The Hambach Forest Occupation
They appeared early in the morning, around 7:30 am. I and the other person I was living with in the treehouse had just awoken. We looked out the window and I saw the pigs surrounding “our” tree. They were putting up this “we are-on-an-important-mission” red and white plastic tape around the whole occupation site. It was quite clear: Today they were gonna evict us.
One cop climbed up a tree next to us to cut the walkways. I moved in his direction to “welcome” him. I told him about my dream the night before in which I was cutting the ropes of climbing cops….
Then there came a machine that “prepared” (destroyed) the ground for the cherry pickers, and when they came closer with the cherry pickers we moved into the crown of the tree. My comrade locked himself around a branch with a V-shaped lockbox. I was sitting directly behind him to give him support. Then I heard chainsaws and the first tree falling to the ground. It was the tree that I was building my own treehouse in—an around 200 year-old oak, which I had totally fallen in love with.
It sounds horrible when a tree is hitting the ground. It is the moment when you realize that it is too late—that you cannot make this unhappen—and that the tree, which you know so well and which has become your friend, is now dead.
On March 27, 2014, hundreds of German police descended upon the Hambach Forest, dragging occupiers out of the trees and arresting them. Some protesters locked down to delay the eviction while others bought time by climbing out of reach when police scaled the trunks of their forest homes. Once arrested, Domino, the activist quoted above, superglued her hands shut to make it more difficult for the cops to get fingerprints. After all the activists were in custody, police cut down every tree that had been occupied.
This was not the first eviction of the Hambach Forest occupation, and it’s not likely to be the last. Activists have been occupying and blockading sections of this forest since April of 2012, and every time they are evicted they find a way to reoccupy.
“RWE FUCK OFF AND DIE”
The day after the eviction, the Earth First! Journal office was visited by Sonny, one of the activists who’s been fighting for the Hambach, and since then we’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with them, as well as other Hambach Forest defenders. These activists are resisting the expansion of an open-caste coal mine that’s already the largest human-made hole in Europe. The mine is owned by RWE, Germany’s second largest energy provider.
Most of the Hambach Forest is already gone as a result of the mining. It was first cleared for lignite mining in 1978. Lignite—also known as brown coal—is formed naturally over time from compressed peat. One could say that lignite is to black coal what tar sand is to oil; it is not as old as black coal, and is considered the lowest rank of coal due to its low heat content. Lignite mining requires open-caste mines, so rather than a series of tunnels with one entrance, the Hambach mine is a gaping wound in the deforested countryside, thousands of feet deep and over twenty miles wide. RWE boasts on their website that the Hambach is currently being destroyed by the largest excavating machines on Earth—135,000-ton diggers over 800 feet long and 300 feet tall.
Thirty percent of Germany’s CO2 emissions come from this mine alone. Over 55,000 people in nearby villages have been displaced since the project began and thousands more will be headed down the same road if it’s allowed to continue. Locals often tell the occupiers they’re “30 years too late,” but, to the activists living in the trees, now isn’t the time to sit idle and regret what has been done. While it may be too late for those twenty square miles, there is still forest to be protected, which includes horn-beam and oak trees, as well as a colony of Bechstein bats—an endangered species.
According to Sonny, even if it is too late, that doesn’t mean resistance should end:
Can we win? Can we do this? Maybe. I do not know. I don’t know if this makes a lot of sense because yes, I live and breathe for that to happen, but honestly it is not my main motivation. The winning part I mean. Living the way I want to live, doing what I think is the right thing, that is my motivation. So the odds don’t really matter to me. I am not a reformist or a politician; I am an anarchist, a utopian, an uncorrectable romantic. And though RWE is a major part of the military-industrial complex, I feel like even just putting a small dent in their plans of profit and governing is a worthy and fulfilling goal indeed!
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds and ongoing police repression, the Hambach Forest occupation continues to resist and adapt. The first time police raided a Hambach camp was in November of 2012. Police tore down the treehouses and other structures—including a two-story kitchen—and destroyed or confiscated all of the equipment on site.
The next day the occupiers formed another camp in a nearby meadow owned by a local who is sympathetic to the cause and who is currently fighting expansion of the mine through the court system. This meadow occupation— made up of shacks, sheds, tents, RVs, campers and trailers—has remained occupied since that first raid and serves as a support system for the blockaders in the woods.
