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Resilience, Contestation and Resistance

‘We are nature defending itself’—The Forest of Dannenrod Occupation as an Example of Contested Extractivism in the Global North

‘Nous sommes la nature qui se défend’—l’occupation de la forêt de Dannenrond comme exemple d’extractivisme contesté dans le Nord global
‘Somos la naturaleza defendiéndose a sí misma’—­La ocupación del bosque de Dannenrod como ejemplo de resistencia contra el extractivismo en el Norte Global
Dorothea Hamilton and Sina Trölenberg


Extractive activity is not limited to mining; it also occurs in the other forms of large-scale landscape destruction, including the deforestation involved in extensive infrastructure projects. Yet while resistance to activities such as fracking and coal mining has been intensively investigated within the extractivism debate under the collective term ‘contested extractivism’, resistance to the extraction of renewable parts of nature such as woodland has, by comparison, been somewhat neglected. Likewise, the academic debate has focused mostly on case studies from the global South. We argue that opposition to the felling of more than 85 hectares of woodland in the Forest of Dannenrod (Germany) for the construction of a highway is an example of contested extractivism in the global North. We portray the protest as a clash between extractivist and anti-extractivist notions in Europe, the latter partly transitioning into post-extractivist imaginaries. And although the area was felled in 2020, we argue that this opposition marked a turning point for the German environmental justice movement and sparked a national debate, despite persistent support mechanisms for wood extraction and negative media reports.

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1. Introduction

1In academic literature, extractivist practices are often described as contested. Investigating environmental protests against such practices has a long history in the field of political ecology, yet the literature shows that there has been a strong emphasis on research in the global South (e.g., Dietz and Engels, 2017, on gold mining in Colombia; Ghosh, 2016, on coal mining in India; and Bebbington, 2013, on mining in the Andean region). Comparatively few investigations take into account contestation of extractivism in the global North. Furthermore, the focus has been on movements that oppose non-regenerative resource extraction (e.g., Brock and Dunlap, 2018, on coal mining), making extractivism and the act of contesting it resemble a phenomenon of the global South, and one limited to mineral or hydrocarbon extraction. We, however, argue that the partial logging of the Forest of Dannenrod in central Germany for road infrastructure expansion is an example of a European site of extractivist practice that has been similarly contested. Much like in other parts of the world, this environmental conflict manifests fundamentally different perceptions of human–nature interaction and distinct extractivist, anti-extractivist and post-extractivist imaginaries (e.g., see Boulot and Collins, Post, in this volume and Nikolaeva, 2023 - Teixeira). Further, we argue that even though the section of forest in question was eventually felled the protest constitutes a success, as it sparked a national debate on how anti-extractivist positions can develop into post-extractivist imaginaries. To explore these assumptions, this chapter draws on several theories and presents a mixed-method approach. Building on this, it outlines the evolution of the contestation as well as the role of the stakeholders involved in an attempt to make sense of different local imaginaries that developed during the protest. The chapter concludes with proposals for concrete policy measures.

2The woodland in question was situated in the Forest of Dannenrod in the central German federal state of Hesse. The site is near the village of Dannenrod (160 inhabitants) in a peripheral and economically weak region close to the university towns of Marburg and Giessen. An aisle of trees approximately 100 metres in width was felled in the winter of 2020 in order to allow for the completion of an interstate highway (autobahn)—the ‘A49’, a road of major national and supranational importance due to the desire to increase connectivity between logistical sites throughout Germany and Europe (see figure 1). It is also argued that the highway will improve the infrastructural connectivity of two other major highways, thereby reducing traffic in nearby villages currently suffering the effects of traffic noise and congestion. The chosen route, though, dissects several areas of forest, of which the Forest of Dannenrod is the most biodiverse. The more than 85 hectares of woodland that needed to be cleared for the project to go ahead included 250-year-old oak and beech trees and was characterised as a biodiverse ecosystem that connected ecological corridors important for threatened species. The affected forest also forms part of a large water protection area with critical importance to half a million people in the region which depend on the drinking water. Opponents to the highway expect severe pollution of the groundwater from construction as well as from contaminated sites in the area.

Figure 1 Location of the Forest of Dannenrod and the planned highway A49

Figure 1 Location of the Forest of Dannenrod and the planned highway A49

Source: Ignatius Perera (2022b).

3The protesters oppose the building of the highway due to one or more of its negative impacts: For some, the ecological integrity of the forest and of the endemic local species is crucial. Others refer to the threat to water quality in the region. Locals fear the negative effects of noise pollution, and a lessened quality of life in their village. For others, it is a symbol of absurdity that, amid a climate crisis and with global temperatures rising, the felling of a forest for the sake of increased individual mobility is being permitted despite the adverse effects on promises to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

2. Research Purpose and Methodological Approach to the Argumentation

4In this chapter, we argue that the conflict around tree felling in the Forest of Dannenrod is a clash between extractivist and post-extractivist imaginaries, specifically emphasising the heterogenous protest movement that has formed over recent decades. Traditional approaches in the field of political ecology focus on access to nature as a central point of conflict (Robbins, 2020; Neumann, 2005). We, meanwhile, argue that extractivist practices in the realm of above-ground woodland extraction are likewise contested, as seen in several cases in the global south. And, although the area of the forest in question was eventually cut down, the protest still represents a success. In order to look beyond the unifying effect that the joint opposition to the A49 had on various environmental initiatives, we aim to explore the consequential dynamics present within the movement.

