More than just a forest: The Hambacher Forst and its unwavering protectors

Article by Merle Bruske

The Hambacher Tagebau (picture courtesy Fox, an activist in the Hambacher Forst)

Almost everyone in Germany has heard of it — and still it seems to be far away sometimes. The Hambacher Forst, which is only about an hour away from Cologne, one of the bigger cities in western Germany, reached its peak of attention in 2018. Media and press all over the country reported about thousands of activists, desperately trying to keep RWE, a German coal company, from destroying what had become their homes. But what is this all actually about?

The Hambacher Forst — also called Hambi — is as old as can be: approximately about 12.000 years. It started to grow after the last ice age in Central Europe had ended and developed into a unique ecosystem, which is home to many species. But in the 1970s, the energy group RWE (Rhenish Westphalian Electric Power Company) bought the whole forest and started a massive deforestation project in order to mine coal. Hambi used to be about 5.000 hectares big; now less than a tenth is left of it, leaning dangerously far over the edge of the huge hole right next to it, the Hambacher Tagebau.

The coal mine is the largest mining area and — shockingly — biggest single emission source in Europe. If the deforestation continues at the rate it has been the Hambacher Forst will disappear completely within three years.

About six years ago, activists decided to take action to save what is left. They built treehouses and set up camps, some stayed inside the houses inside the villages that were supposed to be bulldozed. Among the activists is one that goes by Fox and did not want to be named for this story. Fox isn’t one of the activists occupying the forest, he is a big supporter of the movement, which calls itself “Hambi bleibt!” (“Hambi stays!”). Now living in Berlin, he visited the forest multiple times to join the protests, blockades and occupations. The activism takes many forms, he said, but the treehouses are among the most obvious and influential.

“The most important action they take is just to live in the forest. Even that’s already a huge challenge, and that led to the visibility the forest has, because the people there are living a rudimentary and independent life,” Fox said.

Some of the Hambi’s treehouses (picture courtesy of Fox)

Why is especially important that this forest be protected? Like any other forest, the Hambacher Forst used to serve as an important carbon sink, a natural reservoir absorbing CO2, but sadly now it is too small to be called relevant in that respect. A study by Greenpeace found that the forest’s role as an independent ecosystem in the midst of a cleared agricultural and industrial landscape is not to be underestimated, as it is the basis of the area’s variety of species and the reason for a bigger resilience. It is home to many endangered species, such as the Middle spotted woodpecker and is essential to the Bechstein’s bat as it only lives in the Hambi. Even though it has been decided that RWE is at least for now not allowed to deforest any more land, it is crucial to stop mining coal for the Hambi to have any chance at survival. According to Greenpeace’s study about the Hambacher Forst and its micro- and mesoclimate, the biggest problem caused by the huge hole the forest stands next to is the heat. During all seasons, except for winter, the mine is the main source for extreme warmth in the area. During the record-breaking summer in 2018, the temperatures in it hit the 45°C (113°F) mark. Forests usually work as a natural cooling system, but the Hambacher Forst is no longer big enough anymore to fulfill that role. Therefore, according to the scientists leading the study, it is absolutely essential to stop digging deeper and deeper for coal and start reforesting . Otherwise, the scientists warn, the forest will simply die of dehydration.

The Hambacher Forst is the little blue spot on the right of the red big one in the middle (Picture via Greenpeace)

“The biggest challenge is to make sure that the ecosystem of the forest doesn’t collapse completely,” Fox said. The one thing he sure sure of: this forest is more than just an ecosystem worth of protection, it is also a symbol for the whole climate movement.

“On the one hand, you have the capitalist industry whose single mission is to burn coal that has been kept in the ground for thousands of years, just to destroy our environment. Anyone that has ever stood in front of the mines understands how irrational this whole thing is,” he explained. “On the other hand, you have people living in treehouses that they built without any help. There is no better symbol than this forest.”

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