03-Dec-2002: By Meena Menon for

After acres and acres of green sugar beet fields, a small hillock leads you to an unusually bizarre view near Erkelenz, which is about half an hour by train from Dusseldorf. A large deep canyon 6 km to 12 km wide and over 70 metres deep spreads below you and the muggy day clouds the range of muted colours below with black jagged lines across.
Only the giant black excavators are clear as they cut into the earth, mining lignite, which together with coal, supplies almost 25 to 30 per cent of Germany’s electricity. Just behind, tall chimneys spew gusts of white smoke. The state of North Rhine Westphalia has a long history of coal mining and steel production, which has decreased over the years, but it still produces 55 per cent of Germany’s lignite and 85 per cent of coal.
And while mining the fertile soil for lignite, people have become the casualties. Garzweiler 1 as the mining area is called, is slowly eating into their farm lands, draining precious ground water reserves and causing pollution that is affecting their health. "It is like the Sahara desert," said Gisela Irving, part of the People’s Initiative in Rhineland to stop open cast lignite mining.
Nearly 90 per cent of the lignite is used to produce electricity over the years. Each ton of lignite burned produces one tonne of carbon dioxide, Gisela said. The lignite is being mined by Rheinbraun, which belongs to RWE, a large (or the largest) German electricity utility.
Dr Henning Rentz, senior manager, corporate environment/political affairs of RWE AG, justified the displacement and said there were being provided adequate compensation.
According to the People’s Initiative, between Cologne, Aachen, once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, and Monchengladbach in Germany, about 100 million tonnes of lignite are extracted annually in three large open cast mines. These local mine fields are called Hambach 1, Inden 1 and 2 and Garzweiler 1 . The planning for further mining projects extends to the middle of this century.
The Rhineland is full of old Roman ruins and centuries old farms and several rivers, with vast reserves of ground water.Johannes Dunochede , 74, of village Pesch is a farmer who has lived here since 1958. He lost about 15 hectares of his 30 total due to the mines. The reclaimed mines have new soil which lack nutrients, he added. Vegetables cannot be grown here any more as the soil has become too sticky. The state of North Rhine Westphalia has the best soil but after mining has begun, there has been water logging in the farms and milk production has dropped, he said. "I have got rid of the cattle because it is unviable and now my daughter runs the farm part-time," he added.
RB has devastated the area and earlier they used to offer land but now just the money, he added. A number of people oppose the mining but few of the affected want to speak up as they fear their chances of a good resettlement package will be affected. Pesch is expected to be displaced in 2005.
Gisela said , "If I want to move out, I will sell my home for 30 per cent less of the actual cost. It was a beautiful place for retirement and I can grow my own vegetables." She moved here some years ago to enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside and instead found herself locking horns with a large mining company. Her village, Holzweiler, will be asked to vacate in 2027.
Willi Jansen is a pensioner who moved her since 1964. At 65, he faces the prospect of being displaced and it is not one he relishes. His village Keyenberg will be displaced in 2020.
To keep the mines dry, all the ground water is drained out by a chain of pumping stations that create a tunnel around the mines and over 3000 cubic feet of water is being pumped out for each tonne of lignite. Most of this water is unused and ends up in the Rhine and Maas rivers.
For Garzweiler 2, 195 million cubic yards of water will be pumped out, destroying drinking water sources in favour of lignite, according to Mr Dunochede. The pumping stations are located in meadows and sinking levels of acquifers mean that the meadows are drying out. With the expansion of mining, the open cast areas could stretch within 12 km of the Maas Schwalm Nette Nature Park on the Dutch German border and threaten its uncultivated pristine woodlands.
Since 1950, lignite has been excavated and till now, about 62,500 acres has been devastated by the mines, according to the People’s Initiatve.Two thirds of that has been recultivated but the loss of natural rivers, ecosystems --land and water are not compensated for.
The tragedy of displacement , loss of farmlands and homes is compounded by the fact that the government does not seem to be concerned with this area and the effects of mining on the population. There seem to be are no health or environment impact studies.
