Between Reclamation and Desolation: The Spatiality of Climate Activism in Lützerath and Keyenberg
After years of contention, Lützerath is completely demolished. In January 2023, police cleared the squatted village of climate activists near the open pit lignite mine Garzweiler II, with bulldozers following on their heels. These events make Lützerath the 22nd village or settlement to be resettled and demolished for mining purposes in the Garzweiler region alone, although none of the others have received comparable attention.
Like Hambach Forest a few years earlier, Lützerath is likely to remain a significant part of activist discourses about climate change. Indeed, there are various sites like Lützerath and Hambach across Germany that are being transformed into activist places through symbolic and physical efforts. Discursively, social media has enabled activists to draw attention to a wide range of contested places. Physical efforts of reclamation, however, are concentrated in a few places, Lützerath being one of them. Below, we will reflect on why some places become major sites of climate activist contention. We will begin by contrasting two physically close, but substantively different places – Lützerath and Keyenberg –, before elaborating four possible explanations for their differences. We conclude by reflecting on new avenues for spatial contestation in climate activism, now that the symbol of Lützerath is gone.
On a field trip we took to the Garzweiler and Hambach mining areas in September 2022, we were confronted with stark contrasts between different, partially resettled sites. During this one-week trip, we visited Lützerath, Keyenberg-old, and Immerath-new in the Garzweiler region, as well as Manheim-old, Manheim-new, Morschenich-old, and Hambach Forest in the Hambach area. All of these places allowed us to better understand the spatial arrangements that emerge when mining rights are prioritised over individual property.
To illustrate why activists might focus their attention on one place in a region full of displaced villages, we will compare two of the villages. Lützerath, once a village of around 100 residents, had become a squatted area by the time we visited. It was expected to be completely evicted and demolished soon. Keyenberg, just a few kilometers away from Lützerath, was one of five “saved” villages (along with Kuckum, Oberwestrich, Unterwestrich, and Berverath) as a result of a coalition agreement between the Greens and the CDU for the NRW government. The land under these villages is no longer to be mined, but all have been in the process of resettlement since 2016. We use “saved” in quotation marks because it is hard to imagine that life here could get back to normal. Keyenberg once had a population of over 800. Now approximately 100 people reside there. The empty shops and streets of the town seemed to be a manifestation of disintegration rather than of a new life. Contrary to what their legal status suggested at the time, Lützerath was the only village that seemed to promise a revival in the imagination of activists. Comparing these two villages highlights the socio-spatial dynamics that favor Lützerath (along with some other places) as an activist place.
The first thing that immediately strikes a visitor to Lützerath is the way it has been recreated. Here, a community with physical and social infrastructure – sanitation, food, water, housing, social spaces, art, and education – was reformed on a smaller scale and on a voluntary basis. The built environment was restored or recreated by activities to accommodate this communal lifestyle.
If one were to draw a mental map of Lützerath at that time, one could start from its “borders”. What remained of the village – a farmhouse and a few other houses and streets – was surrounded on one side by a road (L277) separating it from the mining area, and on the other side, by agricultural land. This area was surrounded by barricades and huge wooden structures that acted as gates. When we “entered” the village through the barricades, these structures also seemed to serve as watchtowers: an armchair on top of the barricade conjured up the image of someone keeping watch, in case the police or the security company hired by energy giant RWE approached the village.
We entered what appeared to be the center, where we were greeted by slogans on the walls and banners, demonstrating ideological and political commitments: a rainbow drawing on a main building read “The first pride was a riot”. From here, we continued on towards a back street with a few remaining buildings. Later, we learnt that these buildings were used by artists, journalists, and anyone who visited the village for a short time. This street led to a rear area where many structures essential to the community were located. Across the street, further away, were the communal gardens. On the left side, just outside the squatted area, were toilets which were regularly composted by the activists. Following the road to the right, we arrived at the official vigil area on L277. If one followed this road and took the first turn to the right, one would end up where we started. The remaining area within this circle was the main squatted area – the land that belonged to the last farmer in Lützerath, Eckhardt Heukamp. His support and willingness to allow his space to be occupied, as we will highlight below, was an essential source of legitimacy for the activists’ presence until he had to leave his land.
