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Special Report from the Occupied Forest: Meet Activists Fighting Europe’s Largest Open-Pit Coal Mine

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Reporting from COP23 in Bonn, Germany, Democracy Now! travels to the nearby blockade of the Hambach coal mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in Europe. Activists say the mine extracts an extremely dirty form of coal called lignite, also known as brown coal, which causes the highest CO2 emissions of any type of coal when burned. For more than five years, they have been fighting to shut down the mine and to save the remaining forest from being cut down to make way for the expanding project. Only 10 percent of the ancient forest remains.

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AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Sunday, Democracy Now! traveled about an hour west to a 12,000-year-old forest in western Germany, where activists are fighting against the largest open-pit coal mine in Europe. The massive Hambach mine is 33 square miles—half the size of Washington, D.C. It extracts an extremely dirty form of coal called lignite, also known as brown coal, which causes the highest CO2 emissions—that’s carbon dioxide emissions—of any type of coal when burned. For more than five years, activists have been fighting to shut down the mine and to save the remaining forest from being cut down to make way for the expanding project. Only 10 percent of the ancient forest remains.

Well, on Sunday, we drove down a dirt road. We got caught in the mud, had to push our car out. But we there bumped into an activist from the nearby city of Cologne at the entrance to the remaining forest.

ANNA PRIESS: My name is Anna Priess.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us where we are right now.

ANNA PRIESS: We are in the Rhineland, in North Rhine-Westphalia, in Germany. And we have one of the biggest coal mine areas here in the Rhineland, with a lot of bad emissions for, well, all of us. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Is this one of the largest coal pits in Europe?

ANNA PRIESS: I think it’s the largest one, with the most emissions. And as you can see here on the photo, we are in this area at the moment. And all of this was nature, was forest, before.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re showing us a map.

ANNA PRIESS: And, yeah, it’s—basically, 90 percent of the forest is destroyed already because of the coal mining. And we have a little bit left, less than 10 percent. And there, people are trying to protect the last 10 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: So where are you taking us now?

ANNA PRIESS: We will take you to the occupation of the Hambach Forest, because for five years now, or five-and-a-half years, people tried to protect the last bit of the Hambach Forest. And they have built around about 22 treehouses, where they live permanently during the whole year. And we’ll just, yeah, say hi to them.

AMY GOODMAN: OK. Let’s go, through the mud.

ANNA PRIESS: Through the mud.

AMY GOODMAN: Onward through the mud. It looks like we’ve come to yet another branch blockade right here. What are—why are these put up?

ANNA PRIESS: Well, they are put up as a sign to not have people in the forest we don’t want to have in the forest, like coal mine company people or police. And as you can see, there’s also a small path, so pedestrians are always welcome in the forest, but not cars.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the sacrifices people make?

ANNA PRIESS: Yeah. Well, I think it’s very hard to live here, because you have no running water, you have no electricity. People live here the whole year, so it’s cold in winter. Especially in winter, it’s very cold. And then, summer, it’s better, but you have to get the water here somehow. You have to, yeah, see where you get electricity from to cook, to charge your mobile phones.

AMY GOODMAN: How long have these treehouses been up?

ANNA PRIESS: The first occupation was in 2012, and it lasted half a year. And the second one was in 2014. And since 2014, there were always people living here.

AMY GOODMAN: We are standing directly in front of a barricade, which the people here have asked us not to film. Ana, can you read the banner that is draped from this barricade?

ANNA PRIESS: Yeah, it’s saying, “You want us gone, but we’ll be right here.”

AMY GOODMAN: “You want us gone, but we’ll be right here.” So we’re not going film the animals or the people right here, but we’re going to go on to the treehouses.

And can you tell us your name?

CLIMATE ACTIVIST: I’d rather not, prefer to be anonymous.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you from Germany?


AMY GOODMAN: And have you been a part of this blockade, this occupation?

CLIMATE ACTIVIST: Yeah, I have stayed here for a couple of months.