5We recognise the need to highlight our personal and geographical proximity to the protest. We were, at all times, highly biased in our studies as we were personally involved in the protest we were trying to understand as researchers. This resulted in different approaches to the object of study during the research process, which lasted for over a year. We found it a methodological and epistemological challenge to observe a protest from the inside while drawing objectifiable conclusions from that observation. In fact, we do not consider ourselves outsiders investigating a faraway phenomenon, but rather position ourselves among the affected groups, as the construction of the highway might affect future access to water and aggravate local effects of the climate crisis.

6Our range of methodological approaches reflect our attempt to strike a balance between objectivity and involvement. Over the time of observation (October 2019 - March 2021) we employed what could be called a mix of methods, consisting of participatory observation, quantitative techniques, a literature review, focus groups and critical discourse analysis. Such a description would, however, be an oversimplification—the main challenge of investigating something we were physically and emotionally involved in was to find appropriate approaches under changing circumstances. We combined perspectives and techniques from critical anthropogeography, political ecology, sociology and ethnology. In doing so, we were striving for a multifaceted picture that would help us understand the complexity of the contestation.

7Our first contact with the contestation of this act of woodland extraction saw us in the role of participatory observers. This was in September 2019, when we attended events related to the upcoming clearing season, such as weekly forest walks and demonstrations in the region. Later the same year, when the first tree houses were built, we attended a cultural and educational programme on the site of the camp, and talked to locals and to the so-called activists living temporarily or permanently in the tree houses. In October 2020, we saw the need to include an ‘objective’ observation method and, embedded in a Master’s seminar, conducted semi-structured interviews with their attendant questionnaire to get an insight into the protesters’ standpoints, experiences and motivations. This laid the grounds for a quantitative approach (N=127) in order to obtain representative results. Since we were highly entangled in an emotional protest, our aim was to concentrate on the preconditions that make contestation possible. At all times we were aware of the diversity and heterogeneity of the participants, yet we categorised them into subgroups to get a clearer picture of different tendencies.

8In the analysis, we found our initial outcomes highly biased as we had homogenised the protesters and attributed to them monodimensional characteristics. Consequently, we decided to complement our results with an analysis of the related media discourse, which had been growing in intensity in the course of our investigation. Based on the approach employed by Siegfried Jäger (2015), we carried out a critical discourse analysis, aiming to dissect the media coverage and make better sense of it. To this end, we documented and visualised the main discursive events and analysed representative newspaper articles.

9Three months after the last tree was cut down, we sought to contrast the ‘internal’ with the ‘external’ view in an interactive manner. In the context of the ‘Camp for Climate Action’ held in Dannenrod in April 2021, we aimed to elicit participants’ perspectives.

3. Theoretical Embedding: Contested Extractivism in the Global North?

10Traditionally, extractivism is considered a model of development based on the exploitation of generally non-renewable and subterranean resources for export (Gudynas, 2009). The academic discourse on extractivism and on protests against practices such as mining, large-scale infrastructure projects or extensive monocultures—often referred to as contested extractivism—mainly stems from the global South, with a strong emphasis on Latin America (e.g., Dietz and Engels, 2017; Gudynas, 2013; Bebbington, 2013). Explanations for this can be found in a greater economic dependency on the extraction of natural resources, the more frequent and more violent persecution of environmental activists in the region, and the traditional geographic focus of political ecology (Bailey and Bryant, 1997).

11In the current academic debate, meanwhile, the idea of extractivism is increasingly being expanded to encompass a wider critique of extractive practices that require the exploitation of humans and of non-human species in the context of a growth-based economy (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2017; Bresnihan and Brodie, 2020). Thereby, extractivism is interpreted as a practice that involves profound landscape changes for the sake of extracting one element of nature, usually referred to as a ‘resource’. Generally this involves large-scale projects in peripheral areas and economic profit for powerful stakeholders, alongside long-term ecological costs that considerably impact local livelihoods (Hamilton, 2022). Most of the time this goes hand in hand with centralised decision-making at both a geographical and contextual distance from the site of extraction, resulting in the externalisation of ecological costs to the local community, which remains invisible.

