Hambacher Forest, Germany: living on the front line in the fight against coal

It’s taken a while to write this one – it was a lot to process. I was there from 14-15th September. Hambacher Forest (Forst) is a misleading name – there is only 10% of the original forest left, which is said to be 12,000 years old in places. The rest has been destroyed by an open-pit coal mine. The pit of this runs to 500m below the original surface.

Activists have been living in the trees since 2012, in treehouses, platforms and structures, blocking the expansion of the mine. Google images shows people dressed in black, hoods up and faces totally covered.

I arrived to a friendly information point by the road, and was given a map. Entering the forest there were barricades, piles of branches, t-shirts hanging from trees with slogans ‘you destroyed my home’, parts of the road cut away to make it impossible to drive. It was clearly very anti-police in the messaging, often aggressively. The forest seemed huge, peaceful and beautiful. There were branches on the floor leading off marking different pathways, probably to different camps. I met a lady with two small children, who was from the area but hadn’t been back for many years, and her voice cracked when she said how scary she found it when she arrived today, as there’s barely anything left.

I followed the main track straight through, and it was only a few minutes until I got to the end, with a big barrier of branches blocking the way. I nipped past the side and climbed onto a branch to look over, and the expanse opened up. The photo below, and the photo above, are only metres apart, facing different directions. The Forest ended abruptly, and completely bare, orange-white soil led away for km’s and km’s, down into a pit I couldn’t see the bottom of. The machines on the other side looked tiny, but I could see from those closer they were actually humungous. No sense of scale, as it was so big. No sense of life. Stark, and heartbreaking.

I walked back into the forest and ended up at ‘Lluna’, one of the ‘villages’ – a cluster of treehouses, towers, structures etc. There was a huge tower built into the trees, three stories high, another treehouse, a few platforms, all connected by high rope bridges. I was welcomed to stay the night, and I offered to help with anything I could while I was there. Compost was working on the next floor of the tower and roof (probably about 15m up) – I borrowed a harness to clip in, climbed up and helped organise planks, pull nails out and re-organise the tarp roof so it stopped collecting water.

No one uses their real names. I asked how many people were in the forest, Compost said it would be impossible to estimate, and he didn’t need to know anyway. It was all about having no centralised information, choas as a form of activism, making it as confusing and difficult for the police as possible. Anonymity was very important – everyone carried a scarf or something around their neck, to pull up in a balaclava if they were going anywhere between camps where there could be security guards, police or people taking photos. When I walked around to visit a few other camps later, many people would cover their faces when we arrived. It became more understandable as I learnt more about their relationship with the police – who seemed to have a very aggressive approach and would often be at the forest, and demand to see ID for no reason (which I think is technically illegal), to gain as much information about activists as they could.

We spoke about the eviction which happened almost one year ago, which sounded like a pretty traumatic event. Everything and everyone was cleared, all of the structures pulled down and destroyed, and there was the first fatality in the forest. There was a dodgy rope bridge, high up in the trees between structures, which normally everyone knew you shouldn’t cross without a safety harness, and which needed to be mended. But during the eviction, Compost describes police floodlights lighting up the entire forest, aimed at the treehouses, with generators blaring out continuously below them, stopping them sleeping or resting. They gradually cleared more and more people out of the trees and destroyed more of what had essentially become these peoples homes. The police moved into this particular treehouse, and people started crossing the rope bridge quickly one by one to get away (the alternative being arrest), without stopping for safety harnesses. When the last person tried to cross, it broke.

The reason given for clearing the forest was a ‘fire hazard’, but apparently documents have since been leaked to show that the mine lobbied the municipality to make up a reason to clear them out, as they were being a nuisance and stopping them expanding (obviously). Perhaps you could argue I’ve only got one side of the story. But having lunch with Sandra in Bonn, a journalist and involves in various groups, said she had visited Hambacher once last year, and had been warned by police beforehand that she ‘shouldn’t go there, they were very dangerous, you don’t know what might happen’. She said this was the message they tried to put out before the eviction, although everyone knew it was complete utter rubbish (and it actually had the reverse effect as everyone became so outraged at what the police were doing).