CLIMATE ACTIVIST: Because when I’m here, I feel like I’m actively doing something. When I’m here, I find meaning in the work here. I learn a lot about repression, oppression and climate change. And I feel like I take a stand here and make it possible both to create media attention and make people know about this place. But also, for me personally, like feeling like I want to do something to help the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think about the fact that you’re right down the road from the U.N. climate summit? The world’s countries are gathered to talk about the issue of climate change.

CLIMATE ACTIVIST: It’s surreal. It feels surreal. Also, I’m a little bit angry, because I fear not much will be done, as we’ve seen time and time again. There will be empty promises and no action behind it. People won’t actually work to out phase brown coal, to out phase other types of fuels that are extremely—what do you call that? Polluting, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean by brown coal?

CLIMATE ACTIVIST: I mean it’s called lignite coal, I believe. There are two kinds of coal. There’s coal, and then there’s brown coal. Brown coal is more destructive for the environment, because to be able to get it, you have to actually remove layers of the earth completely, like you remove all the environment. And you can’t just fill it up again, because it’s polluted. And also, its fuel worth isn’t as good as with the normal coal. It’s more polluting. It’s not—it’s compact, which means it gives off more carbon dioxide than coal does.

AMY GOODMAN: Which heats the Earth more.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re walking past the barricade into what looks like a village of treehouses. There are about 200 people here for a public tour.

TAM: My name is Tam.

INDIGO: I’m Indigo.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about where we are and what you have done here.

INDIGO: So, we are in a treehouse village in an occupied forest. It has been occupied for over five years now. And the occupation has the aim to prevent the explanation [sic] of the mine. So, it’s not just about protecting the forest, but about fighting global warming, because this region of lignite mining and lignite power plants is the biggest source of CO2 emission in whole Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: How long have you lived here?

INDIGO: I think that’s not so important. I live here for a while.


TAM: No matter if you’re here for one week or for five years, we all do the same. We squat the trees. We organize our lives here. And yeah, we fight for a system change that makes it impossible to—for a company to do a destruction like RWE does.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the company is and what it’s doing?

INDIGO: So, RWE is a multi-international company, producing energy from lignite mining, traditionally, but they also have stone coal that they export from, for example, Colombia or China, where it also causes enormous damage also to indigenous people. They also have nuclear power plants. And now they have part of the company that does renewable energies, since it’s where they can make money from now. And the whole thing just works out for them, because they don’t have to pay the costs, but—the costs of the environmental destruction happening because of lignite mining. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about this open coal pit? How big is it?

INDIGO: It’s nearly as big as Cologne, which is the next city here, where over 1 million people live.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does the company—how has the company responded to this occupation?

INDIGO: Well, they say what they do is legal and what—because it’s like legalized by democracy, so they say what they do is right and what we do here is illegal. And so, they asked the police to evict us, what they have done in the past. But for us, that’s a strong sign that the problem is the system we live in. So, if it’s legal for a company to destruct our whole planet, that means that it’s time to also resist against state power.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you read this banner to us, Indigo, that’s above your head?

INDIGO: “Dear RWE, Respect existence or expect resistance! Hambacher Forest.”

AMY GOODMAN: Have the police attempted to evict you here?

INDIGO: Well, the last big eviction was around three years ago. They do evict us, but it’s really hard and expensive for them. That means that—and also, we have the rule that we occupy for weeks after the eviction. So, they kind of left us alone the last years, because they knew that it’s a lot of trouble to evict us, which is already kind of a small victory, because that gave us time to develop infrastructure here, both physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it so difficult to evict you? And how much police power do they bring to this?

INDIGO: Well, it’s hard to evict in treehouse. That’s the reason why it’s really efficient, because, like, our highest treehouse is, I think, 24 meters high. So, first, they have to come into the forest, and then they have to get a cherry picker there and evict you from the treehouse. Also, there are lock-ons on most treehouses, which makes it even harder for them to get the people out.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s a lock-on?

INDIGO: A lock-on is something where you can lock on with on the tree, so it’s not so easy to get you out of the tree.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have electricity here?

