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Another German Highway?: A Road to Nowhere in the Development Debate

Frieda studies Anthropology and Psychology at Heidelberg and London. Her piece looks at the construction of a new German motorway, and the forestry sacrificed in its creation, as a microcosm for the broader issue of environmental neglect.

As the last tree in the Dannenröder Forest is cleared for the A49 motorway, a particularly large tree house crashes to the ground. It's December 8th, 2020, and a forty-year struggle comes to an end. Lilu and thirty other activists face more than fifty police officers. They are crying and screaming. The others, behind the barbed wire fence, the people in uniform, seem relieved. For them, this exhausting mission with up to 2,000 officers is finally over, soon it will be Christmas. “Aren't you ashamed of yourselves?” Lilu shouts angrily at the policemen, “we all lost.”

The Dannenröder Forest, also known as Danni, is a healthy, 250-year-old mixed forest of beech and oak in Hesse, the middle of Germany. As a drinking water protection area, it provides water for half a million people in the region. For the construction of the motorway between Kassel and Giessen, an area the size of 38 football fields, is to be cleared. The planned new motorway would lead to a time reduction of 11 minutes on this route.

It is mid-November, roughly two weeks before the final tree falls. Lilu is driving to Danni for the first time to join the climate activists trying to prevent the construction of the motorway. Up to this point, the 18-year-old has been following the protest on social media, but now she is sitting on a bus playing cards, anticipating what is to come. Before they have too much time to think, the police stop their bus. They take the personal details of all the passengers; the situation is tense.

According to surveys from December 2020, two thirds of the Hessian population are in favour of building the A49. Residents of the surrounding villages hope for reduced traffic, noise and exhaust fumes. Mobility research has shown, however, that only in a few villages would there actually be fewer cars, in others the volume of traffic could even increase. More roads invariably means more traffic.

It is not until half past three in the morning that Lilu and the other activists reach the camp, an area on the edge of the forest. A handful of activists have been living in self-built tree houses for over a year. But in the fall of 2020, at the beginning of the second wave of COVID-19 the struggle becomes more pressing than ever. On November 10, the police began evicting the activists from the occupied forest. At a rapid pace, the clearing machines cut a wide aisle through the middle of Danni.

The next morning, the staff at KüFa, the kitchen for all, cook porridge as they do every day. All structures in Danni are self-organized. Economist Friederike Haberman therefore speaks of Danni as a Common. A communal space, free of the logic of exchange, in which everyone tries to live according to their own rules and without any ownership. Money is not used in camp, each person decides for themselves what they want to contribute. “It's a feeling of liberty and anarchy,” Lilu explains.

From day to day the police increase their presence on the ground. They set up a camp on the edge of Danni in mid-November. Hundreds of police comb the forest every day to enforce the law on behalf of the state.

At 4:30 a.m., Lilu's alarm clock rings. It is only a few days later and Lilu´s second time in Danni. She puts on three pairs of leggings, two pairs of pants and one pair of snow pants, packs food and books into her backpack and sets out 30 minutes later. The forest is divided into different barrios, neighborhoods, self-organized units named by the activists “Nowhere”, “Above” or “Planet B”. Via a live ticker on Telegram, the activists inform each other in which barrios police checks or evictions are taking place and where support is currently needed. On November 30th, they write, “Watch out on the road from Planet B to Nowhere.”

It is still dark and Lilu and the 35 other activists heed the warning - they do not want to attract the attention of the police by turning on any lights. Arriving at the site for today's occupation, they explore the existing structures of tree houses, ground barricades and tripods, small towers built from three tree trunks. Lilu has brought a self-made swing. Using a ladder and no safety belt, she climbs up several metres into a tree. Then she prepares her hands with super glue and glitter, measures used by the activists to protect their identities if arrested.

The police arrive when dawn begins to break. Around 8 o'clock, “like they are on a stage in a theater, the policemen step out into the spotlights. Only then [do] they become visible,” Lilu describes. That is the cue for the activists to begin chanting: “Danni stays”, “Your children would support us, some of them already do”, “ACAB - All cops are bastards”. Meanwhile, police shut off the area for today's clearing with flutter tape and begin marking the trees. The tree Lilu is sitting on is also included. What follows is a routine confrontation between tree squatters and police. On some days water cannons and climbing cops are used, in other moments the police chat jokingly with the activists. In mid-November, an activist fell five meters and suffered life-threatening injuries because the police negligently cut a safety rope.

Lilu refuses to leave the tree. According to Article 16 of the Hessian Forest Ordinance, which prohibits occupation of a forest area during clearing operations, she thus commits an administrative offence. She is brought to the ground only a few minutes later by a police officer using a hoist. When she arrives at the bottom, the other activists shout, “You are not alone”.

A few hours later, Lilu is alone. Alone in a cell in the detention center in a town more than an hour from the forest. Alone, she is in the cramped cabin of the prisoner transport van. Alone and naked, she stands before the police, who strip search her.

