Villages at the Garzweiler opencast mine: What about those who stay?

Status: 02/02/2023 3:25 p.m

Lützerath has to give way to coal mining – despite violent protests. Other mining villages that have already been written off have a future again. Just what should this look like? That’s up to the residents to decide.

A eucalyptus tree, palm trees and over 50 species of snowdrops: Waltraud Kieferndorf’s garden has a lot to offer. She has been caring for him for more than 25 years. At that time she moved with her husband from Leverkusen to Kuckum – a village that belongs to Erkelenz.

The couple feared that the site would one day have to give way to the Garzweiler opencast coal mine. When the first people were resettled in 2016, Waltraud Kieferndorf was still stunned: “We were convinced at the time that Germany would no longer need lignite in 25 years. And we weren’t disappointed by science, but by politicians and RWE, who didn’t make it have to switch to alternative energies.”

Waltraud Kieferndorf has lived in Kuckum for more than 25 years.

Image: Andreas Palik, WDR

Most have long since moved away

Germany wants to have phased out coal by 2038. In the Rhenish area, however, it should be over by 2030. The black-green state government of North Rhine-Westphalia and RWE agreed in October last year. Part of the agreement is also: Lützerath will still be dredged. On the other hand, the five remaining villages that have not yet been cleared and that were originally intended to make way for an open-cast mine extension are now to be retained. Specifically: Kuckum, Berverath, Keyenberg, Oberwestrich and Unterwestrich.

About 1500 people once lived in the five villages. Most have long since moved away. Only 200 residents remained and have resisted resettlement. Waltraud Kieferndorf didn’t want to give up her house either, especially not her garden. “We wouldn’t have gotten that built up again in this life. But the more we dealt with climate change, it became clear: Our coal stays underground!”

Waltraud Kieferndorf stayed in Kuckum – also because of her garden.

Image: Andreas Palik, WDR

Lots of potential for almost empty villages

After people moved away, others temporarily found a new home in the villages. After the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley in 2021, some of those affected moved into vacant houses, which now belong to the opencast mine operator RWE. Refugees from the Ukraine have also come to Kuckum. About 300 new residents came to the villages.

The remaining residents are committed to bringing life back to the villages. They want the former residents to have the opportunity to buy back their houses from RWE. They demand that the arable land not be built over and that no listed houses be demolished. Many can imagine becoming a model village for climate-neutral living. As a former social worker, Waltraud Kieferndorf would like to see social projects such as a street for a “village within a village” where people suffering from dementia can live.

Total economic loss

While Waltraud Kieferndorf is relieved that her village will be preserved, there are mixed feelings a few kilometers further in Holzweiler. Toni von Wirth has been running his gas station here for more than 36 years. He knew early on that he would have to spend his retirement somewhere else. Holzweiler was also to be dredged for coal mining. The whole village had been preparing for this for a long time, but in 2014 the news came: Holzweiler was staying.

Toni von Wirth is happy that his home is not going to be demolished. “I’m a Ur-Holzweiler, it’s just financially difficult,” says the 63-year-old. Because economically it is a total loss for him. Because many places have been demolished or due to be dredged away, many of his customers have moved away.

Traders like Toni von Wirth are struggling with a drop in sales.

Image: Andreas Palik, WDR

Compared to the time before the resettlement, he only sells half the amount of fuel. He had actually expected compensation from RWE. The money should be his pension. The gas station remains open. However, it may be a long time before new customers can be attracted to the rescued villages.

Citizens should have a say in the future

How the environment of the opencast mine will actually change will be discussed in the coming weeks and months. The city of Erkelenz starts a citizen participation process. Here the inhabitants of the villages should have the opportunity to share their visions and ideas for the environment of the opencast mine.

Waltraud Kieferndorf will also take part and hopes that the wishes of the local people will be respected. What the villages will look like in the future is uncertain, as it was a few years ago when demolition was about to take place.

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