Carbon-intensive lignite, commonly called “brown coal”, accounts for more than a fifth of Germany’s energy supply. As the energy transition debate continues, land-intensive extraction processes continue to displace villages across the German lignite belt. Based on their fieldwork, Paula Castro and Hannah Porada analyse the experiences of villagers near the Garzweiler mine in the Rhineland. Faced with a resettlement procedure that fails to account for residents’ multifaceted losses and a government that prioritises the interests of industry over those of citizens, villagers have mobilised to fight both for their homes and for more ambition in German energy policy.
It is a spring Sunday morning in March 2019 when we visit Rosa in her family home. (1) A woman in her early fifties, Rosa radiates calm and strength. Her house is part of an ancient equestrian yard with large adjoining meadows and riding facilities, located in the heart of the village of Kuckum. She leads us to the first floor, where we take a seat in an idyllic conservatory equipped with comfortable wooden furniture and greened by many indoor plants. The sun is shining, birdsong coming in through the open windows. We see Rosa’s daughter making her rounds in the riding arena. At the rear end of the property a small stream flows in front of a forest. But the peaceful and idyllic appearance is deceptive. By 2027, Rosa’s village will have to give way to the Garzweiler lignite mine. Her family will be forced to leave their Heimat (homeland), never to return to the house and lush meadows that have been in the family for centuries.
Rosa explains that her family has been negotiating with the mining company for years. They have not reached an agreement as the company is unable to provide an adequate replacement for her family’s property. She explains that under German federal mining law, resource extraction is prioritised over the interests of the villagers, who are left with no choice but to resettle. Rosa’s daily life is burdened by the resettlement compensation negotiations and the tense atmosphere in the village.
In Rosa’s opinion, lignite mines in Germany should no longer be expanding, as the carbon emissions are immense. She expresses her disappointment in politics, referring to the inaction of the national government on climate issues, including the energy transition, and the inability of the regional government to address the hardship her family is experiencing due to the pending resettlement. Rosa has become one of the initiators of a new activist movement, Alle Dörfer Bleiben (All Villages Stay), that is led by the threatened villages. Their actions respond to the loss of Heimat, economic hardship stemming from the resettlement, decaying social structures in the villages, and the inability of politics to address the local needs of the villagers. The movement also aligns with the national debate on the acceleration of the energy transition to tackle global issues such as climate change.
Rosa’s village is one of five villages adjacent to the 48-square-kilometre open-pit lignite mine Garzweiler II, in the rural part of Erkelenz in western Germany, 20 kilometres from the Dutch border. The expansion of Garzweiller II is planned to usurp the villages by 2035. The villagers are supposed to jointly relocate to newly built settlements not far from their old homes. For now, these new settlements stand in stark contrast to the villages that have grown over centuries, lacking elementary infrastructure and conveying the artificiality of planned development. Signs of human dwelling are absent, green spaces have not had time to flourish, and public places such as playgrounds are still under construction.
There seems to be an incalculable price to be paid for a life in these modern surroundings. Benno, a middle-aged man from the nearby and village of Keyenberg, also threatened, refers to the places of his childhood in Immerath, an Erkelenz village lost to mine expansion in 2018:
“I was born in Immerath; the hospital where I was born is gone, and the school I went to is gone. Everything is gone. All the places of my past. My passport states a place of birth that no longer exists.”
Benno’s words encapsulate the emotional strain of resettlement. The villagers are forced to face losses beyond the material without the capability to challenge them. This speaks of procedural injustice experienced throughout the resettlement process that the government fails to address.
The losers of Germany’s long affair with coal
The fate of the Garzweiler villagers is not arbitrary; it is closely linked to the role of coal in the region. As Mr Meier, a farmer from Keyenberg reminisces, people were so poor after World War II that the only goods in their basements during winter were potatoes and coal. Paradoxically, coal – once a sign of security in the cold winter months – has progressively become a source of doubt about their future.
Germany has had a long love affair with large-scale coal extraction. The coal and steel industries were the backbone of Germany’s industrialisation at the turn of the 19th century, and hence of Germany’s transformation from an agricultural state into a modern industrial state. This trend continued in the aftermath of World War II. Hard coal mined in the regions of North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland fuelled the economic miracle and endorsed West Germany’s post-war reintegration into the international political system with the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the European Union.
Unlike hard coal mining, which was phased out over the last decade as it was no longer profitable, lignite continues to be extracted along the German lignite belt, spanning from the Rhineland in western Germany over the central German lignite area to the Lusatia region in eastern Germany. In the Rhineland alone, 9000 people are directly or indirectly employed in the lignite sector. However, lignite open pits demand huge areas of land. Since 1950, in the Rhineland alone it has led to a destruction of around 130 villages and to the resettlement of over 40 000 people. The reclamation of land for mining purposes is facilitated by the Federal Mining Act. The law’s legitimisation is based on support for a secure supply of raw materials through efficient land concession and licensing procedures.
