Field Notes: Hambach Forest

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Originally written and published for lush.com in January 2018

Words and photos: Lauren Marina

West Germany’s 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest is home to 14 different endangered species of wildlife and an impressively organised protest camp — on the ground and in the trees — which has been fighting to stop the felling of forest trees for the expansion of coal mining in the region. I joined the activists for the night to more about the power of positive community action.

A dark brown, hasty, squirrel climbs at speed up the sturdy cylindrical trunk of an ancient tree. Slung through the branches is a massive hand-painted bedsheet banner which reads ‘No Justice, No Peace’.

A treehouse, made with ropes, wooden slats from industrial pallets, patch works, no straight angles, large glass windows, adorned with political flags, banners and rain-sodden, once cheery bunting…

I notice a connecting trail of double line ropes, or ‘walkways’ linking to a web of treehouse residents, a clever way of limiting the need to touch down on terra firma. Each treehouse unique and with a character of its own, perhaps reflective of their constructor.

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The woodland is cold. Mud squelches underfoot as we make our way along forged pathways which connect the small clusters, or ‘barrios’ of more than 30 treehouses together through the forest. Along the way, signs of human activity indicate the forest has been occupied; handwritten wooden signs tied to tree trunks, information sheets about the forest kept dry inside plastic sleeves, the odd compost loo here and there.

An icy, grey air surrounds the bare branches. Birds chirp long sequences above, dry leaves rustle and shuffle about, whilst all along, the dull drone of the mining machinery hums in the distance.

I find myself in Western Germany, amidst a bitter environmental battle. On one side, a mega open-pit, highly polluting, lignite coal mine, seeking expansion. On the other, the remainder of the 12,000-year-old Hambacher Forest.

RWE is a major European energy producer and supplier, with a strong presence of ‘fleets’ of power plants in Germany, UK and the Netherlands. The company plans to cut and clear the remaining forest between 2018–2020. RWE’s work in this area began in 1978 when they purchased the land; the open pit now spans 3 miles, with only this small piece of ancient woodland serving as a reminder of the once grand and expansive Hambach forest.

For the mining tourists, RWE have built convenient, cement platforms to observe the work in the mine. From the platform we take in the coal pit, vast and ominous, ravaged, scraped and scattered, dry and deserted, I feel like Mother Earth is weeping in front of me. Craters of black and grey make epic tide lines in the ground whilst monstrous coal digging machinery looks ant-like in the setting of this awful expanse. A misty, sooty cloud fills the air and muddies the images we see through the viewfinder. Wind turbines for renewable energy speckle the horizon like a mirage for cleaner futures. The reality is, this part of Germany is stuck in a dirty, archaic, and money-hungry struggle for this remaining lignite.

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Back in the forest, we meet activists who have given their bodies to the resistance of the cutting of these final trees and their political commitment to the fight against the disastrous climate-damaging effects of coal. They occupy the forest via settlements of tents on the ground, and have taken up residence in varying sizes of treehouses and platforms in the branches of the trees since 2012; with a tenacious attitude to stay until the cutting stops… for good.

They kindly invite us to stay in one of the treehouses, overnight as guests. This treehouse is magnificent, ladders and layers piled high, I am in awe of the building skills needed to complete such a solid and robust house in the trees. It rises three stories high; the first floor, a storage space for a whole host of tools, ropes, spare clothes, and the odd half-eaten sandwich left on the side. The next floor, a social, community space, complete with operational kitchen and wood burner. We share food on this level as the evening gets dark, about 10 or so people crammed into every available space, faces lit by candlelight. Literature, flyers, maps and posters litter the walls, more slogans scribbled into the woodwork, a catchy motto ‘leave coal in the hole!’.

Our room for the night, the top floor, the insulative bundled straw ceiling encapsulates the rising, cosy heat of the burning stove below, the smell of firewood permeating every fabric in the space. I am filled with a sense of togetherness and strength from all finding shelter in the ‘baumhaus’ (treehouse) as the conversations stretch long into the night. The simple togetherness, chatting, laughing, respectful debate, fair communication and sharing of this group illustrates a new dimension of this occupation that I had not yet recognised. Yes, this is a unique, DIY, anti-capitalist, anarchist and tenacious way of living in protest, but this community is illustrating options for a more positive way of igniting community power. These protesters exhibit the empowerment of resilient communities and the positive benefits of connection and communication, they shun more conventional social constructs such as hierarchy and embrace listening and giving space to one another.

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In the morning, we work together to complete some small chores, like washing dishes, and lifting more firewood up to the treehouse via a pulley and plastic crate system. One of the treehouse occupants walks with us through the woods so we can witness one of their current fights. Clear, square plastic sheets have been stapled over the natural holes and nooks in the trunks of many of the trees in the forest. Our companion blames RWE. He says that the organisation has covered the holes in order to evict any remaining wildlife, such as bats and birds, and to prove that the forest is effectively ‘dead’, thus strengthening the argument to cut and kill the rest of the forest. The activists have been ‘taping’, which is a way of climbing the tree to take down the plastic. He shows us some of the plastic that the activists have removed, they are scarred by claw marks and tiny holes made from beaks desperate for air. To add extra sadness to the story, these beaks and claws may well belong to one of the 14 species whose last remaining habitat is the Hambach forest. If the forest dies, they die too.

On our last afternoon with the group, our guide for the day walks with us along the edge of the coal pit and the forest along a steep man-made soil and sand verge. The sky is a dreary grey, it’s not changed much since we’ve been here. Bleak, dead and felled trees are scattered across the land. We look again over the coal pit, and I note the stark contrast in energy, it feels desperate and deathly, a pure opposite to the near-magical and spritely aliveness within the trees. There is no question about it, I know which side I’m on.

In support and solidarity:

The forest occupation is under regular threat of eviction.

Read more from the Hambacher Forest and find out how to support the action via https://hambachforest.org/

Written by

Writer, illustrator, marketing and social media creative based on the South Coast, UK. Long-time ethical, and radically sober vegan.

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