Protesters battle police in a fight for an ancient forest

Parts of Germany's Hambach forest have been untouched for 12,000 years, but plans to expand a coal mine could make the forest a thing of the past.

Photograph by Daniel Chatard
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Demonstrators sit down on the rails of the coal trains while police officers are arriving and surrounding them.
Photograph by Daniel Chatard

For six years, a group of protestors in northwest Germany took a unique approach to try to save an ancient forest from destruction—they lived in it.

But in mid to late September, those protesters were forced out by police. Now, the ancient forest is caught in a legal battle between environmental groups trying to prevent deforestation and German energy company RWE, which wants to clear large swaths of the forest for brown coal mining operations. As of last week, a German court has temporarily blocked RWE from clearing portions of the forest.

For the past two years, German photographer Daniel Chatard visited the protestor community to document their efforts firsthand and explore their motivations.

"It's challenging"

The community in Hambach forest was made of about 60 elaborate treehouses, some built as high as 20 feet in the air. According to their website, the group claims not to be a single organization but more a gathering of individuals fighting to stop deforestation. Some had lived in the forest continually since camps first sprung up six years ago, and others passed through, sporadically adding to the group's numbers.

“It's challenging,” Chatard says of life for those who resided there. “Basic needs like water are hard to get. People depended on humans living in nearby villages.”

Despite the challenges, Chatard adds that many of the arboreal homes were “cozy and nice.”

In the first four years that camps were established, police evicted activists twice. In recent years, camps of activists had been largely left alone because they were living in parts of the forest where RWE wasn't actively attempting to clear forest. That changed last month, when RWE expanded their scope for mining.

In evicting the squatters, police also argued that the structures violated fire codes.

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An aerial view upon the border of the opencast mine Hambach shows the conveyer bands for the coal.

What sparked the controversy?

Environmental activists say that even if the forest is regrown, its ecological value will be lost forever if RWE clears it. Few of Europe's ancient forests remain intact, and only about 10 percent of the original Hambach forest remains since the company began clearing trees.

Those remaining swaths of Hambach have been left untouched for the past 12,000 years, making it a rarity in Europe, where many wild places have been developed for human settlement.

But RWE and a portion of the German government say the brown coal being mined beneath the forest is too economically significant to leave in the ground. They argue the coal makes the country energy independent and, despite a push for renewable energy, will still be needed after Germany shutters the last of its nuclear power plants.

Also commonly referred to as lignite, brown coal is a controversial fuel because it burns inefficiently, releasing more CO2 than hard, black coal.

Annually, RWE extracts just under 50 million tons of lignite from its mine in Germany. A spokesperson for RWE told National Geographic earlier this year that after the mine closes, an estimated 400 million tons of lignite will still remain in the ground. The substance is one of Germany's key natural resources, and thus plays a critical role in debates about energy independence, but Germany has also created a federal task forceto phase out coal as part of one of their strategies to meet targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement.

Last year, German courts issued a stay on RWE's logging activities, but that stay expired in April of this year and wasn't renewed.

In an interview with The Guardian, Germany's energy secretary said, “We still need lignite for our reliable coal supply.” He said he was aware of the criticism against the fuel but felt it was necessary to push forward with mining efforts.

What's in the forest?

Scientists say that lignite isn't the only valuable asset in Hambach forest. Because parts of it have never been disturbed, it offers a chance to learn about a relatively pristine ancient European ecosystem.

Most of the trees in Hambach are oaks and hornbeams, two species that populate only four percent of Germany's protected forests. Naturalists in Hambach say its soil has never been disturbed for farmland, like much of the land in Europe. Research has shown that mycorrhizal fungi there act as a “wood wide web,” as researchers have dubbed it, signaling between trees in a forest.

“We think about birds and mammals, big things that are pretty, but there are mites, worms, bacteria, and fungi that are also important for a forest that just haven’t been researched,” Peter Wohlleben told National Geographic earlier this year.

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The obervation deck "Terra Nova" has been built by RWE and offers visitors a view over the coal mine.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Hambach forest is in eastern Germany, not western Germany.