Germany’s failure to go green
Lignite mine expansion and the resulting resettlements in the Rhineland take place in a highly contested political context. International initiatives such as the Paris Agreement and climate justice movements continuously underline the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the central role coal phase-out plays in this. Multiple European countries – France, Italy, and the UK amongst them – have already gone through or announced a coal phase-out by 2030. In contrast, Germany stands out as Europe’s biggest carbon emitter. In 2016, Germany accounted for 38 per cent of EU carbon emissions, with almost half of these coming from the Rhenish lignite area. (2) Quitting coal is thus a hot topic in the debate on how Germany can achieve national and international climate targets. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy claims Germany’s energy transition strategy (Energiewende) is on track to transition from coal, gas, and nuclear power to renewables by 2050. But in 2018, around 35 per cent of Germany’s power supply was still obtained from hard coal and lignite. (3)
Laws for climate protection and the expansion of renewable energies have slowed down considerably in recent years. Experts point to the government’s inability to assert itself against lobbying by the energy industry and energy-intensive industries. Labour unions emphasised the loss of more than 20 000 jobs in the coal industry at a time when 45 000 jobs in the solar industry were being lost due to Chinese competition and cuts to government incentives. (4) The slow pace of the Energiewende makes Germany’s compliance with its 2020 climate target for a 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions less likely.
In response to Germany’s failure to promptly phase out coal, protests demanding an end to lignite extraction and denouncing political inactivity on climate have grown. These protests also support climate justice and holding extractive companies accountable. In 2012, tree-sitting environmental activists occupied the forest next to the Hambach lignite mine in the Rhenish lignite area. They sought to counter its expansion and fight for the survival of the ecologically valuable forest, yet their actions also speak to the broader debate around climate justice and fostering alternative, anti-capitalist ways of living. (5) Since August 2015, the alliance Ende Gelände has been blocking German lignite mining areas several times a year, demanding an immediate exit from coal as well as far-reaching social-ecological change by turning away from fossil capitalism. In 2018, the environmental association BUND won a legal procedure to force a temporary halt to the clearance of the Hambach forest.
In response to increasing political pressure, in June 2018 the German government convened the Coal Commission (the Commission on Growth, Structural Change, and Employment) to discuss an earlier lignite phase-out and develop recommendations for supportive structural policies in Germany’s lignite regions. By doing so, the government intended to pursue a shift in its climate policies whilst ensuring employment opportunities and moderate structural change. In January 2019, the commission released its final report containing a set of non-binding policy recommendations. Referring to affected villages in the Rhineland, the Commission recommends the regional government to rapidly accomplish resettlement accompanied by a dialogue with villagers experiencing particular social and economic hardship. Yet various environmental associations, anti-lignite activist groups, and the Green party have argued that compliance with the Commission’s recommendations would bring an end to the expansion of the lignite mines in the Rhineland, potentially making the resettlement of the Garzweiler villages unnecessary.
In January 2020, the recommendations were cast in a legislative draft, modifying the coal phase-out date from 2045 to 2038. The mining companies would have to be compensated for this shift, leaving a large share of the costs to be paid by the public. The lignite regions are supposed to receive 40 billion euros in financial assistance for the necessary structural adjustments. The clearance of the Hambach forest for mine expansion shall be stopped, but the draft does not halt the resettlement of villages adjacent to the Garzweiler mine.
Profound losses and new divides
These resettlements have affected the villagers’ daily lives for years, with immense emotional, economic, and social impacts. Rosa and many others refer to their collective future with trepidation, fearing an irreversible collapse of village social structures after moving. These relocations are intended to be carried out within a short period of time, reducing hardships and preserving community. This process – termed “joint resettlement” – is praised as best practice by the mining company and the regional government and intends to address criticisms concerning the social feasibility of resettlements. However, the accounts of villagers like Rosa describe a growing deterioration of social relations in the villages as a result of the resettlements, with deep divides emerging between families, friends, and neighbours.
In response to resettlement-induced losses, the mining company offers a standardised catalogue of monetary compensation. By putting a price tag on people’s belongings with a cut-off date, the mining company understands the compensation payments as permanently settling their accounts with those affected. For some villagers this plays out to their advantage, though most deem the compensations unable to account for all the irreparable losses. One villager lamented:
“Maybe it is fair in the monetary sense, but not regarding our emotions and our attachment to this place.”
Wolfgang, a villager who has already moved to the new village, describes how every villager has to constantly reconsider their individual trade-offs in the resettlement process, balancing their individual futures against their social commitments and political convictions. While some older people are interested in smaller and more accessible homes that require little maintenance and are suitable for their changing needs, others cannot imagine leaving their Heimat for the last years of their lives. For farmers and horse owners, the move means not only a loss of their homes but also their livelihoods. For others, staying in their villages is a political statement, raising a standard against the power of the carbon-intensive mining industry and the political inability of the government to foster a fast-paced energy transition.
