LÜTZERATH, Germany — From the roof of a green farm building, an activist dressed in black made an obscene gesture at police forces below before scooping debris out of the gutter and hurling it toward them.
Climate activists have been fortifying the tiny hamlet of Lützerath in western Germany, hoping to stop it from being razed to make way for the expansion of an open-pit coal mine that has already swallowed more than 20 other villages.
But columns of security personnel poured in Wednesday, dismantling treehouses and detaining dozens of demonstrators, making quick work of clearing large areas where they had set up camp.
The tiny village has become a symbol of the cost of Germany’s continued dependence on fossil fuels. Although the government has pledged to exit coal by 2030, amid the war in Ukraine and the scramble to replace cheap natural gas supplies from Russia, officials say the coal underneath the village is essential. The last farmer is gone, after his efforts to fight eviction failed, and the land and the houses now belong to the coal giant RWE.
“It’s unbelievable that it will be knocked down for this huge coal mine,” activist Zora Fotidou, 21, said this week as she stepped over a freshly dug trench in the campground. “We can have electricity and warmth without destroying people’s lives.”
It was shortly after daybreak when hundreds of officers moved in, as part of what police had described as a “particularly challenging” operation. But despite the fears of a confrontation — and a few initial fireworks and molotov cocktails — the effort to expel the activists Wednesday was largely peaceful.
“Do not resist, otherwise we will use force,” a policeman warned before entering one outbuilding where activists were preparing lunch. They allowed themselves to be led out in silence.
Other demonstrators perched in treetops sang and chanted as police closed in. “We need to build a better future and we need to start right now,” sang one with a guitar up a tree.
“We are pacifists,” said Yuno, an activist in her mid-20s, who like others here would not give more identifying details for fear of legal repercussions. She and her comrades were holed up in an 18th-century farmhouse, where large dumpsters and overturned camper vans had been installed as barricades.
Her group would not resist when the police arrived, she said, but others here are more “militant” — including a group occupying one of the larger buildings.
Earlier in the week, some of the demonstrators could be seen covering their fingertips with glue, or picking at them with needles. “To hide our fingerprints from the police,” said a balaclava-clad young man.
While the police quickly cleared many of the structures in the camp, activists were still dotted around the treehouses as night fell, and the officers had yet to make a push into the main farm buildings.
The occupied buildings in the hamlet present the “major challenge,” Willi Sauer, head of operations for Aachen police, said ahead of the operation. “We don’t know what to expect.” Possible booby traps and activists climbing the roofs are all “special challenges.” Police said they would continue operations overnight, although at a limited scale.
The impact of Europe’s quick-fix fallback on fossil fuels as it rushes to fill the energy gap is starkly visible from Lützerath.
On the horizon, white puffy plumes of steam from RWE’s coal-fired plant at Neurath — the second-biggest source of carbon pollution in the European Union in 2021 — rise to meet the clouds. Two of the power station’s units were due to be decommissioned at the end of last year but have now been allowed to keep burning until 2024 because of the energy crunch.
Every year, the hulking 13,000-ton, 100-meter-high excavators at the Garzweiler II mine extract 25 million tons of lignite — low-quality coal that is the world’s most polluting fossil fuel. RWE argues that the coal under Lützerath is needed to get the country through the winter.
Activists counter that the argument doesn’t stand up, pointing to studies including one published last month by the University of Flensburg maintaining that the need for coal under the village was “nonexistent.”
“This seemingly radical place takes its research from mainstream science,” said Jay, a 21-year-old sitting in an old barn turned into a makeshift canteen, where volunteers cooked up free vegan food for hundreds of activists daily. “If you act on it, you end up here.”
The activist camp has been on the site for about two years, since Erkhard Heukamp, the farmer who was forced out after losing his court battle against RWE, allowed them to camp out on his fields.
Heukamp is now gone, as are all of the original habitants of the cluster of homes in the settlement that dates back to the 12th century.
Earlier in the week, the site was a hive of activity, as the hundreds of people camped out here prepared to fend off eviction. Activists in green overalls used a pickax to dig holes in the road near the farmhouse, while others carried steel girders and concrete to block vehicles.
Anarchy signs have been sprayed in windows, and the village’s new residents formed a human chain to uproot paving slabs from the courtyard to fill a dumpster blocking the road.
Demonstrators took turns sitting on “monopods” — wooden posts that jut into the air, designed to be difficult for police to dismantle without putting the activist on top at risk. Police moved through with cherry pickers Wednesday, as activists wrapped in foil blankets clung on.
“I have enough food,” called one, though she added she was not sure what she’d do if she needed the bathroom.
The village has been threatened with demolition for more than two decades, but in October, RWE struck a deal with the Greens party-led Economy and Climate Ministry over coal mining in the area. Five other villages that had been slated for demolition for the mine were saved and, under the agreement, RWE agreed to end lignite-fired power generation by 2030 — eight years earlier than planned.
As demolition drew near, activists last week declared “Day X” — a call for reinforcements. But as police swarmed in Wednesday, the hundreds of activists still appeared outnumbered. If they could hold on until the weekend, they were expecting more demonstrators to join them, including climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Police began to erect metal fences around the village Wednesday evening, in an attempt to prevent the activist ranks from growing.
The fact that the deal to demolish Lützerath involved the Greens party was a particular betrayal for some.
“I’m very angry about this decision, I don’t understand it,” said Gudula Frieling, a city councilor with the Greens, who was protesting at the site this week. “I always thought in the last days and weeks there would be a decision from my party to stop it. I was too naive.”
“As I was putting up the barricades today, I was thinking of how I expected my political work to be different,” she said. “Civil disobedience is always a last resort.”
Katharina Köll contributed to this report.