INDIGO: Yes, we have some solar panels up in the trees. And actually, that gives us enough energy to make computer work from here, to charge our phones, to have electric light in some of the treehouses. And also there’s a windmill at the meadow occupation. So, actually, there’s always weather, sun or wind, so we always have electricity.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you always afraid the police will raid?

INDIGO: I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, because I’m here to fight. So, from the first day I came here, I knew that police can enter all the time. So, it gives me motivation to go on.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you take us into one of these treehouses?

INDIGO: Well, we have one that is accessible by ladder. For the others, you have to climb a rope. But we can go into the one that is accessible.

AMY GOODMAN: We just climbed a ladder into this treehouse. Indigo and Tam are going to show us around. We just climbed up a ladder to get to this treehouse. When was this built? Can you describe it to us, and how people live here?

INDIGO: This building is mostly called the tower, because it’s built between three trees and has three stories, so it’s basically the biggest treehouse that we have. It was mainly built this summer, because we made a big mobilization campaign, so we knew that a lot of people are going to come. So we needed a bigger common space and also space that people can get up without having to have a climbing harness and have to have to climb a rope. So, it’s also the idea to create it all a bit more barrier-free. So, this is our communal kitchen here.

TAM: And living room.

INDIGO: And living room. We always cook for everyone. Most of the food we use is dumpster-dived or gets donated to us. We cook vegan.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have a wood stove here.


AMY GOODMAN: And how does the sink and the stove operate?

INDIGO: Well, this works with the gas bottle. Unfortunately, we have to cook with gas, but it’s just easier. And the sink just goes outside. We collect rainwater with the roof and take it down to wash dishes and so on.

TAM: Here’s the living room and cooking space, as we said. And upstairs, there is a communal sleeping place with, yeah, basically room for 15 people to sleep.

AMY GOODMAN: and it looks out over this whole village?

INDIGO: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there other villages like this in the woods?

INDIGO: Yeah, there are other villages.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just wondering, Indigo, if you could talk about what you feel like in this treehouse, oh, many meters up, many feet up, not so far from COP, the U.N. climate summit?

INDIGO: Actually, for me, that’s really a sign about how absurd it is that we believe that the people who were actually part of the people who caused this disaster, which is global warming, that we trust in them solving it, even though they are profiting from how the situation is right now, and that, actually, just some kilometers away from there, there’s the biggest CO2 source of all Europe. And yeah, for me, it seems really [hypocritical]. They’re sitting there and talking about global warming and climate justice, because—yeah, it really shows me that it’s time that we take responsibility for our own lives and that we change something and that we create a world which gives us the power to act, instead of hoping that other people will solve problems.

I also don’t believe in technical solutions. I think, like, there is a lot of hope in technical solutions, and it can really help us, but we will not stop destroying this planet if we don’t overcome capitalism and domination. And yeah, it’s definitely no—not a good idea to replace lignite mining with nuclear power. Both cause enormous damage. And for me, it’s one struggle that’s really important for me. I’m not just fighting against lignite mining, but I’m fighting against exploitation in general, and that means fighting against capitalism, and that means fighting against domination. And that’s why I see this as one struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever spoken to any of the workers at the pit?

INDIGO: Yes, we do have contact with them—for example, with the workers’ unions.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do they think?

INDIGO: They want to keep their working places. Actually, for me, it’s really hard to do this discussion, because, for me, it’s actually a racist discussion, because we talk about 20,000 to 30,000 working places in Germany where people might lose their jobs, but we’re also talking about people in the Global South already dying from climate change, and there are thousands of them dying every day. So I don’t want—I don’t want to talk about people losing their jobs because of lignite mining.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe this forest to us, the significance of it? And will this even be left if RWE, the company, succeeds in expanding the open coal pit?

INDIGO: Well, their plans are to cut down everything here this year, until February. So, if everyone goes as they plan, they will cut all the occupied parts of the forest until February. This means that it’s more important than ever to resist and that it’s more important than ever to connect and network and to come here and get involved.