12In the political ecology discourse, it is often argued that struggles around nature are a product of unequal ‘access to nature’ (Ahlborg and Nightingale, 2018). Linking this thought to extractivism, it is often contended that the necessary control that implies a certain use of nature is a direct reflection of power relations. Different groups are said to enjoy unequal access to nature and so-called resources (Bauriedl, 2016). However, studying the protest centred on the Forest of Dannenrod reveals that this particular contestation cannot be explained by this theory of access to nature. In order to understand the protest’s dynamics, we prefer to deploy the territory approach used by Maristella Svampa, who highlights that extractivism is based on ‘the exploitation of increasingly scarce, mostly non-renewable, natural resources and the expansion of these resources into territories that were previously considered “unproductive”’ (Svampa, 2012, 14). Territory becomes a central term in her approach. It involves more than just the access to nature, instead proposing a fundamentally different idea of human–nature interaction and ‘good living’ (Quechuan: ‘sumaq kawsay’; Spanish: ‘buen vivir’). The ideais based on a ‘paradigm shift from an anthropocentric to an eco-centric perception of nature, from hyper-individualism to a community-focus responsibility, from a […] growth-fetish to a needs-based regenerative lifestyle’ (Gomes, 2018, 150). Rooted in Latin American ontology, ‘buen vivir’ proposes that a harmonious and peaceful relationship between humans and non-humans is the foundation of a ‘good’ life. This is contrary to the conventional dualistic view found in Western approaches, which places humankind above nature in an exploitative manner. ‘Buen vivir’ thwarts the fundamentals of extractivism, which are directly tied to an anthropocentric world view wherein a non-human environment is only appreciated, if at all, for its (economic) value to humans. Nature has to be ‘put into value’ (Altvater and Mahnkopf, 1997); otherwise it is considered unproductive. Extractivist practices tend to expand into ‘unproductive’ territories, producing contestation with the local population (Ulloa, 2016). In Latin America many of the groups contesting extractivism argue from a post-extractivist or anti-extractivist point of view, based on the idea of ‘good living’ and opposed to a growth-oriented, centralised idea of development. We understand anti-extractivist views oppose to extractivism from a rather conservative standpoint with the aim of maintaining the status quo within the existing system. Post-extractivist motivations, meanwhile, involve the idea of necessary systemic changes in order to achieve a ‘good life’.

13Building on these thoughts, extractivism can be applied to examples outside the global South. In the case of ‘the Danni’—as the forest was nicknamed by the protesters, thus giving it an identity that it does not possess according to German law—the infrastructure project is considered more valuable than the forest. The forest can be understood as one of Svampa’s ‘unproductive territories’ as it adds no additional monetary value to the region. Much like various other cases, the destruction of the ecosystem is justified by enforcing more ‘productive’ use of the land. Large-scale projects are discursively justified by linking them to growth-oriented ‘progress’, wherein the prospect of improved connectivity and economic benefits has been described as a major driving force, particularly for the realisation of infrastructural projects (Harvey and Knox, 2015). In this way, valid critique is delegitimised and alternative proposals for regional development beyond the anthropocentric and the growth-oriented remain unheard or are actively suppressed.

14Looking at the Danni movement from this angle, we see that contestation of extractivism does not only occur because of inequalities with regard to access. Rather, it is based on a radically different conceptualisation of the nature–human relationship and on a post-extractivist idea of a ‘good life’. In what follows, we attempt to understand both the different emic concepts of good living that are at the basis of the protest as well as the ideas of post-extractivist movements in the global North.

4. ‘The Danni’ as an Example of Contested Extractivism in the Global North

15In order that readers comprehend our conceptual approach, we will briefly describe the history of the Danni protest and present the actors involved as well as their anti- and post-extractivist imaginaries.

16The discussion between local, regional and national actors on how to improve the regions infrastructure connectivity dates back more than 40 years. The decision to choose the variant that dissects the Forest of Dannenrod was backed by the CDU, the conservative party and the “green party” , nearby industries, and by the initiative ‘JA49’ (‘Yes A49’), which claims that the closure of this particular gap in the region’s road infrastructure will deliver both better logistical links and noise alleviation measures in the surrounding villages. Resistance to the highway extension, meanwhile, centres around residents of the village of Dannenrod—later taking form as the citizen’s initiative ‘Keine A49’ (‘No A49’)—and is as old as the construction plans themselves. Initial legal action aimed at stopping the extension failed and suggestions for alternate routes remained mostly unheard. But the issue only attracted supra-regional attention late in 2019 when activists from all over Germany and beyond joined local protesters. Encouraged by the Naturschutzbund (NABU), a national environmental protection body, protesters initially built five tree houses 25 metres above ground level, and defence structures, including wooden barricades, to protect the trees marked for felling. As a result, clearance of the area was postponed, and what gradually became tree house villages kept growing (figure 2), right up until the following possible clearing season, in October 2020. Throughout that year, engagement in and knowledge of the matter accumulated, the former ranging from weekly demonstrations such as the so-called Sunday forest walks through infrastructural and logistical support from residents of the village of Dannenrod and the participation of NABU to more radical forms of environmental protest by activist groups.