Activists have also maintained a “project house”—a communal house for building infrastructure—since the start of the campaign. The house, known as the Working Space for Action and Alternatives (WAA), is located in town about 15 to 20 minutes from the meadow and has provided vital infrastructure for the forest and meadow occupations. It offers resources that are not accessible in the woods—office supplies, internet access, showers—and serves as a media outlet and a more accessible community space for locals who’d like to be involved with the campaign.
The response from locals to the anti-mining occupation has been mixed. RWE owns five mines and multiple power plants in the region, so it employs people who have lived there for decades and whose families have worked with RWE for generations. At the same time, its activities are forcing people from their homes and villages and destroying the land of those not yet forced to move. Excessive mining has elevated radiation levels in the region, almost completely depleted the groundwater, and many houses have been damaged due to mining-related ruptures. Because of this, Hambach occupiers have received some local support from unlikely places, and have found the need to step out of their comfort zones and work with people that haven’t traditionally been considered allies to the radical environmental movement.
For Sonny, one of the most difficult bridges to build was with local hunters. As an activist who has fought fiercely for the rights and liberation of animals, they had trouble engaging with people they disagreed with on such a fundamental level. This may be even more true for anarchists in Germany than in other parts of the world, as the country has lately been a hotbed for animal rightsrelated direct action, targeting hunting especially. This year alone there have been reports of at least eighteen hunting towers being destroyed in the country, as well as slaughterhouse blockades, protests against vivisection, and reports of property damage at butcher shops, fur stores and hunting outlets. But Sonny and other occupiers feel a need to overlook their differences and build solidarity with anyone willing to fight for the forest:
Before I joined this campaign, this particular resistance, I never would have imagined passing along a hunter’s cabin in the night just seeing it there. You know? Big city perspective, single fights, huge bubbles to comfort yourself with. As someone who has fought for animal rights, you see red when you think about it. Others who have been with the movement for a longer time tell you that you sure can do whatever you want, but to maybe consider waiting on tearing down all the cabins at once, and for a minute reflect on what kind of outcome this might have.
After a short while I did understand something. I just took in consideration that I cannot take on everyone as an enemy upfront and at once. So yeah, none of us condones the murdering of non-human animals. But many feel like this is neither the time nor the place to fight this horrible behavior constantly, for the farmers and hunters have at the moment an interest in keeping the forest alive, even if completely for the wrong reasons.
Like Sonny, hunters and other locals are likely dealing with similar internal conflicts when deciding whether to work with the activists in the Hambach. There have been rumors of tree-spiking, as well as sabotage of power lines and other equipment on train lines that run coal from the mines to the plants. In town, houses have been squatted, anti-RWE and anti-police propaganda has appeared on buildings, and a local bank has had its windows smashed in. But these incidents make up a small portion of the actions in the area and most of the activities taking place in town are more likely to draw support from locals than push them away. The occupation itself has been peaceful in the most conservative sense of the word, with blockades and lockdowns acting as its primary means of resistance. Freeshops, concerts, speaking engagements, forest walks, Food Not Bombs-style cookouts, and, as Sonny puts it, “the cherished ‘bring your own vegan pastry’ coffee meetups every Sunday,” have been established by activists. There are also plans for a printing collective, a food coop and a radio station. “The main goal is to establish our protest on a wider basis inside the ‘scene’ as well as in the general public. Preferably everywhere,” says Sonny. The Hambach occupation strives to be open to everyone and to attract more than just those who identify with the activist or anarchist subcultures (as long as they are against the coal mine and hold anti-authoritarian beliefs, that is).
The Hambach resistance has attracted international support as well. The campaign has taken inspiration from other resistance movements in Europe, and over the last two years has formed networks with groups from many countries. One concrete manifestation of this cultural and tactical exchange has been the use of tunneling in the Hambach. Though tunneling is a fairly tried and true tactic among forest defenders in many parts of Europe, it hasn’t been used extensively in Germany. But during the November 2012 eviction, one Hambach Forest defender climbed down into a tunnel dug below the forest floor and locked down to a concrete barrel to slow the extraction process. People from La Zad in France, the No TAV movement in Italy, and Rosia Montana in Romania have stopped by and worked with the Hambach occupation, and the tunnel system is only one result of the growing solidarity and skill-sharing in the region.
BACK TO THE FOREST
Police raided the meadow occupation in late March, 2014—about a week before the forest eviction. They stole almost every piece of electrical equipment, including every computer and flash drive on site. A week later they went into the forest, destroying barricades, cutting down trees, and brutalizing and arresting protesters.
