Stay or go: villagers vs big coal

Germany may have committed to phasing out coal but that hasn’t stopped energy giant RWE’s plans to expand a mine and wipe out two villages. Paul Krantz and Leo Frick report from the edge of the pit.

Tree houses
The Lutzi camp is standing firm. Photo by Leonard Frick.

In western Germany, right on the edge of the Garzweiler 2 open-cast coal mine, sit Lützerath and Immerath – two 12th century villages which will face destruction if energy giant RWE is able to carry out its plans to expand the mine. But a community of local residents and climate activists are not letting them go without a fight.

Despite Germany’s relatively green reputation, the country is still dependent on coal to generate about a quarter of its electricity needs. About half of its coal supply is extracted domestically from open pit lignite, or ‘brown’ coal mines.

RWE started as a municipal energy supplier in the nearby city of Essen but has since grown into a multinational giant. Its website boasts about its efforts to transition to more renewable energy production, yet it remains a coal mining leader in Germany, the world capital of lignite.

Brown coal use is exceptionally harmful to the environment and human health. It produces the most carbon and sulfur pollution, per unit of energy, compared to any other coal type.

RWE extracts 100 million tons of lignite from the so-called ‘Rhein’ area each year. To put that in perspective, if one were to take the coal removed in just one day’s work and load it directly into cargo trucks, those trucks would stretch out for 250 kilometers in a single line.

Massive bucket wheel excavators, among the largest land vehicles on the planet, are key to this work. Their giant spinning wheels have teeth-like buckets placed around the rim which dig into the ground and scrape up dumptruck-sized loads of earth with each rotation.

The next generation

Two chairs sit on an empty road. Both have teddies on them - one big one and several small ones
Villagers and supporters have set up a vigil near one of the camp's entrances. Photo by Leonard Frick.

Garzweiler 2 is separated from the first Garzweiler mine pit by a highway. At 48 square kilometers, it’s difficult to describe just how massive the mine looks from the tiny village of Lützerath.

RWE intends to make it bigger still, and announced plans to evict and destroy a further seven villages. In some of these places residents have already left after accepting buyouts from RWE for their homes and land. Some have since moved into one of several new settlements in the surrounding areas which are named things like ‘New Lützerath’ as if to directly replace the ancient villages that will be destroyed.

Still, a few determined locals have refused RWE’s offers, including farmer Eckardt Heukamp whose land is now directly on the edge of the pit. For Heukamp, the mine expansion is threatening the only life he’s known.

In an attempt to defend his land, Heukamp has taken RWE to court, challenging the expropriation law that the company has used to depopulate dozens of villages in recent decades. While the legal battles continue, he has temporarily granted use of his land to climate activists who have built a rather entrenched resistance camp named Lutzi over the past year.

‘I hope this protest and this camp will make a climate justice movement possible which is anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and criticizing the national state – this has been my goal for the year I’ve been here,’ says Florian Özcan.

An allied group called ‘Alle Dörfer Bleiben’ (All villages stay) has joined forces with the camp. They’ve established a vigil at one of its entrances and there is constantly a small group of locals keeping watch and sharing coffee. Many members of Alle Dörfer Bleiben live locally and grew up in the surrounding areas. Some have already been evicted from their family homes and others are hanging on in the hope that theirs may yet be saved.

The up and coming generation of climate activists are also at Lutzi, many of whom have been inspired by organizations like the youth-led Fridays for Future, Greenpeace, or the anti-coal civil disobedience movement Ende Gelände.

‘I think this place gives people the possibility to learn, in a friendly way, that self-organization is possible’

The resistance here has succeeded in creating an impressive intentional community. A massive outdoor kitchen cooks vegetarian meals that are given freely, three times a day, to hundreds of campers. Others build more and more treehouses and structures that serve as shelter, meeting places, press tents and cafés. There are toilets that are looked after, sinks with drinking and washing water, a bicycle repair stand, a space for restorative justice processes, and a massive circus tent where morning meetings and workshops take place. Everything is run entirely on the work of volunteers, and the majority of foods and materials used are donated or purchased with donated funds.