Figure 2 Tree house seen during one of the guided forest walks

Figure 2 Tree house seen during one of the guided forest walks

Source: Author, 2020.

17A self-organised protest camp was set up between the edge of the forest and the village with the help of local residents, landowners and environmental groups, creating a bridge between the tree house villages and their supporters. Not all villagers supported the growing number of protesters in their village. But the camp did gain allies from the nearby university towns of Giessen and Marburg, bringing additional support by raising awareness of the matter in a middle-class, academic setting and pointing to the ecological value of the forest and the threat the highway expansion would pose to neighbouring towns.

18During the first COVID-19-related lockdown period, in March 2020, the number of tree house villages grew, as did the number of protesters. With the logging season approaching, by September 2020 an unknown number of so-called activists had built more than 50 tree house–like structures, in approximately ten ‘neighbourhoods’ in the area of trees that were to be cut down (see figure 3). In June 2020, the last legal avenue for halting the clearance had been closed by the Federal Administrative Court logging, and felling operations were expected for October 2020.

Figure 3 Barrios A49 (Map of tree house village in the Forest of Dannenrod in October 2020)

Figure 3 Barrios A49 (Map of tree house village in the Forest of Dannenrod in October 2020)

Source: Ignatius Perera (2022a).

19Inspired by other successful forest protection campaigns, especially the Hambacher Forest occupation (Liersch and Stegmaier, 2022), the protestors in the Forest of Dannenrod prepared for the threat of eviction. They joined a larger movement, which used the slogan ‘Wald statt Asphalt’ (‘Forest instead of asphalt’) as a political rhetorical phrase to raise awareness of the necessity for a general change in transport policy (Verkehrswende). Thus, the Danni evolved as a national symbol of the necessity of a mobility transition within Germany—a crucial adaptation measure given the alarming situation of climate crisis. As a self-organised counter project to local and national politics, the protest camp at Dannenrod hosted political events, concerts, and workshops about alternatives to an extractive lifestyle. The camp included a community kitchen, and functioned as a meeting point for the regular Sunday walk that continued, even during the eviction stage, in a family-oriented, educational manner, hosting up to 5,000 participants a day.

20On 1 October 2020, the evictions began, with a major police presence. After some initial failures, police tactics changed, employing counter-insurgency methods as described by Grabovski-Larson and Santos (2021). The following month, with up to 2,000 police officers in attendance each day, all the tree house villages were subjected to evictions, and the trees were immediately logged, all of which attracted major media attention (see chapter 4.1). At this time, the contestation was joined by other climate activist groups, such as Ende Gelände (‘End of the [construction] site’), a European alliance of movements that opposes coal mining and gas extraction and uses non-violent and subversive methods of environmental protection (Kinna and Gordon, 2019). The collaboration with Ende Gelände marked the confluence of the two sides of the same coin of post-extractivist imaginaries: On the one hand, there were objections to the extraction of natural resources. On the other, a critique of the fossil fuel–based transport system. Both extraction and transportation contribute significantly to the climate crisis. The contested extractivism of the Danni therefore created a space for exchanging ideas about post-extractivist and post-carbon lifestyles.

21During the felling, protesters used increasingly radical methods to protect the forest, including chaining themselves to trees, occupying excavators and harvesters, and abseiling from bridges spanning highways, causing major traffic jams all over Germany. Thus, the protest evoked strong opposition in the general population. And while certain prominent individuals who showed solidarity with the cause brought it further national attention, others accused the protesters of terrorism.

22As described, the Danni manifested a clash of imaginaries of what a ‘good life’ should imply. Protesters fought for every meter of vegetation in order to reinforce the protection of the forest and a post-extractivist view. The police, for its part, enabled felling and logging in line with official decision-making and following an extractivist norm. The last tree of the aisle was cut down in December 2020 (figure 4). By then, police had, according to media reports, made more than 1,000 temporary arrests, destroyed more than 500 barricades, and left at least three activists with major injuries.

23Even though the movement did not achieve its original goal of stopping the felling of the forest, we argue that it was a success. The protest camp has continued to host events on the subject of post-extractivist imaginaries, including the ‘Climate Camp in 2021’, with participants from all over Germany and a large number of workshops and discussion groups on post-extractive lifestyles in times of climate crisis.

Figure 4 Cleared and fenced-off forest area.

Figure 4 Cleared and fenced-off forest area.

Source: Julia Manek, 2021.

4.1 Ramifications of Imaginaries from a Discursive Viewpoint

24Based on the following analysis of media perceptions, we show that this conflict can be interpreted as a clash between extractivist and post-extractivist views. In the literature, extractivism is portrayed as going hand in hand with the appropriation of territory and the oppression of human and non-human livelihoods. The pro-extractivist media argues against other forms of development and criminalises contestation (Santisteban, 2016). The rights of nature and of locals are to be subdued in the name of a common good often portrayed as ‘progress’ or ‘economic growth’—paradigms that are often attributed to the expected beneficial outcomes of infrastructure (Harvey and Knox, 2015).

