Undermining a Community

Not even war and ethnic cleansing could destroy the centuries-old German village of Horno, but the local electricity industry may soon plow it under to get at the coal beneath. The locals are fighting to hold onto their homes and heritage.


HORNO, Germany — Paul Noack has put up an electric fence to keep the wild boars out of his potato patch. They’ve been hiding in the wheat fields around his house because there’s nowhere else for them to go: The forest on the hill a mile away where they’ve always lived, and the hill itself, for that matter, are being chewed away by a herd of bulldozers and digging machines in search of lignite, or brown coal.

From what is left of the woods, the view is bleak: a dark valley, and beyond that a colorless moonscape where the mine has done its damage. A 650-yard long steel leviathan straddles the valley — the “world’s largest moveable technical device,” according to Laubag, the mining firm. While coal is dug out from the bottom of the valley, the “conveyor bridge” travels back and forth transporting layers of virgin land away and dumping it onto the other side of the pit, filling it up as it moves north. The open-face lignite mine — a six-mile-long black pit — is moving north at a rate of 10 yards a week.

If all goes according to the mining company’s plan, Noack, along with 350 of his neighbors in this village of brick farmhouses and tree-lined main streets on the German-Polish border, will be as displaced as the boars by 2002. Eventually the mine will wipe out Horno, where Noack has lived since 1948, and he will be relocated to a nearby modern settlement dubbed New Horno, financed by the mining firm and the state of Brandenburg.

“The edge [of the mine] is just one and a half kilometers away. Some of the older people, they just can’t cope,” says Horno’s mayor, Bernd Siegert. Sipping a beer in the cozy living room of the house where he lives with his wife and two daughters, Siegert’s forehead is creased with concern. “There are a lot of the people here who are being forced to move for the second time in their lives,” he adds, referring to the massive influx of ethnic German refugees expelled after World War Two from what is now Poland on the other side of the Neisse river.

At the yet-to-be-built New Horno, Laubag is supposed to provide housing of “equal worth” for the displaced inhabitants. “If they have golden faucets in the old house, we have to replace them,” claims company spokesman Roger Kohlmann. “In fact, they will probably end up making a profit.”

But for the many Horno residents who hang on to the very German concept of Heimat, that one’s home is inexorably rooted to the land and community, such promises are cold comfort.

“We’ll have to start everything again, our gardens, our fruit trees. That’s no village life,” says Noack. He is crushed by the thought of being forced to build everything up from scratch again, after saving half his life to pay for the house he built in the 1950s.

In an effort to save their homes, the townspeople have taken their case to several courts — but have so far won only delays. The final decision about whether Noack and all of his neighbors lose their homes could soon be made thousands of miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the board rooms of Southern Company in Atlanta. Its subsidiary, Southern Energy, a large US utility, is hoping to become a major player in the lucrative German electricity market. It is angling to buy Veag, which owns the entire power grid of former communist East Germany, and Laubag, a major regional mining firm which supplies Veag with lignite for its power plants. (Southern already owns a 26 percent stake in Berlin’s power utility Bewag, which also has shares in Veag.)

The Jaenschwalde mine inches closer to Horno

The Jaenschwalde mine inches closer to Horno, leaving a moonscape of ecological ruin in its path.
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It is Laubag’s Jaenschwalde mine which is creeping towards Horno, and which lies in the middle of an approximately 15 mile-long tract of lignite-rich land. If Southern succeeds in buying the companies, it will inherit the 23 year-old Horno dispute, and a potential legal morass.

For years Laubag has been trying to buy up land in Horno, from the kindergarten to the churchyard to farmland, in order to ensure that the mine can continue to supply the Veag power plant. Those villagers who don’t sell their land voluntarily will be forced to sell and move out by 2002. The state government mining office, which oversees the industry, will file “property-transfer proceedings” against each homeowner who refuses to budge, on the legal theory that the economic needs of the wider populace supercede the Hornoers’ rights. German mining law allows the state to do this without a court trial, says Horno’s Frankfurt-based lawyer Dirk Tessmer.

From 1924 to the present, 77 villages have been destroyed to make way for similar mines in the region, but only one, Kausche, has succumbed since the fall of communist East Germany.

One of the last hopes to save the 650-year-old village — much of which is officially a protected historic monument under the state’s own law — is for the villagers to create enough legal problems for Laubag to convince the company to forget about the coal which lies beneath the town, says Justus von Widekind, a Berlin-based economist specializing in the German energy sector who is following the issue closely.

