Mining Lausitz

Challenges of lignite mining in Lusatia
The transformation of an industrial landscape

In the early 1990s shortly after the political changes in Europe a structural weakness in Germany’s new federal States was expected to occur but also to quickly pass. In the mid 1990s it seemed certain that also the industrial regions of Eastern Germany – such as the region of Lusatia 100 km South of Berlin – would grow. Development strategies in Lusatia were tuned precisely to this scenario. The goal of several modest projects realized through generous financial aid was recognition as a growing region in the process of catching up.

Meanwhile conditions have clearly changed in the region of Lusatia. Although it is a historical fact that this region has gained economic and industrial significance with Europe’s new political orientation following the first and second world wars, today little is left of the fleeting wealth brought by the brown coal of Lusatia. The de-industrialization of nearly the whole region has been compensated only here and there by publicly subsidized private investments and the few still existing industries.

Within this context the lignite industries of Lusatia play a fundamental role. Germany is the world’s leading producer of lignite at Lusatia plays a key role in that context. In 2012 lignite supplied a quarter of the country’s electricity. While the transformation problems of Lusatia are still visible and somewhat unanswered, the currently existing active open cast lignite mines of Nochten, Reichwalde, Welzow-Süd, Jänschwalde and Cottbus-Nord plus the existing power stations of Schwarze Pumpe, Jänschwalde and Boxberg are continuing to expand. The power stations produce about 8.000 megawatts and about 33 % of the lignite used to support power stations in Germany is from Lusatian mines.

To constantly supply the power station with fossil fuels from the mines an incredible industrial process of landscape transformation is needed. As an outcome the entire landscape is dug up including communities, woods and even creeks. While huge machines slowly remove the soil lignite is transported via conveyer belts to directly feed a nearby power plant. But that is just part of the operation: Ongoing planning process of resettlement, infrastructure relocation, and documentation of cultural and natural values, waterway replacement and finally the devastation of the original landscape is undertaken to guarantee the later mining procedures. Subsequently the mining fields are transformed again into new landscapes including lakes, forests, and agricultural fields while the resettled people need to find new homes nearby.

The mining induced resettlement over the course of the last decades of lignite mining in Lusatia brought drastic changes to the cultural landscape including most importantly a group of about 100 historic villages. The resettlement politics have changed significantly since the political changes in Eastern Germany in the early 1990s. Today sensitivity in terms of the sociological conditions, the economic compensation and the cultural preservation are key elements of the mining companies’ resettlement strategies. However there still is a tremendous human and ecological price to pay. The protest against continuing mining operations and the associated loss of identity, traditional neighborhood, tangible home and social values is still massive. The recent translocation of the historic village of Horno in Northeastern Lusatia a stone’s throw from the Polish border still is a vivid reminder of the involuntary resettlement of a traditionally grown community.

The rising awareness of climate change and the reduction of energy consumption even increased the problems related with the conflict between mining companies, the local administrations and the people of Lusatia. With Germany’s political aim of the “Energiewende” the primary target is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to improve energy efficiency. Those frame conditions make it even harder for the mining industries and their supporters to justify the devastation of the landscape within the next couple of decades. Thus the plan to demolish the village of Kerkwitz and the neighboring villages of Grabko and Atterwasch as part of Lusatia’s future mining field of the “Jänschwalde Nord” mine is discussed controversially. The argument is based on the conflict caused by 250 million tons of lignite in a 90-meter-deep layer stretching for 7 km hidden below the surface of these villages and the environmental plus social problems connected to the digging plans.

The Lusatian mines are run by the Swedish public company of Vattenfall. Vattenfall suggested a “carbon dioxide capture and storage”-system (CCS) to continue mining lignite in Lusatia with a more ecological output. Until now the company could not successfully convince the province administrations to support this approach. With the 2011 decision to shut down nuclear power plants the political concept to fill Germany’s energy gap by domestically produced lignite might effect Vattenfall’s CCS-proposal. However Germany still aims to generate 80 percent of its electricity from “green sources” by 2050. Under those political and economic conditions it is currently unclear what Lusatia’s final energy strategy will be like within the next decades.

Lusatia today is looking back at a long history of lignite mining. Besides the active mines the region is currently creating a challenging new landscape based on the topography left behind by former mines. To induce a process of creative landscape design in the former lignite terrain Lusatia set up the International Building Exhibition (IBA) in 2000. IBA’s outcome in 2010 was astonishing and an opportunity for the structurally weak region: The largest artificial lake landscape in Europe. Where enormous overburden conveyor bridge and bucket-wheel excavator once lifted soil and lignite to support power stations now quarries are being flooded. Yesterdays “moonscape” is thus being transformed into more than thirty lakes many of them connected by navigable canals.

Some of these future lakes are not even filled with water yet. The most prominent example is the “Cottbus-Nord” open-cast mine. Lignite will be mined here until 2015. Then the vast trench will be flooded and the so called “Eastern Lake” will be created. Since 2001 the nearby City of Cottbus is already on target for its hope as a waterside town. An international architectural competition has been carried out up. 1.900 hectares wide the lake might become a new chance for Cottbus. But it is not clear at all if that mine will in the end be really transformed in a regional sailors and tourist attraction. Cottbus is following the same trend as the rest of the region. The city is presently confronted with severe structural changes. Cottbus was once the engine of industrial wealth in the region. But today the city shows clear signals of a continuous economic crisis. Thus, the search for a rapid economic rehabilitation can be pursued only conditionally. A speedy catch-up process with money flowing tourist attractions at “Eastern Lake” seems not really possible.

This is why the key questions of Lusatia are still unanswered: How can structural change succeed if the economy has not recovered in record time? What can be done if the process of rethinking paired with post-industrial visions finds wide acceptance only reluctantly? How can change be facilitated in Lusatia if public and private funds have been largely depleted?

For more information: INIK GmbH, Lars Scharnholz,

Leave a Reply