On the Edge

Activists are holding the line against a massive coal mine that is swallowing villages and slowing down Germany’s energy transition.

A METAL BATTERING-RAM slams through the locked door of an old brick apartment complex with a loud crack, and a handful of masked activists rush through the opening. Moments later, they emerge on a balcony on the top floor. Using climbing harnesses and ropes, four of them scale the A-frame roof where one lights up a smoke signal while the others unravel a large, hand-painted banner which reads, “Die Häuser denen, die sie erhalten” (“The houses to those who maintain them.”)

The crowd watching below includes young climate protestors, local elders, a few families with children, and media personnel. Inside the house, activists in black facemasks move up and down the three floors. Some go to the windows to hang signs. Others have already begun sweeping up broken glass and dust. Outside, a woman with a megaphone stands below the iconic yellow banner that perhaps best sums up a long-drawn climate and land protection movement in Germany, whose latest battleground is this small hamlet in North-Rhine Westphalia state. It reads: “1,5°C heißt: Lützerath bleibt!” (1.5 degrees means: Lützerath stays!) “Now the last of the emptied buildings in Lützerath has been reclaimed!” she tells the crowd.

Germany is still heavily reliant on coal, in part due to the energy gap created by its much-celebrated decision to phase out all nuclear plants by the end of this year.

Just a few steps down the street, Florian Özcan is glad that the direct action has bought him some time. He and his team of organizers have been battling technical difficulties all morning as they prepare sound and camera equipment on a temporary stage. Özcan, a 31-year-old philosophy student who has been living in Lützerath for the past year, is among the founding organizers of the resistance camp in Lützerath, and one of its spokespersons. “At least it’s not raining,” he says, glancing at the overcast winter sky. The temperature has been hovering around freezing, but it hasn’t been cold enough to bring snow. Instead, it has been a particularly wet December.

As the excitement of the action simmers down, the crowd makes its way to the stage where Özcan stands. His microphone cutting in and out, he begins to address the freezing crowd of chanting activists and journalists. On cue, an icy drizzle begins to fall.

A few hundred meters from the protest site, impervious to the dismal weather, gigantic bucket-wheel excavators continue slicing up large chunks of a fossil fuel whose extraction and use have become the subject of bitter contention in a country that is in the midst of an ambitious, clean-energy transition.

LÜTZERATH, WHICH WAS ONCE home to about 100 people, sits in the path of a massive, expanding open-pit coal mine — Garzweiler II. The mine lies west of a six-lane autobahn from the original Garzweiler mine. Together, the two mines have already eaten up 32 square kilometers of land, as well as 20 villages along with their centuries-old farmhouses, generational homes, churches, and graveyards. Among the first to go was the village of Garzweiler, after which the mines are named. The two Garzweiler pits are run by the multinational energy group RWE Power.

On the company’s website, one can see photos of lush green forests and wind farms in the sea along with bold claims about how the company “is shaping the sustainable future of energy supply.” But here in the Rhine region of West Germany, the company has one main interest: brown coal, or lignite.

Despite its ambitions for an Energiewende — a transition to an economy based mostly on renewable energy by mid-century — Germany is still heavily reliant on coal, in part due to the energy gap created by its much-celebrated decision to phase out all nuclear plants by the end of this year. Currently, some 25 percent of Germany’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, making it the biggest coal user in Europe. Most of the coal burned at these plants is brown coal — one of the dirtiest fossil fuels — which in turn make the plants one of Europe’s biggest sources of carbon emissions.

The country’s last remaining hard coal (anthracite) mines closed down in 2018 due to market pressures — it’s cheaper to import hard coal than extract it in-country. Still, Germany continues to mine more brown coal than any country in the world. Brown coal is generally found closer to the surface than black coal, and therefore mining it requires digging up wide swaths of earth. There are 10 functioning open-pit lignite mines in the country.

Activists see Lützerath as the next frontline in the battle to curb climate change in Germany.

In North-Rhine Westphalia, coal has been a key economic driver since the 1800s, when it fueled massive industrial growth in the region. Uprooting villages to make way for mines, too, has a long history here. According to the environmental organization BUND, in all of Germany 120,000 people have been forced to give up their homes and farms for brown coal mining. About 300 villages and 1,000 square kilometers of land have been irreversibly destroyed for the coal industry, with the use of an old Bergrecht (Mining Law) that essentially gives companies eminent domain-type rights to seize land for mining.

