist projects. Policing is central to the very ideology and system of (green) capitalism, statism, and industrialism, fuelled by the belief in never-ending growth. It is integral to enforcing and maintaining a hierarchical world order grounded in patriarchal and colonial power relations and fuelled by extractivism – the extraction of wealth from land, nature and people.

The fact that violent policing is necessary for enforcing this order, and for securing sacrifice zones for capitalist development, shows how it doesn’t serve people or ecosystems.

Find out more about the occupation to save Dannenröder forest and how to get involved here.