The secret life of Hambach Forest’s eco-activists

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Néha Hirve captured a group of campaigners’ ongoing fight against the destruction of an ancient German forest

“We sit down in the smell of the past and rise in a light that is already leaving,” reads a line from the American poet and essayist Rita Dove’s poem November for Beginners. The poem, which talks about the approaching winter, provided the inspiration for, and title of, Néha Hirve’s series: light that is leaving. “I read [the poem] as an analogy for the planet,” says Hirve. “Climate anxiety has suddenly become a real thing, in many ways it feels too late to fix the problems that we’ve created.”

The title is apt for a series that centres on a group of eco-activists living in the Hambach Forest, Germany. “They are fighting to save the last 10 per cent of what the forest once was,” says Hirve. Located between the Western cities of Cologne and Aachen, the ancient woodland has vastly diminished in size due to nearby lignite, or brown coal, mining. Run by RWE AG, one of Europe’s largest power generators, the open-pit mine occupies an area the size of Manhattan. In 2018, a court ruling suspended any further expansion of both the mine and the deforestation that would accompany it until autumn 2020. Beyond that, the forest’s future remains unclear.

Juice entertains himself by climbing a fallen tree. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve

“Climate anxiety has suddenly become a real thing, in many ways it feels too late to fix the problems that we’ve created”

Frodo's treehouse is rumoured to be the highest in Hambacher forest, but no one can confirm this. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve

Hirve was working on another project about a reforestation community in Tamil Nadu, India, when she learned about Hambach. In October 2017, the photographer decided to visit. “The first time I went, I arrived in the middle of the night and did not know my way around, so I slept in a meadow just outside the forest,” Hirve remembers. “The next day, someone taught me to climb, and I began living in the treehouses. I never really got over the fear of climbing up 15 to 20 meters in the dark with a backpack while it was raining.”

The photographer proceeded to visit the community four or five times, from November 2017 to September 2018. On each visit, she remained for seven to ten days. Since 2012, activists have occupied Hambach Forest via a network of treehouses, the highest of which sits 25 metres above the ground. The majority are arranged into treehouse villages: individual structures connected with floating walkways. When occupied, the treehouses greatly impede police evictions.

Mumu in a ski mask. Hambacher Forest, Germany. May 2018. © Néha Hirve

The operation is covert and gaining the trust of its participants was difficult. “There had been a lot of journalists passing through,” says Hirve. “Many of the activists later let me in, but they were still afraid of their faces being recognised or seen by the police — many of them had been arrested before and wanted to hide their identities.” This complicated things, and, for a while, Hirve was unsure where the project was headed. One day, however, she came across an old gas mask. “I learned that it had been donated by an army veteran in case the world collapsed,” she says, “and I asked one of the activists to pose with the mask if he wanted to hide his face”.

Hirve had found her angle; she focused the series on the impending apocalypse or “Day X, as the activists call it — the moment that the authorities would successfully evict the activists. “I collaborated with my subjects with an almost tongue-in-cheek approach, employing found objects,” says Hirve. The resulting images subvert the derogatory labels — “dangerous terrorists” or “dirty hippies”— often applied to the community. Donning fantastical masks, and adopting strange poses, the individuals inhabit desolate spaces fraught with tension.

Pat poses for a portrait in a gas mask donated by a well-wisher who thought that it would come in handy someday. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve

“Many of the activists later let me in, but they were still afraid of their faces being recognised or seen by the police — many of them had been arrested before and wanted to hide their identities”

Tricky digs for the last of a donation of tofu sausages. Most of the food in the forest is vegan, and comes from dumpster diving or donations. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve

“There is no big battle scene to be found in ‘Hambi’ as it is affectionately known, just the slow tedium of constant struggle,” writes Hirve in the text that accompanies the project. The photographer recounts the day-to-day realities of the community. Winter was almost unbearable — food and water regularly froze, and the inhabitants were perpetually tired and focused on survival. Summer was more manageable and spent building treehouses in preparation for the cold. Confrontations with the police were regular, and Hirve’s first four visits coincided with the time before or after a major barricade eviction. “The police claimed that these evictions, the destruction of barricades erected by the protesters, were necessary as a way to ensure entry to the forest in case of a fire or medical emergency,” explains Hirve.

Planning for Day X was constant and intense. “It began to feel like it would never happen, says Hirve, “but it did — on 13 September 2018. ”On the day of the eviction, police and several vehicles, including an armoured car with a plow and water cannon, systematically evicted more than 50 treehouses. “When I visited during this time, the activists were more or less inaccessible,” she continues, “they were all chained up in treehouses and had pulled up the ropes and ladders. A pair of activists had chained themselves inside an underground tunnel, which took more than a day to evict.” The operation was extensive and yet strangely serene, with the majority of activity taking place out of sight. The group has since worked to rebuild their community and re-establish the protest site.

Juice poses for a portrait. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve

As well as documenting the plight of the activists, the series also addresses broader issues of mining in Germany. Lignite produces around a third more carbon than more common types of coal. Although renewable energy accounted for almost 35 per cent of German power production in 2018, lignite mining was the next biggest source. Hirve, however, is skeptical about the role that photography can play in tackling the climate crisis. “Pictures are more emotive than statistics or numbers, they inspire people to care about what is happening,” she says. “But I think that the biggest role will always be those of policymakers and big businesses.” light that is leaving endeavours to bring photography into a more active role, depicting a community engaged in direct action against the climate crisis. “I think it is important to showcase the effects of climate change, but a lot of the times these effects can feel very removed from our daily lives,” says Hirve. “Direct action can feel radical to a lot of people, by showcasing it maybe we can inspire them to action.”

Barricades are a common way of keeping the police and the power company out of the forest, but they also prevent emergency services such as ambulances or fire trucks from access. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve
'Sasha' resting. He, as most of the activists, prefers to use a 'forest name' to hide his identity. Hambacher Forest, Germany. © Néha Hirve
Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.