25Our cross-sectional examination of the environmental discourse regarding the contested extractivism in the Forest of Dannenrod at the level of the media focused—based on the work of Mattissek and of Jäger—on linguistic text elements that are understood as socially established rules and their discontinuities (Mattissek, 2021, 365–378). As can be seen in figure 5, a total of 1,198 articles were recovered from German online newspapers, showing the entire media coverage over the investigated time. The contestation clearly remained an unrecognised, regional phenomenon until the point of the planned eviction in November 2019, and certainly until the eviction was actually conducted, one year later. The exponential increase in media attention sees the matter attract even international coverage at the peak of the confrontation between the protesters and the police. We posit that the media coverage rises in parallel with the number of violent incidents, as peaceful gatherings of 5,000 protesters attracted no national media attention while single acts of violence attracted the most coverage. While both police and protesters used different degrees of violence media responded mainly to the use of different kind of violence like sabotaging machines and blocking highways by abseiling from bridges which protesters were accused of.

Figure 5 Media coverage during the occupation of the Dannenrod Forest (start of forest occupation–start of clearing).

Figure 5 Media coverage during the occupation of the Dannenrod Forest (start of forest occupation–start of clearing).

Source: Authors, based on data from wiso-net and Google News (2021).

  • 1 All terms and passages quoted from German-language news outlets and interviews are the authors' tra (...)

26One piece, in the popular national newspaper Welt even states, ‘They call themselves activists. But in fact, they’re engaging in terrorism’1 (Welt/Schwilden, 2020). This draws attention to questions of whether protesters turned violent because of a lack of media attention and whether the portrayal of tree squatters as terrorists—and the overall notable use of military language in media coverage—was proportionate to the reality of the conflict. A general media analysis reveals that the protesters were often described as a homogenous group and denied any individuality, but were generally attributed a uniform propensity for violence. Through ‘othering’, a sharp distinction is drawn between the law-abiding police ‘arming themselves/gearing up for a large-scale operation’ (Welt, 2020a), on the one hand, and ‘massively resisting’ activists using ‘extreme force’ (Welt, 2020a; 2020b), on the other, thereby implying that an encounter between these two groups is virtually expected to turn violent. Overall, patterns of thought prevail whereby activists are not to be taken seriously as a social movement but merely as a threat to general security, as they are not perceived as representative of the general public’s interests.

27In order to understand how public opinion was shaped, we will now take an in-depth look at two representative articles from the last and most contested period, that between the first forest occupation and the start of felling (October 2019–November 2020). The articles, respectively from influential newspapers from the left (Süddeutsche Zeitung, SZ) and the conservative spectrum (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, FAZ), were analysed for discursive elements that shaped perceptions of the contestation and the representation of the actors involved. Elements and perspectives that were left out of reporting (non-mentions) or that were especially highlighted were of particular interest as they represented narratives and counter-narratives around the conflict.

4.2 Conceptualisation of Stakeholders in the Media

28A closer look at the two representative articles shows that the constitutional state that enforces the extractivist view is presented as infallible and unquestionable. According to them, supporters of the highway are described to be limited in their right to demonstrate, while activists and their reasons for protesting are implicitly located on the fringes of society and associated with far left movements only, not reflecting popular opinion.

29For example, the term ‘silent majority’ (FAZ, 2020) is used to describe supporters of the highway to portray them as overlooked in the debate and to create a counter discourse to the hegemonic discourse of the A49’s opponents, associated with social–ecological movements such as Fridays for Future. This notion puts economic well-being above the conservation of livelihoods and devalues the intentions of the protesters. This may be due to the press’ perception of climate activism as a threat to established economic and political norms as it challenges the industrial and imperial lifestyle. This threat is countered by the paradigm of economic growth, in which mega infrastructure projects are given positive connotations, while climate science and policy discourse remain completely ignored. The underlying implication is that the highway serves a common good by enhancing the regional economy through an act of infrastructural ‘gap closure’ (FAZ, 2020). Ecological effects are justified as containable and therefore harmless; scientific findings as irrelevant. Political ecology’s understanding is that this creates an objectification of nature as an element that is subservient to humans even in the context of its supposed protection. The role of activists is largely described as negatively impacting and harmful to societal security by using the power of framing and othering through a demarcation of the own and known from the foreign and unknown.

30Terms from transportation and economics, such as ‘economically underdeveloped’ and ‘relief for the congested federal highway’ (SZ, 2020) are consistently used positively and the highway’s expansion is portrayed as inevitable. This is especially made visible by highlighting that all past court decisions have ruled in favour of the construction project (SZ, 2020). This undermines both the progressive nature of science and the potential of current climate and environmental research as a fundamental indicator that could constitute a power-exerting, decision-making force and set premises for the adaptation and revision of legal decisions.