Lilu knew what would happen. She goes through the same procedure as many other activists before her. Still, she struggles. Lilu wonders what it means for a democracy that it is necessary to break the law to secure the future of humanity. She thinks climate protection is not a crime.

The problem is contracts for planning routes. Contracts are written up and then companies are commissioned to build said routes upon the formation of an agreement. For the motorway, its implementation was promised within a five-year term. And yet, the Paris climate agreement is another contract and, rather than having been agreed between corporations and politicians, it was signed by almost all countries on earth, with the goal of limiting global warming to well below two degrees. These contracts are not compatible. Which of them do we want to keep, ask climate activists Luisa Neubauer and Carola Rackete in a newspaper article in November: those that contribute to corporate profit but deny physical facts and lead to the 6th Great Mass Extinction, or those that seek to secure our livelihoods?

For less than an hour Lilu sat in her swing, followed by nearly seven hours at the police station. Lilu's identity could not be found out, her fingerprints are unreadable due to the superglue and with a dismissal she is released the same evening. She threw the note with the expulsion directly back into the mailbox of the police department and exhaustedly made her way back to Danni.

Although activists like Lilu climb trees and risk arrest day after day, although the German Transport Minister is a member of the Green Party, and although Fridays for Future mobilized up to 1.4 million people all over Germany demanding climate protection, four days before the 5th anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, on December 8, 2020, the last tree is cut down in Danni for a new motorway route.

“The motorway is a symbol of a completely outdated vision of mobility,” says Lena Donat, a mobility expert at the environmental organization Germanwatch, “We can already see how increasing car traffic is destroying us, our cities and our planet. In the future, cars can only play a secondary role at most.” For Donat, what would be necessary for a real mobility turnaround would be additional investments in rail transport, car-free inner cities and a rethinking of mobility throughout society.

She distinguishes between mobility and traffic: “While traffic follows a growth paradigm of getting as many people as possible from A, their home for example, to B, their work, as quickly as possible, mobility asks about the needs behind it,” she explains, “Why do I need to get from A to B in the first place?”

In Germany, the country of cars, the transport sector remains the problem child when it comes to climate protection. It accounts for almost 20% of total German emissions. It is the only sector in which emissions have not been reduced in the long term since 1990, but on the contrary have continued to rise. Places like Danni are, for Lena Donat, crystallization points of a much more fundamental problem.

“Since the invention of the wheel in 3000 BC, roads began to be built all over the world,” explains Professor Berthold Best, scientific director at Germany's only road museum. Trade routes, named after the products that were transported on them, such as the Silk Road, preceded even Christ. However, increased traffic did not occur until the Middle Ages, Best says. As a result of increasing division of labor, it became necessary to transport goods and people from place to place. Nowadays, orders can be delivered almost anywhere in less than 24 hours. Modern road construction ensures that they are passable around the clock 365 days a year.

247,000 kilometers of motorway have been added in the last 25 years alone. Lena Donat admits that a true mobility transformation will be long and difficult to navigate, “But the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that people's needs for mobility can change constantly.” Decreased emissions from transport, due to canceled business and vacation trips and working from home offices, are a major reason why Germany surprisingly met its 2020 climate targets after all.

This accidental success, however, is simply not good enough. If you add up all the emissions resulting from the contracts that have already been signed, argue activists Neubauer and Rackete, humanity is heading for global warming of over 2 degrees Celsius. As a result, we would reach crucial tipping points and trigger feedback effects, which in turn would result in a far higher global warming, a climate catastrophe.

For the Green Party, Danni is a dilemma between the party's climate ideals and political realism suitable for the majority. Their Minister of Transport in Hesse, Tarek Al-Wazir, plays the role of the tragic hero. According to a legal opinion by the environmental organization BUND dated November 23, 2020, Al-Wazir could have prevented the clearing of Danni, due to violations of procedural requirements with regard to national and European water law. However, a petition with over 225,000 signatures urging him to stop the clearing failed. Al-Wazir shifted the responsibility to the conservative Federal Minister of Transport, Andreas Scheuer, as the developer. According to current polls, Al-Wazir's green party could become the second strongest force in the upcoming federal election.

At least as many hectares of forest as have already been cleared are to be destroyed in Danni to create access roads and logistical areas, such as highway rest stops. Activists even talk about three times the size - more than 100 additional soccer fields of forest.

For Lilu, Danni is a symbol. A symbol for the necessary mobility turnaround, for climate justice and for a new way of living together.

For Lilu, Danni is a symbol. A symbol for the necessary mobility turnaround, for climate justice and for a new way of living together. In the days after the last tree fell, she felt exhausted, the mood in the camp was drained and many activists left. In the meantime, Lilu has returned to Berlin. Their fight was lost. But the protest will continue and raises urgent questions that are relevant far beyond Hesse, whilst simultaneously trees around the world continue to be cut down.


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