The choice to negotiate with the mining company – or not – does not necessarily correspond to agreement with the company’s operational goals or to taking a political standpoint against carbon-intensive extractivism. The spectrum of individual reactions to the mine expansion and resettlements reflects a plurality of experiences that the joint resettlement scheme fails to address.
This inability to address the costs to the villagers and the crumbling social fabric of the villages delegitimises a resettlement plan based on the assumption of uniform needs. Yet, in the current political sphere in which mining legislation favours extractive interests over theirs, the villagers are unable to dispute the resettlements and defend their own interests.
Political appearances in over-burdened localities
The legal advantage held by the mining companies regarding the compensation negotiations continues. Federal mining law facilitates mining expansion on inhabited territories, naturally leading to a conflict of interest between the companies and local populations. The actual compensation negotiations, being led by the mining companies, do not contribute to a de-escalation of the situation. This process lacks political control that could grant more procedural justice to the villagers confronted with drastic impacts on their lives. Multiple advocates of a social-environmental justice stance deem the current legal situation outdated and are demanding an improvement in the legal protection for those affected. There is a need for a democratic double-check of the resettlement process. Monitoring of the compensation process by an impartial elected political panel could be one step in the right direction. However, this solution is rather pragmatic and does not account for the inability of monetary compensation to account for non-material losses. In that sense, a post-resettlement assessment of the villagers’ situation could shape further supportive policies.
The villagers bear the heavy economic, emotional, and social costs of Germany’s energy production. Germany’s interest in economic development puts an over-proportional burden on them. Like many other villagers, a farmer from Berverath reflects on how this burden is paired with a state of legal uncertainty, and how the regional government is mainly trying to keep up appearances in the villages without any real impact:
“There have been so many politicians visiting the villages already, and Mr Laschet [Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia] has been here as well. I don’t understand what this is supposed to change.”
Continuous disappointments have led to political disenchantment and resignation among some of the villagers. Others have chosen a more reformative approach, trying to engage in communal politics and achieve small-scale improvements. The success of such endeavours is limited. The villagers hold little democratic influence on local political bodies, evidenced by villagers being downgraded to a purely representative function lacking any real power in local committees. Ironically, the participation of the villagers in formal political processes disarms and disqualifies the critique of mining activity, a trend that can be observed in mining conflicts worldwide. (6) A Green party politician from one of the villages expressed his frustration at the “lack of public dialogue” and the evasiveness of politicians on all levels. The Coal Commission’s recommendations reinforce this impression, deprioritising the villagers as stakeholders in the coal phase-out. As one villager reflects:
“The main task of the Coal Commission was to draft a scenario for energy transition, and most of the people taking part in it did not care about the villages.”
Consequently, Rosa and other villagers decided to actively counter formal political processes and founded the activist movement Alle Dörfer Bleiben, which has attempted to draw attention to the villagers’ situation since autumn 2018. Not all activists believe that the resettlements can still be prevented, but they aim to send a strong signal to politicians. The movement, similar to Ende Gelände, criticises the government’s failure to take more action on climate change and energy transition, and points to the entanglement of political institutions and mining companies.
In the Rhineland, the villagers find themselves in constant limbo – be it legal insecurity, political inconsistencies, or the current status of the resettlement process. Some villagers have left, while others remain. This may lead to unforeseen social dynamics and create new divisions within and between the old and new villages. The emergence of the local activist movement reflects the inability of political institutions to adequately account for these realities and the procedural injustices that the villagers face. Coal phase-out policies need to understand the villages as doubly affected, by both the mining-induced resettlement processes and the energy transition.
1. All names in this article have been changed.
2. Europe Beyond Coal. (2019). Data. Retrieved July 27, 2019, from Europe Beyond Coal.
3. Kerstine Appunn. “Coal in Germany”. Clean Energy Wire. 7 February 2019.
4. See for example: Paul Hockenos. “Jobs won, jobs lost – how the Energiewende is transforming the labour market”. Clean Energy Wire. 30 March 2015; Claus Hecking and Stefan Schultz. “Deutschland hat nur noch 20.000 Braunkohle-Jobs”. Spiegel. 5 July 2017. Note that figures vary and the numbers cited here represent an average.
5. See Stine Krøijer (2019). “Slow Rupture: The Art of Sneaking in an Occupied Forest.” Martin Holbraad, Bruce Kapferer & Julia F. Sauma (eds). Ruptures: Anthropologies of Discontinuity in Times of Turmoil. London: UCL Press. p. 157.
6. See for example Fabiana Li (2015). Unearthing Conflict. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
This article is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.