4.3 Discursive Exclusions

4.3.1 The Anti-extractivist Imaginaries of Locals

31Returning to our broader media review, although some of the articles retrieved and analysed provide a comparatively differentiated overview of the discourse around, and aim for a detailed description of the varying positions within, the conflict, they contain several phrasings that accentuate only certain characteristics, thus influencing the interpretation of what is read and what is not (Matthes, 2007, 18). Ongoing opposition by locals, for example, remains unmentioned, and the voices of those protesters that are not engaged specifically in the forest occupation remain mostly unheard, leaving almost no room for an understanding of anti-extractivist imaginaries as a motivation for protest. According to responses to our questionnaire, the residents of Dannenrod were not involved in non-legal actions, yet they supported the movement in other crucial ways, including by hanging banners or taking part in protest walks. Others supported the so-called activists by providing access to showers and hot food, or employed more clandestine types of support, taking medicine and building materials to the forest or supporting the camp financially even though they might have had less radical political ideas. The reasons they supported the movements with different political ideals are apparent in the following statement from an anonymous interviewee:

The tree squatters transformed the movement […]—probably in a decisive way. But it is wrong to reduce discussion of the resistance to the A49 (or the ‘car madness’) to this action alone. […] citizen groups have been fighting the project in different ways for 40 years. And if we have the chance today to stop the A49 for the sake of the Forest of Dannenrod, then [this is] only because these long-term protests and legal proceedings have at least delayed the planning and construction.

32Reasons for engagement that remained unheard in the media discourse included the following:

Just as there is no second world, there will be no second Forest of Dannenrod. My father is probably the oldest demonstrator. With almost 94 years and more than 50 years of activity as a forester in Dannenrod, hardly anyone knows the Forest of Dannenrod as well as he does.

33We observe a highly emotional and personal connection between some protesters and the forest. The position with regard to the highway project is not, however, unanimous, and that there is a certain ambiguity within the local community, as, for example, the slogan ‘Do we need the A49?’ (figure 6) demonstrates. The unwillingness to give up the comfort of individual motorised transport might be seen as a reason for the objection to the highway as much as the lack of reasonable transport alternatives, especially in remote areas. Ultimately, this anti-extractivist way of thinking rather seems to be based on individual rather than collective needs, contrary to the idea of ’buen vivir’. It also avoids the question ‘Do we need the Forest of Dannenrod?’ and therefore represents the view of the anti-A49 movement rather than a general post-extractive or post-carbon imaginary. Only due to the protest were many of the residents confronted with more general questions regarding the ideals of ‘good life’ and changes in individual habits.

Figure 6 Bumper sticker asking, ‘Do we need the A49?’

Figure 6 Bumper sticker asking, ‘Do we need the A49?’

Source: Author, 2020.

4.3.2 The Post-extractivist Imaginaries of Activists

34Contrary to the locals’ perspective, those actually engaged in the forest occupation had no emotional connection to the forest prior to the occupation, nor would they be directly affected in their daily lives by the impact of the highway. For this group, the felling served as indicative of the absurdity of clearing healthy, ecologically relevant forests in times of climate crisis for the sake of creating more traffic. One said:

For me personally, it’s not so much about the A49 [highway], but about a general system change that makes ecological sense. For me, it‘s not that important that this [the forest occupation] takes place here in this region; I could also sit in the trees 100 km away because of another highway route.

35For these mostly younger protesters willing to engage in non-legal actions, the Dannenrod Forest served as a symbol of capitalist approaches to nature as also seen in other anti-extractivist movements around the globe. Their view is deeply rooted in a belief in the necessity of a transformation of transport policy that would only become reality if radical action were taken. We were able to observe that this group showed high mobility and adaptability to external circumstances over the course of the occupation. Many students lived temporarily in the forest during the lock-down period, the semester break, or weekends.

36They criticised the extractivist politics that they understand to be the driver of the collapse of climatic and ecological conditions. Their vision of post-extractivism goes beyond the local imaginaries based as they were on emotional attachment. This vision goes hand in hand with a post-carbon lifestyle, and requires a change in personal lives—and in national politics based on growth and the exploitation of nature—if the climate crisis is to be combatted effectively.

4.3.3 View of Nature as Part of a Post-extractivist Imaginary

37In the media reports, the underlying questions of whether non-human nature should itself have rights and whether in times of a climate crisis past decisions might respect the law but at the same time be inappropriate for the current moment remain undiscussed. The fact that the importance of the forest goes unmentioned in media reports, alongside their presentation of an economic importance that supposedly outweighs the needs of ecosystems, reflects arguments from the pro-extractivist discourse. This is contrary to the protesters’ notion that ‘we are nature defending itself’, a phrase commonly used in the protest, which creates a counter narrative that aligns with post-extractivist ideals, pointing beyond an anthropocentric view and exhibiting similarities to the ’buen vivir’ debate. Protesters criticised the anthropocentric distinction between humans and nature and the implicit hierarchy that places humankind above non-human nature. The phrase ‘we are nature defending itself’ is compatible with the territorial approach borrowed from indigenous protests in Latin America, studied by Svampa (2012). The place of extraction is no longer ‘empty’ as portrayed by the media but is a place of living organisms functioning according to their own roles.

