History of Hambach Forest

Before RWE began to destroy the forest, it was still called Bürgewald, a “Commons” Forest administered by local municipalities. The change of name to Hambacher Forst by RWE also served to hide the long history of the forest and its importance as one of the oldest forests in Germany.[In german the word Forst indicates a planted, exploited industrial forest as opposed to the word Wald which indicates self-planted wilder ecosystem] Here follows a rough outline of the history of the Hambi:

12,000 years ago as the last ice age in Central Europe came to an end and the ice-cover retreated, Central and Western Europe slowly greened and was overgrown by a dense continent-wide beech forest in the centuries that followed. Only in a few places other ecosystems developed: that is in moors and swamps, along the coastlines,  and in alpine areas. Present area of Hambach Forest was one of the few exception with a oak/hornbeam forest developing. Many thousands of years followed and the forest grew and flourished.. Initially the area was sparsely populated as it remained cold and muddy.

The first written records mentioning the area date back to the eighth century. At that time, the forest belonged to Charlemagne. Arnold von Arnoldsweiler worked at his court as a singer. He knew the poor living conditions of the local population and when he accompanied Karl on a hunt, he asked him during lunch to give him as much forest as he could on his go around on a horse during lunch. Karl agreed, and Arnold rode off. Before that he had already conspired with the surrounding villages to provide him with fresh horses, and with their help circumnavigated a much larger area of the forest on a relay ride during the meal.

This fresco show Arnold playing for the animals of the forest.
Charles did not resent Arnold’s cunning, and gave him a ring to testify that the forest belonged to him from then on. Arnold gave the Bürgewald away to the surrounding villages and called it a “forest of God”. People from the surrounding communities were allowed to go into the forest to pick up firewood, mushrooms or nuts from the ground and in autumn they could drive their pigs into the forest to feed on the acorns. However, it was forbidden to cut down trees. For this he was worshipped like a saint in fifty neighboring villages.

From then on, the forest was part of the Commons, a system common throughout Europe at that time: the villages were surrounded by pastures, forests and lakes. These belonged to no one, they were not private. They were under the control and care of the local community, which met regularly to determine who could graze how many animals, how many fish could be fished from the lakes and where trees could be felled for building purposes. For many centuries, people have thus ensured a sustainable relationship with nature. Only in the transition to capitalism were these areas fenced in, privatized and the population thus forced into wage labor.

Map of the Bürgewald from 1902

During thos past centuries people lived mostly in good relationship to the forest. From the 16th century onwards, forest regulations were passed setting up sustainable management of the forest. With the surrounding communities gathering on fixed dates to discuss the use of wood and other forest resources. In the 18th century, the forest was divided into parts and distributed among the surrounding communities. Thus, each municipality was responsible for its own woodland that was as a result locally and sustain-ably sourced. When an area reform was due in the 1970s, the communities did not know exactly which parts of the forest would belong to them, and RWE, then Rheinbraun, managed to persuade them to sell it to the company beforehand with sufficient bribes. Selling it for ridiculous prices of tens of pfennigs for an acre, as national energy sufficiency was also used to persuade the local governments to practically give away the forest. In the same year, 1978, the first clearing work began, and now, forty years later, only about a tenth of the original area remains. And the Hambach Mine, cynically and ironically named after this ancient forest it has and is destroying is now the single largest net source of CO2 in Europe.  An ancient reality of symbiosis and co-existence being replaced by that of profit and destruction.

And what does the future hold? This is uncertain,  what is clear however is that the resistance is growing and that capitalism will come to an end sooner than most are expecting. The only question that remains is how many species, habitats and communities will capitalism be alowed to drag down with itself into its own toxic grave?



Leave a Reply