Blog post

Conflict in the Hambacher forest: social licence to operate and ongoing acceptance

Published on
October 23, 2018

Can a brown coal producer – the most polluting fossil fuel in the world – actively contribute to the  protection of the climate? German brown coal giant RWE claims it can. The company also claims to be in “continuous dialogue with the public”, to have a “commitment to society and our stakeholders” and to “be interested in constructive proposals”. Yet, ten thousands of protesters protest RWE’s operations weekly by means of protest marches. Reason enough for FNP’s Marieke Meesters to look into the case and question the local acceptance for the mining project.

Community engagement in mining

Mining companies increasingly claim to be influenced by the ongoing acceptance of local communities. The need for such acceptance, also referred to as a social licence to operate, has emerged over the past two decades in governmental, industrial and societal discourses. Although the social licence to operate has been around for a while, many questions regarding its im- and applications remain unanswered. One question is what conditions mark a revoke of the social licence. Many social licence-scholars argue that the social licence can be easily revoked, especially in the European context. However, it remains unclear how, when and by whom that can take place and with what consequences.

Lignite extracion in the German Rhineland
A German lignite mine is taken here to illustrate the lack of power of a social licence discourse when it comes to halting mining operations. RWE is the largest energy producer in Germany and owns 100% of the Rhineland lignite area. The company has extracted lignite since 1900, mainly in open pits. One of the sites for which RWE has the extraction rights - until 2040 - is the old-growth Hambacher forest.

Since 2012, the Hambacher forest has become both stage and stake for an intense clash with RWE and the German government on one side and regular citizens, and forest and climate protectors on the other. Ten thousands of citizens protest against the expansion of RWE’s lignite mine and the clearcutting of the forest. Since September this year, massive numbers of (riot) police forces try to evict activist residents from the forest. Despite the ongoing and intense protests, RWE continues its expansion.

Conflicts of interest

The decision of the local authorities to clear the forest this September was based, according to official statements, on housing regulations. However, the decision may not have been solely about unsafe housing, argue CSR-scholars Brock and Dunlap. Many close connections exist between RWE and local authorities, and examples of local conflicts of interests have been exposed: the head of the local police was part of RWE’s advisory board, RWE vehicles were used by the police to transport arrestees from the forest, and local decision-making bodies were co-opted by current or former RWE employees. The company also has a large history in lobbying against progressive climate policies on the state level. Mingling of interests and using specific language to shape social settings are amongst the many critiques of Corporate Social Responsibility strategies in the mining industry.

Controversy in social licence land
The mining sector stresses the importance for mining operations to have a social licence. The literature indicates that intense regional protest points to a lack of it. However, despite the claimed importance, it seems that there are no consequences for RWE due to civil protest. So far, the company did not divert its plans to ‘meet community expectations’, as social licence to operate discourse would indicate.

The expansion of the lignite mine has nevertheless been halted for at least a year. The massive protests against the operation were not the cause of the changes; it took a court’s ruling on protected species to realize this.

Although examples of cases exist in which mining operations were cancelled because of protests, the Hambacher forest illustrates a case in which the social licence to operate discourse lacked the ability to stop formally licensed projects, also in an European context. To date, massive protests had no visible effects on the practices of the energy giant.

Marieke researches the social licence to operate in the mining industry in Northwest Europe.