Australia

Standoff over 800-year-old sacred Indigenous trees heats up as work crews move in

The number of protesters at the Djab Wurrung Embassy has reached an "all time high". Source: Djab Wurrung Embassy

As work crews begin to assemble near the Djab Wurrung Embassy in Victoria, the land's traditional owners and their supporters say "we're not leaving".

Hundreds of protesters have travelled to Djab Wurrung country, which straddles Victoria’s Western Highway, in the hopes of saving a number of 800-year-old sacred trees that are facing imminent destruction. 

Major Road Projects Victoria's (MRPV) plans to undertake a safety upgrade of the highway, which connects Melbourne to Adelaide, have put the trees in the firing line despite sustained objection from the land’s traditional owners.

For more than a year, protesters camping among the trees have attempted to protect the site, but as the MRPV eviction notice period comes to an end, advocates say the number of supporters at the Djab Wurrung Embassy has reached “an all-time high”.

FOR MORE INFORMATION READ NITV'S COVERAGE HERE

According to an Embassy spokesperson, hundreds of people arrived at the site on Wednesday, ahead of the expected eviction, as work crews began assembling near the campsites.

The traditional owners were given a 14-day notice to evict the site in preparation for the road works to begin on 8 August. 

“We’ve seen over 500 people journey to Country to stop this road and protect sacred Djab Wurrung song lines once and for all,” Embassy representative Amanda Mohamet said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The numbers we’ve seen today make clear that Premier Daniel Andrews will be on the wrong side of history if the Victorian Government pushes ahead to desecrate this sacred Women’s Country.”

Outside a VicRoads building in Ararat, a city in south-west Victoria, close to another 100 activists staged a peaceful sit-in. One of them was former Victorian Greens MP Lidia Thorpe, who has been a long-time advocate for the trees' protection.

“We're prepared for anything, whatever comes at us. We've got hundreds of people here maintaining a peaceful presence," Ms Thorpe, who was the first Indigenous woman elected to Victorian Parliament, told SBS News.

"This isn't about you know we don't want people to be hurt or arrested or sent to jail. This is about having a peaceful respectful protest and maintaining the protection of this significant site."

Ms Thorpe said lawyers acting on behalf of the traditional owners were working to get an injunction put in place that would delay the eviction.

If the injunction is not granted, Ms Thorpe said, the traditional owners and their supporters would not be leaving.

"To think we're in the middle of a treaty discussion with the state government and they want to destroy our trees and our landscape, which really hurts our people dearly," she said.

"That's why we're here and that's why we're not going to leave."

Liam Carrigan, 25, told SBS News he travelled to the camp from Melbourne on Tuesday night when he heard there was a "red alert", meaning the eviction was imminent.

"You don't know whether it's going to be daylight or at night," he said, of the expected eviction. 

"It's really important for everyone who acknowledges the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous people to stand in solidarity with these sort of struggles."

Mr Carrigan said the types of people who had travelled to the camp on Wednesday were more diverse than he expected, including a number of young people from the arts and music scene in Melbourne.

The trees are marked for removal to make way for the 12.5 km highway upgrade, between Buangor and Ararat, that has been approved by the federal government.

A MRPV spokesperson told SBS News that the "western Victorian community has waited for this upgrade and now we have all the necessary permissions to start, we’re getting back to work".

"Too many people have lost their lives on this road - there have been more than 100 crashes and 11 fatalities on the Western Highway between Ballarat and Stawell in recent years," they said. 

According to MRPV's website, the Victorian government has worked with "local community and Traditional Owner groups for many years to deliver this urgently needed safety upgrade".

The proposed 'Northern Option'.
The proposed 'Northern Option'.
Michael Kennedy

However, an Embassy spokesperson said they were opposing the upgrade because the state government "failed to consult with the Djab Wurrung people and give the Tradition Owners the opportunity to make a free, prior and informed decision on the future of their land".

The traditional owners have been pushing for an alternative 'Northern' route, which they said would protect the trees and save the Victorian government money.

“At the end of the day we’re not going anywhere until our sacred Women’s Country is safe. Daniel Andrews needs to intervene and stop the destruction of our heritage," Ms Mohamet said.

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