The main squatted area was covered with various tree houses. Our activist guide told us about how this area was run. They held multiple events – lectures, awareness meetings, and climbing training. Squatters could follow events on a notice board or a website. The tree houses were divided into “neighborhoods”. Squatters living in the same neighborhood formed a small unit as a support group. There was a communal kitchen where people could order a vegan pizza or soup. This was paid for on a voluntary basis. One Monday morning, when we visited Lützerath for the second time, the place had a particularly lively atmosphere. There was something refreshing about being in a place where people were knitting or playing the piano, climbing trees or listening to a lecture, all within a few meters of each other.
These physical structures, either created from scratch or by renovating existing ones, along with voluntary organizing, gave a fresh new touch to a place that was about to be completely demolished – especially in contrast to the villages that were “saved”.
As mentioned above, one of these “saved” villages is the old Keyenberg. At the time of our visit, our first impression was that its built structures, the streets, the church, and the bakery were more intact. However, in terms of its lived components, it struck us as empty. For example, a typical feature of a German village – parked cars lining the streets – was missing. This observation was corroborated by statistics on the village’s population: only one-eighth of the village population still lives in Keyenberg-old. The rest have been relocated, mostly to Keyenberg-new, some kilometers to the northwest.
The sense of emptiness was intensified by the empty shops. A few shops, which in such villages usually serve as places of public life, a butcher and a greengrocer, were closed. The church building, another place of public life, was physically intact. Yet, its locked doors did not promise much. The only shop that seemed to be open was the bakery across the street from the church. Its windows were full of statements about the planned eviction (including criticism of the church), despite the decision having been reversed.
Walking along one of the village’s main streets, we reached the pit on the other side of what was once L277, once again demonstrating the omnipresence of the pit and its proximity to village life. This may be one of the reasons why the village, mostly empty of people, was still full of symbols of the climate justice movement. Signs from local movements, such as Alle Dörfer Bleiben (All villages stay), and Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht (Human rights before coal law), were accompanied by small signs from the transnational movement Fridays for Future.
What do these different structures tell us about activists choosing Lützerath? We see at least four dynamics at play. First, unlike digital media, activist efforts in physical space need to be concentrated: occupying a place like Lützerath requires more power, and therefore more people. The village structure highlighted above indicates why: in order to provide food, sanitation, and security, you need a sufficient number of people. The urgency of concentrating efforts is, moreover, intensified by the power imbalance between the company and the activists on the one hand, and the activists and the police forces on the other.
A second reason for the choice of activist sites is the immediacy of the demolition. The official vigil area in Lützerath was formed before the final coalition decision; however, the occupation grew and intensified afterwards. If Lützerath is next in line for demolition, it has to be the first to be defended, and thus occupied.
A third reason lies in the willingness of local people to make their land available for occupation. Not only in Lützerath, but also in other squatted places like Morschenich, a local offering their land to squatters legally justifies their presence, thereby obstructing police intervention. In the case of Lützerath, the loss of Eckardt Heukamp’s property and his move in September cleared the way for the eviction of the squatted area and the rest of the village.
This further relates to our fourth point. Lützerath, even before most of it was demolished, was a smaller village than Keyenberg. This allowed RWE to evict the village more quickly and perhaps convince the public that it was less important, but it also made it a more suitable place for an occupation involving tent camps and tree houses. The limited size of the area allowed for the construction of a dense squat, surrounded by barricades.
Despite such favorable conditions, Lützerath is gone now. The question remains: what comes next for the local climate movement? If the government and the company stick to the agreement to phase-out coal by 2030, no more villages in the region will be threatened with demolition. Leaving aside the damage that has already been done – as we have seen in Keyenberg –, this is likely to change the calculus of what immediate action should be taken. For now, activist efforts seem to be concentrated on blocking the excavators and holding rallies in neighboring villages (such as Keyenberg), without setting up another occupation camp. Elsewhere in Germany, places like Mühlrose in the Lausitz region of Saxony, are still slated for demolition to make way for lignite mining. Whether the movement could focus its spatial occupation strategies here is an open question. In any case, the socio-spatial dynamics highlighted above will continue to play a crucial role in the formation of activist places in the future.
Zozan Baran (M.A.) is a researcher at Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Media and Communication Science and the Collaborative Research Center 1265. Her research interests include contentious politics, discourses and places of climate justice, mixed methods.
Dr. Daniela Stoltenberg is a communication researcher at Freie Universität Berlin and the Collaborative Research Center 1265. Her research interests include digital public spheres, the relationship between communication and space, and computational research methods.