While Germany has a commitment to reduce CO2 emission by 25 per cent by 2005 and there are new laws for renewable energy, the people living around these mines are a forgotten part of history. Right now only ten people are actively in the struggle and this could be their last stand.
Till 1985, over 30,000 people have been displaced by the mines and some more villages are in the process of moving out- homes are shut down, old churches look desolate and houses which are hundreds of years old, will soon be taken over by excavators. Four more villages are set to move and 14 more are in the pipeline if the mining continues. The villages of Lower Rhine have a cultural significance and archeological finds date back to 7000 years. Though there are resettlement packages and financial burden of setting up a new house has caused serious repercussions.
The mines are shifting at the rate of 5 km a year and soon they will overtake large tracts of fertile land, feared Mr Dunochede, who added that land values had changed tremendously in the last 30 years or so. The water sources are most likely contaminated by lignite and there is no life in them. Ground water levels have dipped from 18 metres to 70 metres. The struggle against lignite was supported by the Green Party, now part of a coalition in the state government of North Rhine Westphalia. However for the Greens, who even have a minister for agriculture and environment , the fight is almost over.
For Gisela and the farmers, the fight is necessary for their survival but without any support, it is doubtful how long they can hold out. At Petra Schmidt’s centuries old farm in Jackerath, some of the buildings date back to the 12th century. Even small repairs of the farm need to go through strict clearance, she said. The large farm with its stables and tiled houses, was once surrounded by a moat and drawbridge. The yard is typical of the Rhineland, Petra said and it was important to preserve this kind of a farm for future generations. "The area was the known as the corn basket of the region and now the mines threaten several buildings of cultural importance," she said.
"Regulations that are stringent for building repairs even, do not apply to companies such as RB," she said. "Lignite mining will make sure the next generation has nothing," she added. The alternative for Petra was to sell and migrate- but land prices are sliding due to the onset of the mines.
People get low prices for their houses and have to spend the current rates, which are much higher, to build new ones. She fears that a community culture will be disrupted-for instance in the village people share farm equipment and help out each other. "My children are depressed and think it will be catastrophic.Now that we have the wind park nearby we don’t really RB." Nearby is Ozterath, which is already being resettled-empty houses line silent gray winding roads..
Babel Huhn, minister for agriculture and environment from the Green Party in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, said that the region was known for its coal and lignite production since the days of the Third Reich. "Now there is conflict between Red and Green coalition as the minister for energy is a Social Democrat which identifies itself with the mining industry," said Ms Huhn .
The only thing she could do in the face of pressure to continue with mining, was to insist on strict compliance of water pollution laws. RB is now liable for the slightest pollution violations. "We were not really for Garzweiler 2 and even if it gets underway, it will not be as huge as planned and so much area will not be excavated. I am responsible for the water pollution aspect and there was tremendous pressure on me and attempts to sideline me," she said.
Garzweiler 2 was already permitted by her predecessor and she agreed that the social aspects of mining were totally ignored. Germany’s environment laws put the burden of proof on those affected, making it difficult to seek legal intervention.
In stark contrast to the devastation to land and humanity caused by mining , is the state’s and country’s commitment to promote renewable energy sources. Near the mines, the landscape is full of wind parks and more and more people are opting for a cleaner energy source. The state of North Rhine Westphalia is in the forefront of promoting renewable energy with innovations like the world’s largest roof integrated solar power station at Herne, Europe’s biggest solar cell factory and a science park at Gelsenkirchen.
Emissions from CO2 from lignite account for 19 per cent of the total in 1999 and coal accounts for 19 per cent as well. In 1990, Germany had set a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 25 per cent by 2005 and aims to double the share of renewable energy by 2010. It has new laws on renewable energy, ecological tax reform, Nuclear energy consensus , and a climate protection programme. Germany is also the largest producer of wind energy in the world. However, the mines are all set to eat into the fertile landscape and overturn the lives of thousands of people who seem to have no recourse against this juggernaut. Ends/.

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