The coal mine that ate Hambacher forest

More than a third of Germany’s electricity is still produced by burning coal – mostly dirty brown lignite – and environmental activists are fighting to change this. A small area of forest not far from the Dutch border has become the focal point of their campaign.

It’s almost a uniform that they’re wearing – heavy boots, dark trousers, a hooded fleece and a scarf covering nose and mouth. There are three of them: Mona, Omo and Jim. They appear to be in their early 20s, and they say they want to change the world.

“We’re fighting capitalism and the big companies who are ruling the world and destroying it for profit,” says Jim.

We’re sitting under the trees of the Hambacher Forest, in the west of Germany, 30km (20 miles) from the city of Cologne. They all live in the “Hambi”, as they call it, in tree houses like the one above us, nestling in the branches of an oak.

They’re here because the Hambi is threatened with total destruction. There’s not much of it left now. The forest sits atop one of the largest coalfields in Europe and since mining started in 1978 the trees have been gradually stripped away to allow the excavators access to the riches that lie beneath – millions of tons of coal, coal that keeps industry running in this part of Germany and provides thousands of people with a living.

To add insult to injury, the coal that is extracted here is brown coal, also known as lignite, which emits particularly high levels of carbon dioxide.

Only 10% of the Hambi is still standing. But that 10% has become a powerful symbol for Germany’s climate change movement. Mona, Omo and Jim represent the hard core, the ones who are prepared to live outside through freezing winter nights to defend the trees.

“You’d better have two sleeping bags,” says Jim.

Today they’ve got visitors, several hundred of them, who’ve come to demonstrate their solidarity with the activists and their anger with the mining company, RWE. “Hambi bleibt!” they chant – let the Hambi stay.

They’re from Cologne, and from Aachen, and from places in between. One woman is from the Netherlands, just across the border.

“I’ve come here to protest,” says Peter, who is originally from Kenya, but now works in Bonn. “I think Germany should take a more active role in stopping fossil fuels.”