The final showdown – ZAD Rhineland vs RWE, Germany

By Andrea Brock

A small earth wall separates the tiny village of Lützerath from the enormous diggers operating in Garzweiler II, one of three opencast lignite coal mines operated by energy company RWE in the German Rhineland. Lignite is a type of heavy coal that is extracted and burnt locally.

The mine is 235 metres away and coming closer every day. A number of houses in Lützerath have already been torn down, the area covered with gravel, grass, and some wildflowers. It is hard to imagine that people lived here just a couple of years ago. Other houses are fenced off, with RWE security in front, twenty-four hours a day. Most people have long left the area, have been resettled, or moved away.

But one farmer is holding out. Eckhard Heukamp is challenging the imminent eviction from his farm in the courts, arguing that the coal mining plans from the 90s should no longer allow for continued extraction, in the light of climate change and coal phaseout. He was already displaced once, 15 years ago – his farm in Borschemich demolished, the land long dug up. Now he is fighting for his parents’ house and farm, which dates back to the 18th century.

He is not alone – citizens initiatives and groups are organising regular demonstrations, events, and a permanent vigil at the edge of the village facing the mine. Activists set up a permanent occupation on Heukamp’s land – the ZAD Rhineland. The term ZAD comes from the French Zone à défendre – a militant occupation to stop big development projects. The most well-known ZAD is probably the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes that stopped a new airport being built near Landes, France and famously resisted militarised eviction by the French state.

The ZAD Rhineland was set up to defend Lützerath against RWE and police, and to stop coal extraction in the Rhineland. People are ready to put their bodies in the way in what might be the final showdown, the decisive battle. “If Lützerath stays, they won’t be able to get to the next five villages”, someone tells me. “But it will be hard”.

Some of the defence structures built by ZAD Rhineland

We spend all day building defence structures. Treehouses, barricades, lock-ons, and towers are popping up everywhere. People are giving climbing workshops and sharing blockading skills, discussing police repression and state violence, building up solidarity structures and a new kitchen, plotting and planning for day X – when RWE come to cut trees or police show up to evict the camp.

The last big eviction in the Rhineland – the eviction of Hambacher Forst in 2018, which was recently declared illegal –lasted 5 weeks before it was stopped by the courts. Thousands of police officers were brought in, but many more people came to defend the forest. Police were heavily criticised for the brutality with which they treated activists and the little regard for their safety. One journalist died during the police operation, many activists ended up in precarious and unsafe situations.

Brutal repression of protests is happening all over Germany– only last year, during the eviction of the Dannenröder forest in central Germany, a protester was seriously injured when he fell four meters from a tripod after police officers had cut the safety rope which held the tripod in place. The occupation was set up to stop another ecologically destructive infrastructure project – the new A49 motorway. Another protester, Ella, was sentenced to over 2 years in prison for allegedly injuring a police officer during the eviction – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The collaboration between police and private security services in the Rhinish coal mining area has been well documented; repression, criminalisation and violence go hand in hand. Few companies are as powerful as RWE, structurally entrenched in the local political economy, and protected by German police forces who frequently act as private security. Many villages and towns are themselves RWE shareholders, and numerous politicians on RWE’s payroll. Already in 1979, the German news magazine Spiegel warned: “Unrivalled and barely manageable, RWE is ruling over one of the largest monopolies of the Western world”.

Today, Europe’s largest emitter continues to lobby for continued lignite coal mining, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Successfully – the German government’s coal phase-out is set for 2038, much too late. Meanwhile, RWE is suing the Netherlands for 1.4 billion euro compensation for phasing out coal by 2030.

As the COP negotiations in Glasgow have ended, with a final agreement that allows for the continued extraction of coal, people in the ZAD Rhineland know that it’s up to them – to all of us – to stop climate catastrophe.

It might well be that this time, too, the courts will rule that the eviction of Luetzerath is illegal – the court ruling might come any day. But by then, and even if Eckhard Heukamp’s land is saved, thanks to his action and the fight of so many people who have stood up against RWE for decades, many trees will have already been cut, land dug up, too many villages destroyed.

It is windy at the edge of the mine where I’m sitting – ever since RWE cut down the trees that once protected the village, I am told. And yet, the windmills next to the mine are not moving – the power grid is overloaded, they continue – too much wind, and coal power stations take too long to switch on and off.

The digger keeps moving towards us, ruthlessly. The power stations in the background keep burning coal, generating electricity for a system that requires abundant cheap energy to power endless growth, to generate profit for those in power, at enormous ecological and social costs.

The ZAD Rhineland shows that a different system is possible – a system that operates on the basis of solidarity, not competition; of degrowth, not growth; on climate justice, not green capitalism. It gives hope and motivation to keep fighting against coal and for abolishing the mechanisms that protect coal. True sustainability needs not just an end of coal, but the abolishing of the mechanisms that enforce coal interests – police, security, prisons – and of the economic and political system they are part of. Joining the ZAD Rhineland is a good place to start this fight. Whether you want to build barricades, defend a treehouse, or cut veggies – please join, if you can. Everybody counts. More infos here.

Note that the original post can be found here: https://www.thecanary.co/opinion/2021/10/12/people-are-preparing-for-a-final-showdown-to-stop-coal-extraction-in-the-german-rhineland/

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