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Barricades of Hambach Forest protest.

The Battle For 12,000-Year-Old Hambach Forest: Police At-tacked By A Unit Of Masked Petrol Bombing Activists

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Thousands of environmental protesters have unified in a plight to save the last 200 hectares of Germany's ancient Hambach Forest from being felled by the coal hungry German energy giant RWE.

In the next episode of this ongoing battle, the mass of protesters gathered at Hambach Forest near the western German city of Aachen on Saturday aiming to save the remains of a 12,000-year-old forest before it is felled for coal mining. An article on DW said “thousands of people were demonstrating at the "Ende Gelände" or "End the Site" protest camp which was divided into two main groups and adopting guerrilla warfare tactics they built “tree barricades” and collapsible “ground structures.”

The Last Primeval Forest

You might be asking yourself ‘what is so special’ about this particular patch of trees compared to the millions of hectares that are cut down all over the world every year? The answer is, ‘quite a lot really’.  According to around 12,000 years ago when the vast ice sheets that covered northern Europe receded and the last ice age was coming to an end, “The area of Hambach Forest was rich with oak/hornbeam trees” and remained so for many thousands of years, and is today known as “the last primeval forest in Central Europe.” The oldest document mentioning this important forest was written on July 25, AD 973 where it was called ‘Burgina,’ and according to legends Charlemagne “gave the forest” to St. Arnold von Arnoldsweiler in the 8th century due to a lost bet.

Area of forest destroyed by the mining company. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Area of forest destroyed by the mining company. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mining Moves in on Hambach Forest

The seeds of all this trouble were planted in the 1970s when RWE bought the land on which the Hambach Forest grows. As per their legal requirements, RWE preserved the forest as long as possible until it got in the way of “essential mining operations.” Protesters have occupied the trees of Hambach Forest for the past six years living in tree house communities resembling the dwellings of the Ewoks on the planet of Endor in the closing scenes of Return of the Jedi. The fight for Hambach Forest is heating up as RWE prepare to attack and destroy the remaining forest.

Another DW article earlier this year told the story of police clearing “86 tree houses” at the cost of millions of euros and they only ceased their clearing operations when a courted ban followed a law suit filed by environmental group BUND, the German branch of Friends of the Earth. The lawsuit opposed the forest's clearance because BUND argued that the area falls under the EU's Habitats Directive as it houses a population of Bechstein's bats.

Hambach Forest's rare Bechstein's bat population is threatened. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Hambach Forest's rare Bechstein's bat population is threatened. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The most persistent activists rebuilt many of the tree houses and built new barricades, but now everything’s gone pear shaped…

Latest Protestor Clashes

DW's environment correspondent Irene Banos Ruiz attended the recent protests and tweeted:

“After a long way through the forest and several clashes with the police, protesters keep trying to find a way to get to the coal mine. Right now thousands of people are taking a break, surrounded by police officers.”

 Police confirmed this when they Tweeted “about 250 people had tried to access the open-cut mine and some were being taken into custody.” The police also warned protesters to stay away from the edge of the mines because landslides proposed “a serious risk to people's lives.”

Twitter posts also show the smaller group of protesters occupying a railway track successfully blocking a train carrying coal from the RWE mine, DW reported. In response to the occupation of the train track, police tweeted that “a water cannon had to be used against protesters.”

The argument of the environmentalists is clear; they want to save the remains of a 12,000 year old forest from RWE, who in their eyes are a bunch of capitalistic environmental monsters, hungry for coal, who they accuse on their website of acting on “short-sighted politics.” The article explains that, “In the 16th century ‘forest regulations’ were passed setting up sustainable management of the forest with the surrounding communities gathering on fixed dates to discuss the use of wood and other forest resources.” Two hundred years later, in the 18th century, the forest “was divided into parts and distributed among the surrounding communities. Thus, each municipality was responsible for its own woodland that was as a result locally and sustainably sourced.” All this heritage, centuries of forest management will vanish when the last tree is felled.

Google image of the area destroyed by mining, with the remaining Hambach Forest bottom right. (Google Maps)

Google image of the area destroyed by mining, with the remaining Hambach Forest bottom right. (Google Maps)

It’s Just Trees, We’ll Plant More

But what do RWE who own the land have to say about their deforestation operations? An article published today on Handelsblatt Global explains that the energy giant RWE “wants to expand its open-pit mining for brown coal, or lignite, even as Germany hopes to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.” RWE, who are acting on energy efficiencies over the long term say their company “has planted more than 10 million trees in the Rhineland area” and that “only 200 hectares remain of the ancient forest that was once more than 4,000.”

Colony of tree houses in Hambach Forest, February 2018. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Colony of tree houses in Hambach Forest, February 2018. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The rational of RWS’s project managers and scientists is being ignored by protestors and police have increased patrols of the forest perimeter and the screening of passengers at the train station in Buir has led to the confiscation of “tools and knives,” according to the Handelsblatt Global report. And these tooled up environmental thugs, who put trees before human lives mean business. According to an Aachen police report last Wednesday, “a number of masked people came out of the forest and threw stones at officers, who then fired a warning shot in the air.” On Monday they reported that, “stones and Molotov cocktails were launched at police and a utility worker” and Aachen’s chief of police said “seven officers have been injured on the ground in Hambach in the last few weeks, one seriously.”

Hambach Forest: BRAND (FIRE) III Widerstand im reichen Land / Resistance within riches from susanne fasbender & brandfilme on Vimeo.

Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace, who is also part of a coal commission in Berlin, said RWE’s insistence on razing the forest makes any kind of compromise impossible. And sadly, RWE CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz and environmental groups met in Essen on Monday in hopes of de-escalating the conflict in Hambach, but failed to reach any kind of agreement which means the unrest is likely to escalate.

Top image: Barricades of Hambach Forest protest.               Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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