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German Village Refuses to Let Its Future Turn to Coal Dust

By Lucian KimSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1997


The sign on Bernd Siegert's office door sums up the feelings in this remote German hamlet only a mile from the Polish border: "The world is a madhouse, but the main office is here."

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Mr. Siegert, Horno's mayor, is leading a last-ditch fight to save the 650-year-old village from destruction. Though the state legislature in Potsdam recently passed a law permitting Horno to be razed for strip mining, the 350 villagers are refusing to budge.

"They won't get rid of this village," Siegert says, his blue eyes blazing out of his sunburned face.

For Horno, the world stopped making sense 20 years ago, when Communist functionaries in the East German government decided to level the village to make way for mining. Lignite, or brown coal, was the main energy source in East Germany. Strip mines devastated whole landscapes, and in the process of burning low-grade coal, air pollution in many cities reached catastrophic levels.

German unification in 1990 promised to stop the ecological ravage - and halt the imminent resettling of Horno.

Three utility companies from West Germany bought up the East German power network, shutting the dirtiest plants and building new ones.

Tens of thousands of workers were laid off as mines were closed, and coal production in the region around Horno plummeted by 75 percent.

But the regional mining company, Laubag, argued that if the village is not sacrificed, thousands of additional jobs will be threatened.

For the economically hard-hit state of Brandenburg, where almost 1 out of 5 workers is jobless, the choice was clear: Three years ago the state government in Potsdam decreed that Horno must be leveled.

The villagers appealed to Brandenburg's constitutional court, which ruled that only the state legislature could make such a decision. Under immense pressure from the miners union and Laubag, the legislature passed the law last June, sanctioning the razing of the village in 2003.

"Politics is the dirtiest business," says Siegert, who is a locksmith by profession and mayor only after hours. After all, Manfred Stolpe, Brandenburg's prime minister, had visited Horno several times and promised to spare the village.

Despite the new law, the villagers have not yet given up the fight to save their homes.

For one, they reject the economic argument. A study prepared last year by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy concluded that Laubag's predictions for coal demand are inflated in light of the dismal performance of the eastern German economy.

Stefan Lechtenbhmer, a geographer who prepared the study, counters the charge that thousands of jobs would be at stake.

"They're lost anyway," Mr. Lechtenbhmer says. "[The utility companies] can't keep up the energy production they're aiming for. Horno doesn't have anything to do with this."

Miners: no compromise

Even with this study on his side, Mayor Siegert says he realizes the importance of mining to the region and has proposed a compromise that would allow Laubag to go around the village. The mining company claims that circumvention is impossible because its large machinery could not operate between the village and the outer boundary of the planned strip mine.

Horno sits on about 69 acres of land. The area around it, mostly forest and farmland, is roughly 2,470 acres. The total planned area for the strip mine is about 11,100 acres. The compromise proposed by Siegert would spare about 1,200 acres for the village and a surrounding band of forest.

But the mining company says Siegert's plan is impractical.