Grimm Choices: How Energy Transition Threatens A Fairy Tale Forest

Wind power has its drawbacks, especially in central German region of Hesse, where developers want to erect generators in wooded areas like the Reinhardswald, of Brothers Grimm fame.

Reinhardswald, home of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales
Reinhardswald, home of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales
Güven Purtul

KASSEL — It's a mystical place full of giant, gnarled, centuries-old trees, rare animals and fabulous castles. It's also the home of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, and the oldest nature reserve in Germany.

The Reinhardswald forest in northern Hesse is something very special, and not only because it's the largest in the state. One of its characteristics is that it belongs to the general public. But that could be its downfall, because the coalition state government (consisting of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Green Party) is planning to build industrial areas right in the middle of it.

The reason is the government's ambitious goal of reserving 2% of the state's land area for wind energy. But in Hesse, there's only enough wind — when there's any wind at all — at high altitudes. And since most of the high lands are wooded, almost all new wind turbines are built in forests.

Hesse's economy minister, Tarek Al-Wazir, made a noteworthy promise in 2015: "Important recreational areas and forests in Hesse are out of the question for wind energy use." Three years later, however, it's not clear how much weight those words really wield. The Kassel regional council the state of Hesse is divided into three such regions has designated seven wind priority areas in the Reinhardswald. In each area up to 20 wind turbines can be built.

For nature conservationists, it's disastrous. "The Reinhardswald is one of the last largely unexploited forest areas," says Gabriele Niehaus-Uebel of the Oberweser-Bramwald citizens' initiative. "We don't have many of these anymore. This habitat must be protected as such."

The country's five biggest environmental associations have a similar view and, in their Wilderness in Germany initiative, included proposals for forest protection areas in Hesse. Reinhardswald tops the list. The plan is to more than double the protected surface in the Reinhardswald forest and reduce the amount and kinds of trees that can be cut so as to limit the impact on the local wildlife.

Wind energy is very important for climate protection because we have to achieve the energy transition.

The Reinhardswald's old beech forests are home to many species, but above all to strictly protected bats that only live in forests with very old trees and a high proportion of deadwood. The Kassel regional council insists that protected beech forests are "just as excluded from wind energy use as the areas of the oak primeval forest," and that it's considering locations that are "less sensitive from a nature conservation point of view." And yet, the wind priority areas border directly on the natural habitats of wild fauna and flora, in which bats have found a rare refuge.

Unlike birds of prey, small birds and flying animals such as bats are not killed by the rotors. Instead, their lungs burst due to the vacuum behind the rotors. The planners have placed one of the wind priority areas exactly between the natural forest and the Friedwald, a cemetery in the forest, the first of its kind in Germany. And two wind priority areas even enclose parts of the forest that have long been designated as protected.

"It makes no sense at all," says Niehaus-Uebel. "It's the headlong and forced adoption of wind power in Hesse, no matter the consequences. Nature conservation no longer plays a role. And all this from an environment minister from the Green Party. That's astonishing."

But Hesse's environment minister defends the plans. "Wind energy is very important for climate protection because we have to achieve the energy transition," says Priska Hinz. "We will not conserve the forests if we do not focus on renewable energy and thus on climate protection, because otherwise we will no longer have the forests as we know them in 30 years' time and even less in 50, 100 years."

You could argue that forests serve to protect the climate and biodiversity. Why else would German politicians like to point out the importance of their primeval forests to their colleagues in distant or nearby countries like Poland?

"We haven't planned to build in the entire Reinhardswald." says Hinz. "Just in a small part. This is no way comparable to large-scale deforestation."

Birds and bats

A short drive a few kilometers further south, in the Kaufungen forest, gives us an example of what this means in practice. There are 18 wind turbines at the state border between Hesse and Lower Saxony in the middle of an official natural habitat of wild fauna and flora. It is also a flying route for flocks of common cranes and, partly, a drinking-water protection area. The turbines rise to more than 200 meters into the sky, and for each of them, foundations of about 1,000 cubic meters of concrete were injected into the ground.

