The eviction of Lützerath: the village being destroyed for a coalmine – a photo essay

Since 2020, environmental activists have been occupying the trees, fields and houses in Lützerath, a hamlet near the North Rhine-Westphalian town of Erkelenz. They oppose the eviction of the village and the energy company RWE, which wants to extract the millions of tonnes of lignite that lie beneath the village.

Lignite mining opponents during a demonstration in Lützerath

Most of the original inhabitants of the farming village have long since disappeared after they received compensation and were resettled during the past decade and a half.

The activists organised themselves, built structures and treehouses and a kitchen in which more than 1,000 meals a day were prepared from donated food.

Activists warm themselves by a bonfire
Activists carry a wooden board to build a barricade to protect themselves from eviction
Activists block the bucket wheel excavator at the edge of the Garzweiler II open-pit mine on the outskirts of the village
The Garzweiler II open-pit lignite mine

In 2020, the German government decided to phase out coal-fired power generation by 2038 at the latest. However, the war in Ukraine, gas shortages and the energy crisis shifted priorities and the government announced it would be necessary temporarily to again rely on coal.

Five villages that have already been partially resettled may remain but it was decided that Lützerath would have to be destroyed. As a compromise the coal phase-out in North Rhine-Westphalia will be brought forward from 2038 to 2030.

Activists sprinkle glitter on their hands after rubbing them with glue. Many activists prick their fingertips with a needle and seal the fingertips with glue to make it harder for police to identify them

Studies highlighted by climate activists show that the coal under Lützerath is no longer needed, but studies commissioned by the government and the energy company show the opposite. In North Rhine-Westphalia, around 200 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted every year. 22% of this is due to Rhenish lignite. Activists say the extraction of coal would jeopardize the 1.5 degree target set in the Paris agreement for limiting global heating. The activists claim greed for profit is the reason for the clearance. In a poll conducted by ZDF Polit-Barometer, 59% of respondents expressed opposition to the clearing of the village, while 33% were in favour. The battle over Lützerath is also a battle for narratives that is fought out in the media

When I first visited Lützerath, last summer, it was difficult to talk to the activists as they feared it could lead to being targeted by police. But when I visited on the eve of the village’s destruction, it was different, people were happy to talk.

An activist sits on a monopod

In the days before the eviction, the village resembles an anthill and hammering and screwing are taking place on all sides. Activists carry tree trunks, stones and construction fences, stacking them into barricades. Fires are lit to soften the asphalt and riddle it with holes and trenches. The activists are determined to defend Lützerath.

Most of them want to do this peacefully. They want to make the evacuation work of the police as difficult as possible through barricades, tripods, concreted doors and platforms suspended on ropes. They also chain themselves together in so-called lock-ons. These measures mean the police need to send special units to deal with the protests, nicknamed “climbing cops” by the protesters.

A scene in the occupied village
Activists prepare a tree house for eviction
Activists light fires to soften concrete
Activists paint their faces

  • Top left: activists have hung a trampoline in the trees to make it difficult to evict the tree houses and those on the trampoline. Top right: activists prepare a tree house for eviction. Above left: activists light fires to soften concrete – the resulting holes are meant to be an obstacle for the police. Above right: activists paint their faces in the attic of Eckardt Heukamp’s former barn

On Tuesday, an activist called “Turtle” sits on a platform in front of her treehouse. Most of the campaigners are masked and have action names to make it harder for the police to identify them. “I don’t see it as my job to sit in the front of the sit-in and prevent the eviction of the first structures,” she said. “I’m here to cook, to keep Lützerath alive. I don’t want them to clear a dead village, but a village full of life.”

Shortly afterwards, there is an announcement over the activists’ radios. Those who need a break from the sit-in and the resistance against the police can listen to a classical concert in the centre of the village in a quarter of an hour, they say. The resistance in Lützerath is also creative, and the activists who have been there for a long time have established structures and rules to live by.

Police at the entrance to Lützerath

On Wednesday, the eviction begins. It goes much faster than most activists had hoped. Special police units are pushing into Lützerath by the hundreds from all sides. Soon they are everywhere in the village, inspecting and destroying the first tree houses erected on the ground and carrying activists away.

A large demonstration between Keyenberg and Lützerath on 14 January 2023

  • A large demonstration between Keyenberg and Lützerath on 14 January, after which thousands of demonstrators stormed toward Lützerath. They were stopped by the police with force shortly before the gates.

Occasionally, protesters use pyrotechnics and throw stones, but this soon ends in the face of the strength the eviction squad. Excavators push aside the barricades of the activists within minutes.

Activists climb on the roof of Paulshof
Activists and police on the roof of the occupied Paulshof
An excavator clears barricades
The police takes away arrested activists

On the second day of the eviction I am in a housing complex known as the Paula. The stairs had been knocked down a few days ago to make police work more difficult, so I am hauled up with a climbing harness. Upstairs, activists sit on the rooftops, one cutting his fingertips with a needle before sealing them with superglue and glitter. “It lasts for some time and you can’t take fingerprints,” he says.

The Paula is seen as the last bastion of the squatters, the place where many of those ready to use violence to defend the village are holed up. For many, the decision of whether to be evicted or to leave the compound without being identified seems to have not yet been made. But then everything happens quickly. I just make it into the courtyard before the police arrive. Minutes later, they clear the barricade in front of the courtyard and storm the area. Activists on the roofs light smoke flares. The eviction seems almost like a police exercise. And it remains peaceful.

Police officers destroy a wooden house

  • The police destroy a wooden house in the centre of the village, the so-called Phantasialand, on the first day of the eviction

Two activists calling themselves Pinky and Brain publish a video from a self-built tunnel system under Lützerath. The activists have entrenched themselves there, making a safe evacuation by police difficult. Days later, they leave the tunnel voluntarily; they did not seem to need rescuing.

The demolition of the house of farmer Eckardt Heukamp

Saturday is cold and wet. Tens of thousands of people have gathered at the large demonstration in Keyenberg and walk peacefully towards the large rally near Lützerath. The village is almost completely cleared. The prominent activists Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer speak. At this point, thousands have broken off from the procession across the wet fields and are rushing towards Lützerath. The police seem uncoordinated at first and beat demonstrators. A mud fight begins, dirt is thrown and fireworks are set off.

Police escort away an activist

At the gates of Lützerath, the storm ends in front of several police barricades and water cannon. Lützerath, once a place of dreams and utopia for the activists and a symbol of the climate movement, has in the space of a few days become the fortress of an energy company.


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