RWE, which has been operating in this part of northwest Germany since 1898, extracts around 100 million tons of brown coal every year from its three current mines, Garzweiler I and II (considered one unit), Hambach, and Inden. This coal is burned in three nearby RWE-owned power-plant complexes that together emit some 75 million tons of CO2 every year. RWE started mining the Garzweiler coalfields over 100 years ago. Since then, the company’s many coal pits have been gradually advancing through the countryside, consuming forests, fields, towns, and villages.

Lützerath had been marked for demolition, along with 18 other villages, as far back as 1987, although ground wasn’t broken for the Garzweiler II pit until 2006. RWE began the process of relocating residents of Lützerath in the past decade. As of last year, all but one of them had accepted buyouts offered by the company. The only one who didn’t — a 57-year-old farmer named Eckardt Heukamp — lives and works on a farm which now sits on the edge of the Garzweiler II pit.

Activists have marked a “1.5 degree line” next to Lützi Camp. According to researchers, all the coal under the ground beyond this line must remain in the ground for Germany to have any chance of honoring the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

Lützi Camp spokesperson Florian Özcan aims to create a climate justice movement that’s anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist.

Eckardt Heukamp, the only remaining resident of Lützerath, has sued RWE over his impending eviction from his farm that’s right next to the mine. Photo by Bernd Lauter/Greenpeace.

Heukamp moved into his family’s eighteenth-century farm in Lützerath after the village of Borschemich, where he previously had a farm, was also cleared to make way for the same mine. He has remained steadfast in his opposition to RWE. Heukamp says the buyout the company is offering isn’t enough for him to purchase a property of equivalent value elsewhere, nor can it compensate for the emotional impact of losing a much-loved family home. He sued RWE over his impending eviction, but so far, the company has not been willing to meet his demands.

“The Aachen Administrative Court confirmed in the first instance that RWE Power had made [Heukamp] offers for the acquisition of his property and land, including offers of new land, to a perfectly adequate extent in recent years,” an RWE spokesperson says.

A ruling on the suit — which will determine whether Heukamp can legally remain in his home — is expected any day now. Meanwhile, the excavators continue their slow creep toward his farm. The RWE spokesperson told the Journal in December that the mine was already very close to Lützerath and the excavator would reach the village in 2022.

HEUKAMP WOULD LITERALLY have been the last man standing in Lützerath were it not for the dozens of climate activists who began setting up camp in the village in the fall of 2020 as the case dragged on in the German courts. For most of them, however, the issue goes beyond that of a fourth-generation farmer trying to save his family property. The activists see Lützerath as the next frontline in the battle to curb climate change in Germany. Heukamp eventually agreed to let the activists set up the camp on his property. Both parties had the same primary goal after all: to stop RWE.

“We say it’s an occupation, but actually it’s not,” says Özcan. “It’s Eckart’s private property, and he allows us to stay.” (Heukamp, who’s tired of the constant media glare in recent months, was reluctant to give an interview.)

Getting to “Lützi Camp,” as it’s endearingly called, feels something like entering a combat zone. The roads that lead to Lützerath are barricaded at the camp’s two entrances. Yellow wooden Xs — a symbol of solidarity with Lützerath — lie scattered along the route to the farm. At the turn in the road that leads to the camp, a mound of earth piled by the side marks the calculated “1.5 degree line.” A study by DIW, the German Institute for Economic Research, says that all the coal under the ground beyond this line must remain in the ground for Germany to have any chance of honoring the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Lützi Camp is, in many ways, the natural continuation of the Hambach Forest occupation.

Once inside the camp, however, the feeling shifts to something almost festive. A massive red-and-yellow striped circus tent serves as the central meeting area. A tea house and furniture tucked into nooks under the trees offer spaces for people to gather, share stories, and laugh. There’s an “info point” office, a kitchen and dining area (where three hot meals are served free each day), a press hut, a first aid station, a bicycle repair stand, and numerous sheltered spaces for small fires or group activities. Some campers live in treehouses built around the edges of the camp, while others sleep in tents that fill a field in the center.

