Opencast coal mining has led to the destruction of hundreds of German villages over the last century. Germany has promised to phase out coal by 2038, but extraction continues, and the future of several villages hangs in the balance. Alan’s images for Monuments document the communities earmarked for demolition. Started in 2019, this is an ongoing project.
Germany is the world’s biggest producer of lignite, a soft, brown coal used for power generation. Coal currently provides almost one fifth of Germany’s power and accounts for 20% of the country’s carbon emissions. Lignite mining has shaped the landscape and lives of communities for generations, causing the destruction and reconstruction of villages, forests, and farmland.
Since the late 1940s around fifty villages in North-Rhine Westphalia, home to about 40,000 people, have been cleared to make way for lignite mines. The region hosts three active mines owned by energy company RWE, Europe’s single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide: Hambrach, Garzweiler II, and Inden. Although Germany plans to phase out coal use by 2038, several villages remain at risk from the expansion of the mines.
The Hambach mine threatens the villages of Manheim and Morschenich. Since 2012 residents of Manheim have resettled in purpose-built Manheim-Neu or elsewhere, leaving behind abandoned houses, shuttered windows, and empty streets. The authorities have housed newly arrived refugees in some of the empty homes while the village awaits destruction. RWE has delayed demolition at Morschenich, due to start in 2019, because of the government’s coal reduction plans. However, it is too late to save the village, which has been undergoing resettlement to Morschenich-Neu since 2015. The Hambach mine has also destroyed 90% of the 12,000-year-old Hambacher Forest.
RWE commenced the levelling of Immerath in 2018 to make way for the expansion of the Garzweiler mine. The mine threatens to claim three further villages within the next decade. The thousand-year-old village of Keyenberg is next to face destruction with mining due to begin in 2023. The small agricultural communities, Kuckum and Beverath, are both being resettled with mining due to start in 2027 and 2028, respectively.
Residents and environmental activists have protested the forced resettlements, but with limited success. RWE has been able to proceed because the German Federal Mining Act prioritizes the extraction of raw materials over the common good, although activists are working to amend the law to reflect the rights of people and communities.
Although coal extraction has devastated the landscape and communities throughout North-Rhine Westphalia, the industry has also provided reliable, skilled blue-collar jobs for thousands of people and is central to the regional economy. The planned transition to clean energy will rescue communities from further disruption, but this will inevitably come at a heavy cost to those whose livelihoods depend on the mines.