‘I think this place gives people the possibility to learn, in a friendly way, that self-organization is possible,’ said Özcan.

Same story, different mine

Unfortunately, evicting villagers and digging up huge swaths of land for coal is not new in this region. Roughly 20 kilometers south lies the Hambach surface mine, and what’s left of Hambach Forest.

Once covering more than 5,260 hectares, this was one of the few places in Germany where oak and hornbeam trees still grew. In 1992 when the European Union passed the Habitats Directive – an act meant to protect 200 threatened plant and animal species – 13 of those species were identified in the Hambach Forest, including several bats, an endangered mouse (ironically called the common dormouse), a couple of toads and the agile frog.

This alone should have been enough to indefinitely halt the expansion of the Hambach mine. Yet, RWE successfully argued that its allocation of mining rights, in 1978, superseded the Habitats Directive.

Where German courts failed to protect Hambach Forest, a resistance movement began to gather strength. As RWE’s excavators tore deeper into the forest, an increasing number of climate activists and forest defenders came to Hambach. They occupied the forest from 2012 onwards, building treehouses in the tops of the highest trees and living in them throughout the logging season each year to try and prevent RWE from clearing trees.

‘If the court decides against us, I’m sure we will be thousands here, because we know that an economic system that cannot react to the climate crisis has no future’

The movement continued to gain media attention and became a PR nightmare for RWE. Finally, in 2018, mine expansion into the forest stopped.

‘This was the first big rise up against the climate crisis in Germany,’ said Indigo, an activist who was involved with the forest occupation. ‘It gave hope to a lot of people.’

While this success did mark a turning point for the coal resistance movement in Germany, it was a bittersweet victory. A meager 10 per cent of Hambach’s forested area remains intact.

Many of the Lutzi camp’s founders met as part of the Hambach Forest resistance.

A glimmer of hope

Now the race is on to stop Garzweiler 2 getting bigger. As recently as September 2021, there was a general sense that further expansion of the mine was inevitable, but then the resistance received a boon in the form of a newly elected German federal government. Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, which has been led by the now retired chancellor Angela Merkel, failed to come out on top for the first time in 16 years, making space for the socialist, green and libertarian parties to form a new coalition.

This coalition has agreed to phase out the use of coal for energy by 2030 – a significant jump from the CDU’s previous pledge which set the target year at 2038.

RWE has said that it won’t have issues complying with the 2030 mandate. ‘A fast coal-exit is possible,’ said a spokesperson for the company, stressing the importance of simultaneous expansion of renewable energy sources and the appropriate infrastructure. Still, RWE seems set on continuing to extract coal for the next eight years.

Green party members in North-Rhineland Westphalia have already taken actions to save five threatened villages but Lützerath’s fate hangs in the balance.

‘At the beginning of the negotiations, I was told that it was completely unrealistic to get even one word about the villages into the coalition agreement. But we kept at it, and were able to save the homes of 491 people,’ said Kathrin Henneberger, a new Green member of the German parliament.

‘About Lützerath the courts will decide,’ the coalition papers read.

By the end of January 2022, a verdict is expected on whether Heukamp will be allowed to keep its farmland or forced to surrender it to RWE. The company has declared that there will be ‘no clearing, tree cutting, house demolition in preparation for lignite mining in Lützerath’ until this date.

Meanwhile, activists in the camp are calling for support to stop possible destruction in January.  

‘I don’t know what I expect,’ said Indigo. ‘But if the court decides against us, I’m sure we will be thousands here, because we know that an economic system that cannot react to the climate crisis has no future.’

Whether German courts will actively block RWE and set a precedent for halting destructive projects in order to mitigate climate change, remains to be seen. In Lützerath one thing is certain, if RWE intends to push forward with mine expansion, it can expect resistance.

Paul Krantz is an American freelance journalist living in Berlin, Germany. He has written for Deutsche Welle and other publications and has a keen interest in environmental justice.

Leonard Frick is a Berlin-based German journalist currently working for Handelsblatt and freelancing. He wrote for Süddeutsche Zeitung and Watson. He’s interested in human life and everything around it.