Hundreds of climate activists who barricaded themselves in a protest camp at the site of an abandoned village in western Germany said they were prepared to risk their lives to prevent coal being mined from it.
Lutzerath in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has been emptied of its inhabitants, who have all been relocated. An estimated 700 anti-coal protesters, who began occupying the abandoned village and its surroundings two and a half years ago, squatting in empty houses, outbuildings and agricultural properties, are preparing for a showdown with the police after a local court issued warrants for eviction which is effective from Tuesday. The number of protesters has grown in recent weeks as hundreds of activists from Germany and around the world join the protest.
Police are expected to begin a clean-up operation this week, including removing protesters from tall poles made of bamboo poles, to clear the way for energy company RVE to mine the site for lignite.
The German government says the operation is necessary as the country reduces its dependence on Russian gas and oil.
Fighting broke out on Monday amid an increasing police presence at the site, with some activists throwing fireworks, bottles and rocks at police before the officers retreated.
The head of Aachen’s police force, Dirk Weinspach, who is responsible for leading the clean-up operation, has become a particular figure of distrust for the protesters after openly admitting his loyalty to their cause as a member of the Green Party, but insisting he could do nothing to stop their eviction. . He recently told campaigners that he shared their concerns about “further warming of the Earth and the consequences of not meeting the internationally agreed 1.5 degree target”. But he said that if the police decided which laws and regulations to enforce, it would “represent the beginning of a despotic rule” and so he had no choice but to start the evictions.
Licerat and the surrounding villages have been at the center of climate activism since at least 2013, when Germany’s constitutional court ruled that allowing the expansion of the Garzweiler opencast lignite mine was largely in the public interest.
Activists had hoped that the entry of the environmentally friendly Greens into the German government a year ago could lead to the decision being overturned.
Instead, the Greens’ economy minister, Robert Habeck, and Mona Neubauer, the NRV’s economy minister, also from the Greens, reached a compromise agreement with RVE last year to move Germany’s coal phase-out in the region by eight years to 2030. The company agreed to save the five villages slated for demolition and already cleared of humans and just destroy Lutzerath, as part of his expansion plans. This will still give it access to around 280 million tonnes of coal.
Around 900 people were forced to leave their homes and the local Catholic church, completed in 1891, was consecrated before being destroyed five years ago. More recently, the wind turbines have been removed to make way for the mine.
Habek, who found himself in the extremely uncomfortable position of turning from a long-term fighter against fossil fuels to a short-term defender of them, said: “Putin’s aggressive war is forcing us to temporarily use more lignite to save gas in electricity production.” This is painful, but necessary given the lack of gas.
Climate activists from Lutzi Bleibt (Lutzi Stais), who live in tents, log cabins and treehouses at the site and are given food and other supplies by a growing number of supporters, argue that the plans are disastrous for the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and oppose to Germany’s international reputation as a pioneer in environmental issues.
The fate of the farming village, which dates back to at least the 12th century, has become inextricably linked to the debate over Germany’s commitment to stop burning coal, which is considered one of the most polluting sources of energy.
Leading German climate activist Luisa Neubauer, who visited the site earlier this week, is furious with her party. “The Greens capitulated to RVE; activists won’t,” she said.
An activist from Berlin, who said they had left their studies to join the protest, said: “We have the willpower to stay here as long as necessary and provisions to last us at least six weeks.” We don’t talk about the risk to our lives, we don’t think about it, but I know everyone here has it in their heads, but they think inaction would be much, much worse.”