Given all of this, the hatred towards police and security guards seems much more understandable. “They are just pawns holding up the capitalist system which destroys so much”, said one person. We shared dinner, and sat around the fire dug into an earth pit while Pluto sang and played the MOST beautiful songs on guitar. Everyone had been so warm, and welcoming of someone just passing through for one night, so not really able (or willing enough to stay?) to contribute much. There was a sense of acceptance of whatever you could or couldn’t contribute, with no judgement or expectations. Compost was endlessly patient with teaching me new knots with the ropes, and my being very slow to climb around everything. Pluto constantly moved conversations back to English for me, or explained what was being said. Food was shared without question, and they answered all of my questions thoughtfully even though I imagine they get asked the same things over and over. I was amazed at this openness, given the amount of tourists who seem to just wander or cycle past each day, simply to stop and stare at these peoples houses, and them themselves, then ask to take a photo, only to be annoyed when told to make sure there was no one in it, and to warn people before taking the shot so they could cover their face. These are people, and these are their homes (for now), but they seem to have become a tourist attraction. This, combined with the obvious beauty and special character of the forest itself, combined with the constant drone of the machines of the mine only a few hundred metres away, destroying more and more, must make it an overwhelming place to live at times. I felt like I barely scratched the surface of this place.

The next morning, as one person was showing me the path out, I asked if we could get a proper look at the mine (last time I had only got a glimpse). We passed huge tree trunks lying cut, with too many rings to count. He made me a balaclava from my thermal and we snuck past the branches, and through the forest away from the security point. We ran over one bank, and out into the open area. There was another bank, probably to shield the view. We climbed up, keeping checking so we weren’t seen. It was even more stark here. The sense of space was huge. Still couldn’t see the bottom, and it stretched right across the skyline. The photos don’t do it justice.

“And as if all this used to be forest. You can see how the trees just stop, like a knifes edge. These machines are the biggest of their kind in the world. They bring them in piece by piece to assemble onsight. And they have 12 of them.”

It’s the perfect example of how the capitalist system, which measures value only in numbers, can go totally wrong. It would be very easy to sit tucked away in a nice cosy office, looking at the numbers, making supposedly-rational suggestions based on how much power this supplies, how many households, how much industry it supports. And only a few trees really, and it’s basically all gone anyway, and sure we could restore some if it after… But when you see it in reality, it’s shameful, shocking and feels utterly inherently wrong to the very core. ALL of this used to be forest, with only a tiny fragment left. For what? There are so many utterly useless, pointless things we produce constantly, with absolutely no benefit to anyone apart from a few people making money off it, clogging up the planet with rubbish, and guzzling up more and more energy all the time. How much of the stuff we do and make actually has any worth or benefit?

I asked if he thought the activism here is making a big difference, is it stopping the mine?

For sure its making a difference – if we were to say ‘oh sure were not going to be here anymore’, this whole forest would be long gone. After the eviction, they cleared everything out, but within a few weeks, the police had gone, and we started again. None of the structures you see are older than one year. They’ve realised now that they can’t proceed easily because of us. So now, instead, they are trying to do it bit by bit. They cut off water to trees, and the first line of trees die. They have to cut them down as they may fall and it would be dangerous. Then the next line dies as they keep cutting off the water. They don’t care.

But of course it makes a difference. Personally I plan on living here as long as I possibly can, I won’t leave. If they evict I will stay. Sure, you (the police) can try and put me in jail and maybe you’ll succeed, but this is something I believe in and I know it is a cause that is good, so fuck you. You are just upholding a system than is destroying everything. It’s a war. We will be here, we will fight for the forest and, maybe try to have some fun while we’re doing it!”

I was really glad I met these people, and it’s incredibly courageous what they are doing. Just stop for a moment and imagine moving your life, leaving your career, risking arrest, even giving up your name, and living in the trees for a cause like this. Then again, maybe one life/career/name is quite a small sacrifice when the situation is this urgent, and becomes even more urgent every day. All of my thoughts on this keep coming back to this question: Why the hell isn’t ethics and moral questioning a key part – even the MOST FUNDAMENTAL part, of all decision making in society? It’s unbelievable that these places and systems still exist, when they seem so blatently outdated and medieval compared to what we should, and could be doing. Thank you to those from Lluna who showed me around. Keep strong! Find out more about the occupation here.