Thousands protest against coal mining, forming 8km human chain in River Neisse along German-Polish border

Horse breeders and winemakers in the New South Wales Hunter Valley have warned that their industries are at threat because of open-cut coal mining. Now the practise is causing upheaval in eastern Europe. Tom Morton visited a region along the Germany-Poland border to investigate.

When Julia Huscher and Kuba Gogolewski fell in love, they could not have imagined that one day they would reach out for each other's hands in the middle of the Neisse River and seal the last link in a human chain eight kilometres long.

The couple were just two of an estimated 7,500 protesters from 20 countries who formed the chain from the German village of Kerkwitz across the river to the Polish village of Grabice on Saturday.

The protesters were opposing plans for massive new open-cut brown coal mines on both sides of the River Neisse, which marks the border between Germany and Poland.

The river is only thigh-deep at the point where the protesters chose to ford it.

Ms Huscher waded her way to the middle from the German side and met her husband, who had rolled up his jeans and plunged in from the opposite bank.

Ms Huscher, originally from Eastern Germany, and Mr Gogolewski, from Poland, met through their involvement in campaigns against coal mining.

"We were working on a report together and one thing led to another," said Ms Huscher, who is five months pregnant with their first child.

Bells rang out from riverbank to riverbank as the couple joined hands, symbolically linking campaigns on both sides of the border.

"It's a sign that people on the ground can find a common language much sooner than their governments can do," Mr Gogolewski said.

On the German side, in the region of eastern Germany known as Lusatia, the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall wants to extend its existing Janschwalde mine by 2,000 hectares.

The villages of Kerkwitz, Atterwasch and Grabko would be swallowed up and 900 people forcibly relocated.

On the Polish side, up to 15 villages and 3,000 hectares of forest could disappear if the state-owned PGE gets the go-ahead to mine.

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental NGOs across Europe strongly supported the protest, but the initiative came from local people who have been fighting for seven years to save their homes.

"We're overwhelmed that so many people from the whole of Europe are with us today demonstrating for a liveable future without more coal mines," said Thomas Burchardt, one of the initiators of the human chain and spokesman for the citizens' initiative Klinger Runde.

Mr Burchardt, a 52-year-old father of two, lives in the nearby village of Drehnow, not far from the massive Janschwalde power plant, which Vattenfall also operates.

He is a Sorb, a member of the Slavic-speaking minority who have lived in Lusatia for hundreds of years.

As a boy of 12 growing up in Communist East Germany, Mr Burchardt witnessed the building of the power plant and the destruction of Sorb villages to supply it with coal.

"I remember sitting on the steps of the old church which belonged to the village of Gross-Lieskow," he said.

"The church was already half in ruins. A man came out, walked about 10 paces, pointed out into the flattened landscape and said 'that used to be my house right there'."

If we go on burning coal, we humans will end up like the dinosaurs.

There is a local saying that God made Lusatia, but the Devil put coal under the ground.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that one of the protesters taking part in the human chain was Matthias Berndt, Protestant pastor in the village of Atterwasch, the oldest part of the village church dates back to 1294.

"It's the oldest building in all three villages and a symbol of how attached people here are to their homes," Pastor Berndt said.

The Pastor is also one of the initiators of the human chain. He said his parishioners see nothing odd in their pastor organising a demonstration.

"We're not just fighting to save our property here in these three villages, we're fighting against the destruction of nature and for the preservation of God's creation," he said.

For the protesters who came from all over Europe to take part in the human chain, coal's role in climate change was an important factor alongside the desire to show solidarity with the local people.

Rainer Ulrich cycled 440 kilometres in two days from Erlangen, in southern Germany, where he owns a bike shop, to join the human chain.

"If we go on burning coal, we humans will end up like the dinosaurs," Mr Ulrich said.

Coal accounted for 44 per cent of global CO2 emissions in 2013, according to the International Energy Agency, and that percentage is projected to rise.

Australians Sam and Jackie Lucas travelled overnight from London by bus to take part in the human chain.

The two sisters from Pymble in Sydney - former professional tennis players on the European circuit - have been living in the UK for 10 years.

"We're both involved with Camden Greenpeace. They asked for volunteers to come here and we thought it was something great to be a part of," Ms Lucas said.

Groups such as Greenpeace argue that plans for new coal mines and new coal-fired power plants are fundamentally at odds with the German energy transformation or Energiewende, an ambitious package of laws passed by the German parliament in 2011.

The energy transformation laws require all of Germany's existing nuclear power plants to be switched off by 2023.

By 2025, 40 to 45 per cent of Germany's electricity will come from renewables such as wind, solar and biofuels.

Since renewables already account for 28.5 per cent of electricity generation, it is likely this target will be met or even exceeded.

In the short term however, Germany faces a thorny dilemma: how to replace the capacity lost as nuclear power plants are switched off, and maintain baseload power supply when the sun is not shining and the wind drops.

Proponents of coal argue that new mines and coal-fired power plants are needed as a bridging technology.

Wolfgang Rupieper, chair of the Association for Brown Coal in Lusatia, says he is concerned that if the new mines do not go ahead, the economy of the whole region could "fall in a hole".

Mr Rupieper, a retired judge who moved to Cottbus from western Germany in the early 1990s, says the association was set up two years ago to represent the silent majority in the region who support coal mining.

"Naturally it's a hard thing for people to leave their homes, but in this case, individual interests have to give way to the common good," he said.

Mr Rupieper says that under the law, the inhabitants of Kerkwitz, Atterwasch and Grabko are entitled to generous compensation.

"They'll get new homes, new villages, they won't lose anything at all," he said.

"But if the new mines don't go ahead, tens of thousands of workers who are currently employed in the coal industry will have to leave their homes in the region and look for work elsewhere."

The state parliament of Brandenburg, the German federal state in which the threatened villages lie, still has to give the green light for the new mines.

The current coalition government of Social Democrats and the Left Party (Die Linke) strongly support the mines, but final approval will not come until after state elections in September.

Even if the government does grant approval, legal challenges could keep the bulldozers at bay for years.

Mr Burchardt says the success of the human chain on Saturday will give the villagers "strength and courage for the years ahead".

Even before the protest, Pastor Berndt said he had been noticing a new mood of optimism amongst his parishioners after seven years of uncertainty.

"People are painting their houses, putting new tiles on the roof, there's even a young couple who've bought a house in the village. That's got to be a sign of hope," he said.

Tom Morton is Director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. He is in Germany undertaking research funded by the Australian Research Council.