But Horno’s champions are having mixed luck in the courts. Last year, the villagers took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, trying to prove that the destruction of the village was against the right of the local Sorb minority to maintain their way of life and culture guaranteed by the Brandenburg constitution. One third of Horno’s inhabitants are full-blooded Sorbs, a Slavic minority of at least 60,000 that has for centuries called the Lausitz, the region in which Horno lies, their home. With its 600-year-old church and graveyard and abundant ponds, Horno — or Rogow as it’s called in the Sorb language — is the quintessential traditional Sorb village.

This century has not been kind to the Sorbs. The Nazis considered them an inferior race, and banned the Sorb language from schools and public life. The head of Hitler’s police forces, Heinrich Himmler, had plans to resettle the Sorbs in conquered areas of Poland and Russia. Though most escaped deportation, there is evidence that some Sorbs were sent to concentration camps solely because of their race, according to Professor Wolfgang Wuepperman of Berlin Free University.

Nonetheless, last June the European Court refused to hear Horno’s case against the German government, calling the destruction of the village a “serious, but relatively speaking, permissible encroachment of human rights.”

But two recent court victories have given the villagers reason to hope. In mid-June the Brandenburg Constitutional Court ruled that the regulatory body behind the state’s “Brown Coal Plan” lacked “sufficient democratic legitimacy,” casting the mine’s fate into doubt. Laubag, however, said the decision would not affect its mining operation, because Germany’s federal laws, which take precedence over Brandenburg’s, support the company’s position. Nevertheless, Laubag’s “resettlement expert” Detlev Dähnert, admitted that fewer Horno property owners have come to his office to sell their property since the verdict. So far, he said, 32 out of the 100 plots of land in the village have been sold to the company.

More importantly, a July 11 decision by the local Cottbus Administrative Court could seriously threaten the advance of the mine. A villager who is refusing to sell his tract of forest on the outskirts of Horno filed a suit contesting the forced transfer of his land to Laubag. The judge forbade, for the time being, Laubag from clearing the land for the mine. The decision has infuriated mine and power plant workers, 600 of whom protested against the decision the following week, claiming it endangered their jobs.

That reaction does much to explain why Geman politicians haven’t done more to save this tiny village. Located in one of the most economically depressed regions of eastern Germany, where unemployment is about 20 percent, the west German energy conglomerates that took over the inefficient communist lignite-mining and power industry have been able to justify almost anything in the name of saving local jobs. After a decade of privatization and downsizing since the reunification of Germany, Widekind estimates only 10,000 jobs in lignite mining and power generation remain in the eastern half of the country, down from well over 100,000 during inefficient communist times.

Horno aside, lignite mining anywhere leaves the environment — from the land to the water to the air — devastated. Even if Horno survives, the surrounding landscape will resemble more the moon than central Europe. The giant machines leave a powdery, gray, lifeless path of destruction. Local environmentalist Harald Wilken even claims that these vast barren areas have affected the local climate. Less vegetation means less evaporation, which means less rain. Wilken says some farmers have complained of complete crop failure this summer in the area, and he suspects the mines are to blame.

Laubag spokesperson Roger Kohlmann counters that the mine can be replanted with mixed-species forests, replacing the “mono-culture” that was there before, as has happened in other mining areas.

The mine has also caused water shortages for the region’s farms, says campaigner Ulrich Jochimsen, because so much local groundwater has to be pumped out to get at the lignite. The mining company had to build an 80-yard deep, three-yard thick underground wall along the edge of the mine area to prevent the pumps from extracting ground water from neighboring Poland. Furthermore, the continued use of lignite, high in carbon, will do little to help Germany lower its dangerously high carbon-dioxide emissions.

In a way, the story of Horno embodies the hopes and disappointments of the East Germans 10 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. The village had been marked for destruction already in the early 1970s by communist economic planners. Germany’s reunification and the introduction of democracy fostered new hope: “When the Wall came down we realized through democracy that we would be able to protest more,” says Siegert.

But it soon became clear who would call the shots in the new Germany: mainly firms from western Germany, which keep eastern politicians in check by promising investment and jobs. Veag seems like that beast from the old communist school books: an all-powerful capitalist monopoly. But it benefits ironically, from the old system, too: German law still allows Veag to prevent other utilities from using its power grid — despite wide-scale liberalization of European electricity markets — if it believes the brown coal industry will be endangered by the competition.

Right now, says Widekind, it’s a “battle of nerves” between the villagers determined to try every legal avenue to enable them to stay put, and Laubag, which continues to pressure the villagers to sell their property. “The one that blinks first loses,” says Widekind.