AMY GOODMAN: How easy is it to see the open pit?

INDIGO: Well, actually, RWE tries quite good to hide it. For example, if you drive on the highway close to the open pits here—because it’s not just one, it’s quite a few—you see hills next to the highways, and on the hills, there are solar panels. And there are like trees next to the highway that says “Tree of the Year 2008,” “Tree of the Year 2009.” Actually, one other absurd thing is that this counts as reforestation, if all these trees are just right next to the highways. But RWE also has like a fancy place where you can see the pit and where they have like signs on where they explain how great this technology is and that they have the biggest diggers in the world and so on. And actually, some people go there to just have a Sunday trip with their children or even to celebrate a wedding or something like this.

AMY GOODMAN: They have weddings at the open pit?

INDIGO: They do have, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s a restaurant there?

INDIGO: There’s a restaurant, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts about that? What’s the restaurant called?

INDIGO: I don’t even know. Like the platform is called Terra Nova, which means “New Earth,” which is already so absurd to me. But actually, we called our compost toilet Terra Nova, too.

AMY GOODMAN: We leave the occupied forest and drive just about 10 minutes to the largest open-pit coal mine in Europe. It’s run by RWE Power. It’s, oh, 10 minutes from where we just were in the Hambacher Forest.

MILAN SCHWARZE: I’m Milan, Milan Schwarze. I’m part of Ende Gelände. Ende Gelände is a—yeah, we make civil—action of civil disobedience against coal, coal mining in Germany. So, we think it’s really necessary that we have to make one step more, go into the coal mines, in coal mines like this, and occupy the diggers to stop them directly with our bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, tell us what you did last Sunday at the beginning of the U.N. climate summit.

MILAN SCHWARZE: Yeah, this was an amazing action. A lot of people, around 3,000 people, entered the coal mine. We started with a demonstration in one of the villages close to the coal mine.

PROTESTERS: Keep it in the ground! Keep it in the ground! Keep it in the ground! Keep it in the ground!

MILAN SCHWARZE: And then we split off in fingers. We have a five-finger tactic. And they go directly into the coal mine and went to one of the diggers. And the police made the line in front of the diggers and want to protect the digger, because this is how it works in Germany: The police protect the coal mine company.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, these are these massive excavation machines.


AMY GOODMAN: How large are they?

MILAN SCHWARZE: Two-hundred fifty meters long and 90 meters high. And they are the biggest diggers in the world. The people built a huge circle, that the police can’t kettle them. And then the police came and pushed the people away, also with horses. And one policeman pushed one woman, one activist, in front of a horse, and the horse goes over the woman

AMY GOODMAN: Trampled her?

MILAN SCHWARZE: Yeah, and stepped on her back. And this was a really crazy moment. And then the police came and pepper-sprayed a lot of people. And so it was a dark moment of the action. But I think the area is too large, and we are too strong, and the police can’t stop us.

AMY GOODMAN: So you stopped this massive excavator from working?

MILAN SCHWARZE: Yeah, we stopped the whole mine.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole operation that day.

MILAN SCHWARZE: Yeah. And it was a great, great feeling and a powerful moment also. I think it’s a sign of hope, sent to the world from us, because we want to say, “We can stop the [bleep] companies, we can stop the fossils, just by ourselves, with our own bodies, to stay in front of the diggers, to stay in front of the destruction, to stop it and to protect what we really love.”

PROTESTERS: We are unstoppable! Another world is possible! We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!

AMY GOODMAN: “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” Thousands of people chanting that after storming the Hambach open-pit coal mine two weekends ago, temporarily stopping extraction at the largest open-pit coal mine in Europe.

When we come back, Democracy Now! questions the Trump administration’s climate adviser David Banks and get response from Kevin Anderson, climate scientist.


AMY GOODMAN: Beethoven’s (Pastoral) Symphony No. 6. Ludwig van Beethoven was born here in Bonn, Germany, in 1770.

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