38An extractive understanding of nature is the foundation for large-scale destruction and the suppression of alternative forms of development and ‘good life’. It reframes the philosophical question of whether humans are to ‘subdue the earth’ as stated in the Bible. It also sheds light on current, mostly Westernised, human–nature relationships and challenges the assumption that economically non-productive spaces have to be ‘put into value’. In the case of the Forest of Dannenrod, the clearance of the forest was based on decisions made in the past rather than being a reaction to the current situation vis-à-vis the climate and the role of forests for mitigation. The latter, as a decisional foundation, would require recognition of the need to protect forests given their role as a crucial factor for mitigating climate change effects, prioritising such protection over economic ‘necessity’, and revising past democratic decisions accordingly.

39Among other demands, the protesters ask for a vision of a ‘good life’ in which nature has a value of its own as opposed to having its role reduced to that of something that is useful for humans alone. In the Forest of Dannenrod, this was also expressed by the name given to the forest: Within the protester community and some media reports, the forest was named Danni, as though referring to an individual. Some ancient trees were named ‘grandma’ or ‘grandpa’, and once felled were given funerals. This personalisation of the forest questions the view that humans and nature are to be seen as separate entities, and such questioning arguably the basis of post-extractivist views on life. Solidarity is shown with indigenous principles, wherein non-human actors are not merely seen as external factors to human existence. A post-extractivist view of a ‘good life’ cannot reduce nature to something for human use alone. Nature is thus to be respected as an essential part of existence that cannot be easily separated from the human sphere.

4.4 The ‘Danni’ Movement—A Success?

40Even though the last tree of the forest aisle was felled in December 2020, and despite the negative opinions formed by media, we argue that the contested extractivism of the Forest of Dannenrod was a success as it changed the debate in Germany. Firstly, several analogue and online networks were created or strengthened, which laid the foundations for further tree house villages in other parts of Germany whenever a forest or even individual trees were threatened by a similar infrastructure project. The number of temporarily ‘protected forests’ rose to 35 according to media reports (TAZ, 2021), making the felling of trees to make way for economic expansion a risky option for decision makers. Several occupied spaces have led—on a regional level—at least to the payment of compensation and the planting of new trees. On the local level, a house was bought in Dannenrod with the aim of creating an ‘environmental school’ to maintain the place’s function as a post-extractivist exchange. Also at the local level the Greens lost credibility, making way for the emergence of a new party, the ‘Climate List’. Whether the protest marked a sea change via which decision-making will move in the direction of a post-extractivist imaginary in terms of policy on a national level, meanwhile, is a matter for further investigation. But despite this open question, we argue that the protest should nevertheless be considered a success, as it shaped public discourse around the meaningfulness of the destruction of ecosystems for the benefit of highways in times of climate crisis and species loss.

41Further, from our research we deduce that the contested extractivism on the proposed route of the A49 had a unifying effect on the various environmental initiatives involved, and one that reached across different age groups, political ideals, and regional connections. We were able to show the convergence of post-extractivist and anti-extractivist imaginaries in the protest camp as a place of exchange.

5. Conclusions and Policy Implications

42Opposition to woodland extraction in the Forest of Dannenrod is an example of a form of contested extractivism that concerns renewable parts of nature in the global North.

43We argue that in the extractivist view a hierarchical system verbally separates a specific group (humans) from a larger system (nature). The counter argument advanced by the Dannenrod protesters reunites these two elements, thereby shaping different post-extractivist and anti-extractivist imaginaries. By conceptualising environmental protest through this lens, political ecology evolves into the investigation of power structures manifested in the territory of the global North that do not differ so much from those of the global South. Following this line of thought, the Danni represents a clash of understandings of ‘good life’: The protesters pursue an understanding of ‘good life’ that is comparable with ‘buen vivir’, arguing that extraction is an outdated model. Local anti-extractivist movements argue for maintaining the status quo based on an emotional attachment to the forest and the fear of noise pollution. Decision makers, meanwhile, understand economic growth—expressed by the construction of so-called efficient infrastructure—to be a precondition of prosperity. In contrast, an understanding of the ‘good life’ inspired by Latin American movements rather than measuring ‘good life’ by economic growth highlights the question of how harmony with non-human beings can be achieved. We propose further research on entanglements with environmental protests in the global North and emic concepts of ‘buen vivir’.

44In terms of anti-extractivist imaginaries, we conclude that there was a certain ambivalence among locals with regard to the argument for joining the protest, while non-locals tended to be driven by post-extractivist motivations that are tied to a systematic transformation that goes beyond the protection of one local forest. Collective resistance, however, brought protesters and environmental entities closer to one another. And even though the protest failed in its original aims and was mainly disregarded in the discourse of the media, it still succeeded, by sparking debate and by bringing different kinds of post-extractivist and post-carbon imaginaries together. As a result, these were able to emerge stronger, in the form of a more connected, resilient network.