Özcan estimates the camp has had around 200 people throughout the winter, though the number fluctuates as activists come and go frequently. He hopes the camp will ultimately “make a climate justice movement possible that is anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and critical of the national state.” Its immediate goal, though, is to block RWE’s access to Lützerath.

Actions against RWE are not new in this region. About 20 kilometers south of Lützerath lies what remains of the Hambach Forest, which was Germany’s largest remaining oak and hornbeam forest and is home to protected native species, such as the Bechstein bat and the agile frog. When RWE started mining in the forest in 1978, Hambach covered 13,500 acres. Now, most of the forest has been transformed into the country’s largest open-pit coal mine. The Hambach mine also depopulated four villages and dismantled historical landmarks, including churches that had been in service since ancient times.

Lützi Camp (in the foreground), set up by climate activists on Heukamp’s eighteenth-century family farm, has a rather festive feel to it. But the campers’ goal is dead serious: Stop RWE’s Garzweiler II mine (visible in the background) from advancing further.

In 2012, a group of forest defenders began living in treehouses in an attempt to block further deforestation. For six years, parts of the forest were in constant occupation. Police pushed the occupation farther and farther back with a series of forceful evictions, but the movement gained enough attention to become a public-relations nightmare for RWE. In 2018, German courts finally stepped in to stop mining in the forest. Unfortunately, by then only about 10 percent of Hambach’s original area remained. The victory was dismal in terms of habitat saved, but it was significant in that it was the first time RWE’s plans were effectively curtailed.

Lützi Camp is, in many ways, the natural continuation of the Hambach occupation. Many of the camp’s founders met at the Hambach forest actions — it was there that they learned to build and live in treehouses, and to coordinate a resistance that is not easily and quietly swept away.

ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON in December, some locals gather on the north side of Garzweiler II, about 5 km from Lützerath, to view the entire mine. They stare in awe at alternating layers of brown, grey, and black down below. At the bottom of the pit, bucket wheel excavators continue to tear through terraced earth. Enormous feels like an understatement — these are the largest work machines in the world. Pickup trucks parked near their base look like bits of dust in comparison. In the distance, the RWE coal plant spews steam into the air. The wind turbines on the horizon look like pinwheels. A cold breeze carries the smell of rain and earth.

An old man points at the gigantic crater. “When you grow up, this will be a beautiful lake,” he tells his young grandson, who’s standing beside him.

As part of its remediation plan, RWE plans to redirect water from the Rhine River into the pit after production ends. Roughly 60 billion liters of water would need to flow into the mine each year, for 70 years, to create Garzweiler Lake. Stretching across a 2,300-hectare surface area and over 200 meters deep, it would then be the third-largest lake in Germany, in terms of volume.

Enormous feels like an understatement when describing the bucket wheel excavators — these are the largest work machines in the world.

David Dresen was five when RWE broke ground for the Garzweiler mines. He remembers a time before the excavators started tearing up the land.

The Garzweiler mines have already eaten up 20 villages along with their centuries-old farmhouses, generational homes, churches, and graveyards.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” says David Dresen, a member of the citizen solidarity movement Alle Dörfer Bleiben (“All Villages Stay”) that opposes RWE’s projects in the region. “They want to fill the pit with the water from melting glaciers,” he says, hinting at the irony that RWE’s lake stands to benefit from glaciers in the Alps that are melting, in part, thanks to RWE’s coal business.

Water is already an issue for the coal company. The Garzweiler complex extends below groundwater levels. To keep the mines from filling up, RWE is constantly pumping water out of the pit. Meanwhile, as water flows into the mine, it drains out of the surrounding areas. “The drainage creates cavities underground and houses are breaking,” Dresen says. “There are groundwater veins running 25 to 50 kilometers all the way to the Netherlands, and they can feel the effects there too.”

In Erkelenz, the nearest city, a whole street is subsiding as the groundwater level falls. In the nearby village of Holzweiler, three big farmhouses have already collapsed.

What RWE has excavated is more than just physical places, David Dresen says. The mine has essentially swallowed his memories.

