German lignite mine near village of Keyenberg. Picture: Supplied.
German lignite mine near village of Keyenberg. Picture: Supplied.

Giant ‘hole’ coming for family home

As the Australian Government comes under increasing pressure to support coal mining, in Germany authorities are being attacked because mines aren't closing fast enough.

And the unlikely front line of the German battle recently was an elegant, 163-year-old farmstead in the Ruhr, which attracted an army of protesters.

The coal and industrial hub of Europe for 200 years is going renewable, a trend Australia is expected to follow.

But before the transition is complete, there will be considerable disruption to some Ruhr communities.

It sounds like a voracious monster coming to devour Norbert Winzen's family home in the German village of Keyenberg, population 500.

"The hole takes everything," he said, looking through animal pens to a horse paddock, and beyond that to scar in the landscape.

The "hole" is a giant open-cut brown coal mine, which has been advancing on the Winzen farm for three decades, and is set to consume it by 2022.

The day after he spoke, about 1000 protesters from Ende Gelände (End of the Line) briefly occupied the nearby Garzweiler mine operated by the giant REW corporation.

Germany has already halted black coal mining and power generation, but has extended the life of brown coal mining to 2038. It's the worst coal when it comes to dangerous emissions, but the hardest to halt because right-wing populist parties, particularly in the old East Germany, want the digging to continue.

A brown coal mine.
A brown coal mine.

In the nation's west, the climate change agitation is being accompanied by anger over the fate of several villages - and their inhabitants - in the path of the mines.

REW has the right to resume and destroy houses in Norbert Winzen's village, with the deadline for the coal takeover scheduled to be complete in three years.

Mr Winzen lives there with his two children, his mother, and his sister and brother-in-law and their five children. The family says they will not move.

Norbert Winzen and his mother, Kathi.
Norbert Winzen and his mother, Kathi.

He quotes his 75-year-old mother Kathi saying of the prospect of being forced out: "I hope I die before that horrible thing happens."

He is hoping "enough people are coming and telling the story, and enough people are coming and say what is happening in the middle of Germany, a well-developed country, an environmental country, and they are digging villages and they are digging trees".

The village of Keyenberg once had 1000 residents and now they number 500. More than half the population has fled the approaching mine to housing provided by the mining company.

Those refusing to move have been fighting the coal company since 1987 and since 2016 have been barred from selling their hoses to anyone but REW.

German lignite mine near village of Keyenberg.
German lignite mine near village of Keyenberg.

"Some days now people get really tired" of the struggle, said Mr Winzen, who estimates he has spent 25,000 euros (more than $40,000) for legal advice on fighting the resumption.

Perversely, he cannot make major renovations to the farmstead because it is heritage listed. But the coal company has the legal right to pull it down.

"The only thing is REW has to picture (photograph) everything before they tear it down," he said.

"We are not allowed to change anything."

Then there is the matter of getting a fair price for the farm, should it reach that stage. The family has lived there for so long it doesn't have a real estate record.

"We never bought this, we never sold this, so how can we say the correct amount of money for this?" he said.

The agony of a demolished family home and village hangs over the remaining villagers, and even some who have moved on but continue to mourn their lost homes.

"The hardest moments are when it's getting evening or night and you are sitting on your farm and you hear all this quietness, and talking to your family," Mr Winzen said.

That's when the reality of their plight hits them the hardest.

The journalist travelled to Germany for this story courtesy of the Climate Council of Australia.

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Norbert Winzen and his mother Kathi in courtyard of their threatened farmstead.
Norbert Winzen and his mother Kathi in courtyard of their threatened farmstead.