Revisiting the Rhineland

As if nothing has ever been around here. It looks like people built a small cathedral on a meadow. Is our memory playing a trick on us? A friend and I are in Immerath, an evicted small town between Erkelenz and the Garzweiler open lignite coal mine in the Rhineland. We had heard that Immerath is right in the process of being dissolved. A year ago, when we had last been here, people had already told us of the disappearance of a hospital right at the entry of the town, where we could see a destruction site. The people had shared their memories of that hospital as the place there many of them had been born and where many relatives had died. We heard the stories but now I know I couldn’t really understand them. We spent a week in and around Immerath, occupied and reopened an abandoned school, replanted the gardens, danced, baked pizza and teased the mining company RWE responsible for the eviction and destruction of Immerath. Last summer there was one family left in Immerath but there were almost all houses still standing. The school, the cathedral and our vigil formed the centre surrounded by streets and family homes


The destruction of Immerath’s cathedral from 1890 is scheduled for january 2018. Already most of the houses around it are gone. Grass is planted where they used to stand. Nothing indicates the former existence of those houses any more. As if nothing has ever been there.

For years cooperiders and climate justice activists have come to the Rhineland to witness a mine, for climate camps, for Ende Gelände actions of mass civil disobedience and the forest occupation of the Hambacher Forest. Most of us do not come to the Rhineland because of the forced movement of people in the region. We come because of the climate crisis produced by the burning of fossil fuels. We come because RWE is profiting on a business that lets the glaciers melt in the Andes, that lets the sea level rise in Fiji and that lets the permafrost melt in the Arctic. We come because those changes destroy the livelihoods of people who did not contribute to a changing climate and we come because we think that this is unjust. The relocation of people, the air pollution and the deforestation in the Rhineland add to this injustice.

Facing these injustices it sounds like an inhuman rearranging of priorities when Alexander Graf Lambsdorff from the free marked party FDP calls the end of coal mining an “industrial suicide”. The fact that coal mining and burning in full awareness of all its negative consequences is still happening shows by what principles our society is governed. Apparently, economic interests of the powerful corporations weigh more than the protection of livelihoods and conservation of the environment which we live off. Facing climate injustice would have been a lot easier if not powerful people, institutions and corporations like the entire fossil fuel industry had profited so much from it. The ignorance of governments towards threatening changes of our environment while holding on to the obviously illegitimate shows just how much we are controlled by powerful companies and how tiny a role reason and morals play.

Facing corruption of state power we often see no other way than to take things into our own hands and engage in direct actions targeting not policies but actually stopping carbon emitters, the actors of climate injustice. Kohleauststieg ist Handarbeit – ‘Stopping coal is manual labour’ is one of our slogans. Being part of a direct action enhances the perception of corruption: blocking a coal digger convinced that we do so to protect what is essential to life and then being met by police determined to stop us brutally undermines trust in the various governments involved to an extend which no text or lecture can do.


Change is initiated by creating alternatives and by overcoming the old. Next to NGOs and citizen associations there are continuous channels of direct action on the Rhineland: amongst them the forest occupation Hambacher Forst and the mass actions of civil disobedience Ende Gelände.

What remains of the Hambacher Forest has been occupied since 2012 with temporary evictions. People try to resist deforestation by building tree houses. They put their own bodies in the way of tree harvesters. Each cutting season which stretches from October to march RWE is allowed to clear cut about 80 hectares of the formerly 5500 hectare old grown forest. There are about 200 hectares left and many things indicate that the part of the forest where most tree houses are stands on RWE’s cutting plan for this season. The occupation creates a red line towards the expansion of coal mining externally and a space for emancipation internally. Both are equally important regardless of measureable success. Climate Justice is not restored if the diggers and forest harvesters stop tomorrow and we still achieved a lot after the whole forest has been clear cut. The occupation is reconnecting people in living communally and organising autonomously. There are three things that I experience frequently in the occupation that stand for the success of it. First is sharing the absurd story of coal mining and deforestation to visitors and media. Second is the communal living emancipated to a degree not seen outside the forest. And third are the daily visits of local neighbours and supporters from the wider region who come to enjoy the forest, pay a visit to occupiers or leave donations. One day I met Gerhard who had lived in a village until it was caved away by RWE who said that the growing resistance to coal mining made him feel seen and acknowledged with his experience of displacement. Many local people share that they see new hope dawning onto their resignation facing king coal.

On November the 5th Ende Gelände had its second mass action this year. Thousands of people flooded the Hambach mine with their protest. Being a one day action it couldn’t have the ambition to severely interfere with the extraction and burning of lignite coal as it was in the former actions. it was a utterly successful action anyway. The measure of success is tricky. The first reason for me to say that the November action was successful are all the happy exhausted people that came out of the mine on Sunday night. Crossing the border of legality always poses a risk to mental and physical wellbeing and that the vast majority entered and then left the mine in relatively good condition (even when kicked by a horse) is a success in itself. The experience and routines the activists and organizers have gained over last years surely plays an important role in this. A second reason to call the action a success is the space created in the wake of the action to demand the end of coal. Other environmental organisation can more easily work towards policies and even the green party is actively working towards the end of coal. The topic comes from a fringe of the political spectrum to its centre. A third reason to call the action a success is the union of struggles and groups. The whole action was embedded within other actors and structures: about two hundred activists slept in a spontaneous camp in the Hambacher forest, local associations suported the infrastructure, the Pacific Climate Warriors hold a ceremony at one of the Ende Gelände vigils….. The authorised demonstration that was as much part of the action choreography as the disobedient groups welcomed and included people who preferred that as their way of expression. Busses traveled to the Rhineland from 13 countries. Activists engaged and expressed opinions on topics such as deforestation, colonialism and queer feminism. “Ende Gelände – Hambi bleibt, one struggle, one fight!” was shouted as much as “We’re here, we’re queer, the end of coal is near!” Nonetheless, more can be done to broaden the movement. Ende Gelände still moves in quite a bubble of middleclass academics.

In the last two weeks there have already been two further actions of disobedince; one by sugar in the tank and one by JunepA. Very few talk about COP23 without talking about coal. What a collective success.

Successful or not, being part of direct actions and engaging in what I think is meaningful helps me stay sane amongst all the reports of climate crisis , environmental destruction and global injustice. I hope that we do not do all of this just for ourselves, I hope others can profit and that we enact change, but I surely profit a lot, too.


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