Wind turbines of this size can only be installed with gigantic cranes that require one hectare of forest to be razed, not to mention the wide paths that need to be cleared for the transports of such heavy material and for later service transports. Between the installations, the remaining trees are largely bent. The windthrow is the result of storms caused by the clearings.

According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Kaufung Forest is considered a "hotspot for biodiversity." This also applies to the Reinhardswald. "As a natural area, it's outstanding not only because of its size, but also because of its biological provision," says Jochen Tamm, a biologist from the Hessian Society for Ornithology and Nature Conservation.


The installment of wind turbines is a threat to the Reinhardswald's biodiversity — Photo: reloeh

Tamm has been working in the Upper Nature Conservation Authority of the Kassel Regional Council for 20 years. He also advises citizens' initiatives such as the one led by Gabriele Niehaus-Uebel. The definition of wind priority areas is the responsibility of regional authorities just as Kassel Regional Council and it can help limit the uncontrolled expansion of wind energy. For that, justified objections by nature conservationists are supposed to be taken into account. In practice, though, such objects seem to be increasingly ignored because they endanger the expansion targets.

Many objections concern strictly protected species whose habitat lies in the vicinity of planned wind turbines. Experts estimate that wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of bats and thousands of birds of prey every year throughout Germany. ABO-Wind, the wind power project development company that is planning to apply for a building permit for the Reinhardswald forest, disagrees. "There's no reliable evidence," it says.

And yet, a "Progress Study" financed by the federal government shows that birds of prey do collide with such installations, and with disproportionate frequency. The further expansion of wind energy could endanger entire stocks, among them red kites. In fact, collisions against wind turbines is "the main cause of death for red kites," says Torsten Langgemach of Brandenburg State's Institute for Bird Protection. In his database, he has countless pictures of dead birds of prey sent by outraged citizens.

The environmental associations must have their reasons.

"The red kite is one of the few large birds that can only be found in Central Europe," says Jochen Tamm. "Germany is home to more than half of the world's population, so it has global responsibility for this bird. And it's precisely in this central habitat where wind turbines are increasingly being installed now."

Conflicts of interest

Companies that apply for a permit must submit expert's reports before their project gets the green light. A key question is whether planned wind turbines would significantly increase the risk of killing animals from protected species. But these reports are commissioned and paid for by the industry. "There's hardly anyone who doesn't write what the client wants to read," Jochen Tamm says. "I have seen numerous reports of this kind. Most of them, to put it bluntly, are sham reports."

The Kassel regional council insists otherwise: "These reports are subjected to intensive scrutiny by the relevant authorities."

In theory, at least. In 2017, the Kassel regional council approved three wind turbines in a forest very close to the Reinhardswald even though citizens had proved that two red kite breeding sites were within the recommended minimum distance. The authorities didn't see any "significantly increased risk of death" because the investor's expert had observed that "the vast majority of flights from the nest to find food weren't made in the direction of the wind turbine."

The German Forest Protection Association (SDW) has filed a lawsuit. The action by the associations is the only sharp weapon against the plans, but the umbrella associations of large environmental NGOs, such as Nabu and BUND, are holding back on this subject, Niehaus-Uebel says. Bernhard Klug from the SDW has also noted this. His association receives support only from the German Wildlife Foundation. "The environmental associations must have their reasons," he says.

The forest conservationists hardly have any support from state politicians. In the state parliament, only the Free Democratic Party has positioned itself as critics of wind energy. For example, the FDP's inquiries deal with illegal deforestation, oil spills and well-paid lectures given by employees of the licensing authority to the wind lobby. The topic of one such lecture was: "Practical tips for speeding up licensing procedures."

Mario Klotzsche of the FDP criticizes the "poor licensing practices' and says structural reasons and conflicts of interest are responsible. There were revelations, for example, that the family of Kassel regional council's president, Walter Lübcke (CDU), had invested money in a wind farm. "In the end, the only thing left are the courts," says Klotzsche.

Conflicts between the wind industry and nature conservationists aren't happening just in the state of Hesse. More and more wind farms are being built in forests all over southern Germany. The state of Rhineland-Palatinate, for one, has been leading the way under Eveline Lemke a former Green Party minister (2011-2016) who is now on the supervisory board member of ABO-Wind.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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