45How did a local protest in a small German village turn into a larger movement? We deduce that in order for small-scale resistance dynamics to become larger, a close and interdependent connection between protesters and the local community is necessary, the latter providing a foundation for active, long-term engagement in various manners against, in this case, the destruction of woodland. In Dannenrod, locals, contrary to other examples of contested extractivism, were not, however, willing to participate in non-legal actions. The presence of more radical individuals seems to be a prerequisite for gaining the necessary media attention.

46Our analysis of the media’s perception of the issue showed that much of the media portrays activists as violent and a threat to society due to their unwillingness to accept democratic decisions. Yet many of the protesters were young people who had not had the chance to participate in those very democratic decisions concerning the A49 highway as they were taken 40 years ago. What these protesters are asking for is that we discuss anew the idea of a ‘good life’, this time going beyond purely economic prioritisations. Within their vision, we find a relationship to nature similar to that to be found in many struggles in Latin America. The definition of a ‘good life’ and who is to decide how to deal with nature are, then, above all questions of power. The environmental protest movement in the Forest of Dannenrod galvanised public discourse, which we consider a powerful tool for efforts to turn around the ‘productive spaces’ narrative of nature and to question the purpose of large-scale woodland extraction.

47There are multiple practical lessons to be learnt from this case study, and in what follows, we translate our research outcomes into policy implications:

48(1) Contested extractivism in the global North must be taken seriously. If downplayed, criminalised or ignored, the protesters involved will most likely turn to more radical measures as this seems to be the only way to gain media attention. Our analysis shows that protestors felt left out of the decision-making process, and participatory strategies that directly involve groups from civil society are thus strongly recommended.

49(2) On a legislative level we should question whether decisions taken in the past should remain valid in times of climate crisis or should be re-evaluated. Young people argue that the legal basis for the building of the highway was established under different conditions, and that they had no opportunities to object to this. Policy makers should consider questioning decisions taken in the past with regard to their possible noxious effects vis-à-vis climate change. To effectively recognise and protect the role of woodland in climate change mitigation, we could learn from Latin American countries wherein elements of nature can be assigned an identity in order to assure their protection. Examples of this include the Ecuadorian Constitution and the case of the Atrato river in Colombia. As this requires in-depth reflection on our anthropocentric views on nature, we strongly recommend further transdisciplinary research.

50(3) Post-extractivist thought needs a public space in which it can be discussed if we wish to avoid a hegemony of self-organised spaces, which tend to ally themselves with more radical forces. In order to prevent violent clashes between extractivist and post-extractivist views, platforms for the exchange and discussion of post-extractivist imaginaries should be established and the debate on post-carbon lifestyles and pluralistic views of the ‘good life’ should include academia, politics and civil society. Therein, the basic assumption of a growth-based economy should also be the subject of debate.

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1 All terms and passages quoted from German-language news outlets and interviews are the authors' translations.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 Location of the Forest of Dannenrod and the planned highway A49
Credits Source: Ignatius Perera (2022b).
File image/jpeg, 732k
Title Figure 2 Tree house seen during one of the guided forest walks
Credits Source: Author, 2020.
File image/jpeg, 741k
Title Figure 3 Barrios A49 (Map of tree house village in the Forest of Dannenrod in October 2020)
Credits Source: Ignatius Perera (2022a).
File image/jpeg, 717k
Title Figure 4 Cleared and fenced-off forest area.
Credits Source: Julia Manek, 2021.
File image/jpeg, 533k
Title Figure 5 Media coverage during the occupation of the Dannenrod Forest (start of forest occupation–start of clearing).
Credits Source: Authors, based on data from wiso-net and Google News (2021).
File image/png, 73k
Title Figure 6 Bumper sticker asking, ‘Do we need the A49?’
Credits Source: Author, 2020.
File image/jpeg, 117k
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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Dorothea Hamilton and Sina Trölenberg, “‘We are nature defending itself’—The Forest of Dannenrod Occupation as an Example of Contested Extractivism in the Global North”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 16 | 2023, Online since 14 June 2023, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Dorothea Hamilton

Dorothea Hamilton is a human geographer who graduated from the Philipps University of Marburg in Geography and Peace and Conflict Studies. She later taught at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen, where she also wrote her PhD, on resource conflicts in Latin America. Her research interest lies in understanding when nature becomes a means of conflict or of peace.

Sina Trölenberg

Sina Trölenberg works at a German non-governmental organisation in the areas of climate justice and project management with organisations from Central America and Europe. She holds an MSc in Human Geography from the University of Giessen, where she focused on human–environment interactions, political ecology and environmental peacebuilding, with a regional emphasis on Colombia and Germany. Her BA in Geography and Spanish Studies was awarded by the University of Münster.

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The text only may be used under licence CC-BY-NC-4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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