#HomesNotCoal – how villagers are using the law to take on lignite mining in Germany

Germany now has a date for its coal phase out – but for the villagers still threatened by rampant mining, it might take a legal battle to save their homes from the bulldozers.

German energy giant RWE – Europe’s biggest carbon emitter, and owner of some of Germany’s most polluting coal plants and mines – has announced a new ‘green’ image, with a major renewables buyout and a new 2040 carbon neutrality target. It wooed the media at a press conference designed to assure investors its business is suitable for the 21st century.

But critics were quick to point out that RWE’s 2038 coal phase-out date would come nearly a decade too late to align with the Paris climate goals – or to satisfy investors demanding RWE quits coal.

And even as its CEO took the podium in Essen, a new campaign was being launched at another press conference in North Rhine-Westphalia, historically one of Germany’s core mining regions – about the human rights impacts of RWE’s ongoing coal exploitation activities.

Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht! Taking on lignite giant RWE

“Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht” – human rights not mining rights – is a group made up of several families from villages that RWE is still determined to demolish in its quest to mine coal.

Under the villages of Keyenberg, Kuckum, Berverath and Westrich lies a reserve of lignite – heavy, polluting coal – that the company wants to use to feed the nearby coal power plants of Niederaußem and Neurath, two of the EU’s biggest and dirtiest coal plants.

Under the villages of Keyenberg, Kuckum, Berverath and Westrich lies a reserve of lignite – heavy, polluting coal – that the company wants to use to feed the nearby coal power plants of Niederaußem and Neurath, two of the EU’s biggest and dirtiest coal plants.

The whole area would be turned into a vast opencast mine – an expansion of the notorious Garzweiler mine, which already spreads over almost 50km2.

The villagers have decided they will not be moved – and to defend their homes and communities, they’ll go all the way to court if they have to.

In the words of Forbes – it’s a “PR nightmare” waiting to happen for the ‘new RWE’ campaign.

Can companies evict people to mine coal?

The members of Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht are refusing to sell a piece of land to RWE. In their formal refusal to RWE to negotiate over this land, they asked the company instead to reconsider its ambition to flatten whole villages for mining. They want to see a public statement that no one else will be forced to sacrifice their home to coal.

Given RWE’s rebrand, cancelling the demolition plans seems like an obvious move.

But if the company fails to do so, the only way it can get its hands on the land would be to ask the local authority to override the villagers’ wishes and give RWE permission to forcibly take the land.

If that happens, the villagers will double down. They are rightly convinced that, in the face of Germany’s agreed coal phase-out, its recent sign-up to the Powering Past Coal Alliance and the urgent need to act on climate change, forced evictions for coal are no longer justifiable and may be unconstitutional.

The villagers will seek a court decision confirming this. To test the legal argument, they will use a piece of land, which lies on the frontier between the mine and the villages.

A decision in their favour would set a precedent that could change the game for the thousands in Germany who stand to lose their homes in this way.

The German coal phase-out: Will ‘the new RWE’ change its tune?

In spite of the new PR campaign on renewables – including a promised “responsible phasing out of fossil fuels” – RWE seems set on continuing with its coal activities. CEO Rolf Schmitz reiterated this at the press conference when pressed by a journalist.

It’s difficult to see how continued coal mining and burning tallies with the company’s new position. Spokespeople for the company insist that energy security in Germany depends on the continued use of coal, right up until the law prevents it. But the excuse is wearing thin. Given RWE’s insistence that some combination of the Hambach Forest and nearby villages must be sacrificed to keep the coal business going, it is reasonable to conclude that the company is not eager to abandon coal any sooner than it has to.

And the reason for RWE choosing a 2040 deadline, instead of dovetailing it with Germany’s 2038 coal phase-out date? It “sounds better”, according to Schmitz.

Can lignite mining keep making money in Germany?

It seems as though RWE is going some way to try to prolong the shelf life of its coal business.

Market experts have assessed the profitability of lignite – the particularly polluting form of coal RWE has based much of its dealings on in Germany – and found that, from now, there is barely an economic case for it.

But RWE’s reports suggest that lignite’s value is still such that any threat to its ability to mine would be disastrous to its profits – to the point that it predicted a ‘low three digit million’ Euro loss as a result of a court suspending its right to mine in the Hambach Forest last October.

Many had misgivings about this announcement. We recently alerted the German financial regulator, BaFin, to our concerns about the false picture it paints of the profitability of the coal market – we believe RWE’s actions may amount to market manipulation.

Life next to the Garzweiler coal mine

The realities of living next to a coal mine have to be experienced to be believed. Acres of fertile land come to an abrupt halt just metres from the rural villages of Keyenberg, Kuckum and others, dropping off into a vast pit, where wildlife and flowers would have flourished before.

But perhaps worse than living next to a mine is knowing that the place you live is set to be lost forever inside it. For the people of Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht, legal action is now their only option to fight back.

The villagers know the scale of the challenge they’re taking on, and how long it might take. But their lives here are rooted deeply and they’re not ready to be turfed out.

ClientEarth is supporting Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht in their campaign. To get the latest on our work fighting coal in Europe, sign up to our newsletter

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Hannah Freres