The depleting groundwater is also impacting farmers in the area. “All of them have problems with water, and most of them have to rent pumps from RWE to get it,” says Dresen, whose family also manages a small farm.

Dresen was five when RWE broke ground for the Garzweiler mines, and he remembers the time before the excavators started tearing up the land. “Over there was the village Borschemich in which my best friend from school was living, and now it’s gone,” he says, pointing at a spot in the mine. Thirty-three villages in the area have been destroyed by various RWE mines over the decades, and Dresen knew many of them.

What RWE has excavated is more than just physical places, he says. The mine has essentially swallowed his memories. “When I’m standing here, I can’t comprehend that there have been these villages, although I know they were there … My mind is shaken, and I don’t know what’s real and what’s not real,” he says. He’s not alone. Everyone he grew up with, his family and friends, have lost their former lives to the mine. The collective pain of that loss of home and community, that sense of being cut adrift, can never really be healed. “People tell me they can’t go to the church where they married or to the place where they fell in love. They destroyed part of our history, and these things you can’t get back.”

THOSE FIGHTING TO SAVE Lützerath have also kept a close eye on the new coalition government that came into power last September. In their election manifesto, the so-called “traffic light coalition” of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the left-wing Green party, had promised to fast-forward the country’s coal phase-out by eight years to 2030. (The country’s 2020 coal exit legislation requires a staggered phase-out of coal use, with the last coal plant to go offline in 2038.)

In December, after the coalition assumed office, it announced a bold climate policy that included a measure to accelerate the coal phase-out. “We want to preserve the villages in the Rhenish mining area affected by the third resettlement phase,” states the policy agreed upon by the three parties. This is great news for five villages around the Garzweiler II mine — Keyenberg, Kuckum, Berverath, Oberwestrich, and Unterwestrich — which are home to 491 people. If the policy is upheld, RWE won’t excavate these villages. But not so for Lützerath, which has been left out.

“The courts will decide on Lützerath,” the policy states.

“We did not want to leave [Lützerath] to court decisions, but other parties, under the lobbying influence of RWE, prevailed in the negotiations,” says Kathrin Henneberger, a member of parliament from North-Rhine Westphalia. Henneberger, a Green party representative, used to be a spokesperson for Ende Gelände, an anti-coal, civil disobedience movement that has participated in the Lützerath actions. “The Green party will continue to oppose the destruction of Lützerath and also mobilize for the next large demonstration.”

“They destroyed part of our history, and these things you can’t get back.”

RWE, meanwhile, emphasizes that it’s open to a faster coal phase-out — if enough money is put towards renewable energy and hydrogen gas plants — but in the meantime it plans to move forward with mining in Lützerath. “We want to implement every project that is possible,” a spokesperson for RWE says, while also expressing worries about workers losing jobs and possible company losses. “We need solutions in which neither the employees nor the company suffer any disadvantages.”

But Henneberger says that debt is already being paid. “RWE is already receiving 2.6 billion euros for the coal phase-out.” Besides that compensation, the 2020 coal exit law also requires the government to introduce payments for older coal industry workers who stand to lose their jobs.

Around 20,000 people work in Germany’s lignite industry, while its growing renewables industry employs over 300,000 people. In 2018, wind, solar and other renewable sources, overtook coal as the country’s most important power source. That same year, a Friends of the Earth Germany study found that the country could shut down its dirtiest coal power plants and all its nuclear power stations at once, and still have a reliable energy supply.

In the end, much of the resistance to shutting down coal “came from the unions ... as market dynamics were certainly not going in its direction,” says Tadzio Müller, a political scientist and co-founder of Ende Gelände.

Over at Lützerath, activists now worry that if the court sides with RWE, police forces will try to clear the camp. In that case, they say, they will call on all of their allies to peacefully resist the eviction. Thousands are expected to join in their efforts.

“If the court decides against us, I’m sure we will be here in thousands,” says Indigo, an activist living at the camp. “Because we know that an economic system that cannot react to the climate crisis has no future.”

UPDATE, APRIL 7, 2022: On Tuesday, April 5, farmer Eckardt Heukamp has sold his property to RWE. Activists at Camp Lutzi are organizing a big protest event on April 23. RWE hasn’t made any comment yet about clearing out the protestors or tearing down the village.

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