But with growing local and international solidarity, a strong legal team, and the project house able to lend support and update the campaign website with news and requests for support in “German, English, Spanish, and some sort of French,” the occupiers were prepared to keep fighting. Immediately after the eviction they announced that one month later—April 26—they would reoccupy the forest.
In the meantime, they held a skill-sharing camp at the meadow from April 12-25, right up to the reoccupation date. People came from all around—locals, activists, friends and family—some returning to the occupation, some arriving for the first time.
There was police interference with the camp. On one occasion, two cops and a local politician searched the woods around the site, ostensibly looking for “wild campers.” They did not find much, except smashed car windows once they returned to their vehicle. Reinforcements arrived and roved the area, until one cop, while standing in front of the compost toilets, declared, “I’m not evicting anything here,” and led the group out. Other police were ushered off the property by a large group of people in masks and costumes.
Sonny says that a few days later the cops came to get what they’d left behind:
Riot gear coppers came to the forest and they actually did take the toilets from us. Cherry pickers, caterpillars, RWE security and hundreds of robocops following orders. They came with force and we blocked, we tried to resist, we bothered them but we did not stand a chance against the armed forces of the state and corporations. A comrade locked down to a wheel loader. This gave us some sweet hours, but in the end they viciously took thirteen people to the station, while one person did bear a concussion because of being brutally beaten and kicked, and those assholes denied medical help for hours. Nothing out of the ordinary, but still upsetting, you know? The comrade was hospitalized later on and is well again. Luckily.
Those arrested went right back to the skill-sharing camp and prepared for the reoccupation. On April 26, multiple occupations retook the forest—some of which the core organizers didn’t even know were in the works. Massive barricades were also erected on the roads to keep the police out. Sonny called the reoccupation “brilliant and precious.”
There are now two main occupations in the forest. One, which Domino refers to as the “beech village,” is close to the meadow and made up of fieldbeds and platforms, some of which are as high up as 80 feet. The other forest occupation is bigger, composed of structures in four oak trees. Three of the trees have platforms and various preparations for eviction, and one houses four hanging metal beds. This time around the activists have surrounded the occupation zone with tape similar to the red and white tape used by the police, and posted signs announcing the activities in the trees. This is in the hope that it will be more difficult to legally evict the occupiers, since last time hypothetical dangers to pedestrians in the forest—of whom there are virtually none—was a reason cited for eviction.
BE THE MINDFUCK YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD
Now securely back in the forest, the occupiers don’t know what police have planned. Sonny says that, although reoccupying the forest is another victory for the campaign, this period between the reoccupation and police intervention may be the time to start thinking of new strategies.
Now [the police] seem to be hesitating—not doing anything—and this is when we have to go to the next level. This is the most important thing for me personally. I do not have a plan or anything, but the sheer wish to garner ideas on tactics and strategies that go beyond what people have done before. Because losing and taking back forest occupations is a worthy and utterly great thing, but when it comes to the question of how to stop this fucking huge hole, the disgusting bigshot RWE and the whole system, this might not necessarily be the only or even main thing to think about.
Although the occupation has held off RWE for some time, Sonny may be right that a rethinking of strategy will be important for the fight ahead. RWE has permits to mine in the Hambach until 2065, but if mining continues at the current rate the entire forest will be long gone twenty years before that. Once the ground beneath the clearcut forest is scraped clean of brown coal, RWE plans to build a pipeline to fill the massive hole with water from the river Rhine, creating an artificial lake. The company raves about this project’s recreational value. Sonny scoffs at the idea: “People are gonna love swimming in a toxic, tepid pool, I’m sure.”
The occupation isn’t just about resisting RWE. It’s also about living in a way that feels right; re-envisioning the way a society can be; living with “solidarity, respect, mutual aid and autonomy.” It’s about everything from fighting the government and corporations to growing your own food, using few resources and creating little waste. Sonny is very clear about the fact that most of the people in the Hambach don’t identify as “eco-activists,” because the ecological aspect is just one part of a wider anarchist, anti-capitalist struggle. And they hope that others will gain inspiration from the resistance as part of a more holistic fight for liberation.
When I asked Sonny how others could help the fight in the Hambach, they said this, which seems a fitting farewell until we hear from them again:
Fight for emancipation and liberation however you see fit, wherever you can. Be radical. In every aspect. Be free and do things that make you happy. Be earnest and take nothing seriously. Just be the mindfuck you want to see in the world. And dance or do other jolly things every now and then for the sake of yourselves and Emma Goldman!