Djab Wurrung Elders are calling for supporters to join them as they protest the planned removal of sacred trees for the Western Highway bypass and await the outcome of an emergency declaration application to have the area preserved under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
Earlier today, a heavy police presence blockaded roads accessing some of the trees, however NITV News now understands police have stood down for the remainder of the day and are unlikely to return until Wednesday.
A written statement issued by Djabwurrung Elder Aunty Sandra Onus today said: “We are calling on the Australian government to stop this destruction. We need everyone to come down."
Tim Price, the Major Road Projects Victoria (MRPV) Program Director for the Western Highway construction, also told NITV News in a written statement today that appropriate consultation with the local Aboriginal community has been undertaken and culturally significant trees will be protected.
“Now that we’ve made localised design changes to the Western Highway to retain two trees identified as significant by the Aboriginal community, site set-up work is due to recommence today,” the statement reads.
NITV News understands the “two trees” to be 'culturally enhanced' or 'modified' trees used for practices such as cooking and birthing. But NITV News has been told four other Scar trees have not been afforded the same protection.
Traditional Owners are now racing against the clock to have the emergency declaration application approved by the federal Environment Minister, Melissa Price.
Two applications for emergency declarations have been made in the past 24 hours, under Section 9 and 18 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
The application under Section 9 seeks “the preservation or protection of a specified area from injury or desecration” and requires the Minister to make a decision about whether the trees are significant to Aboriginal people, but this may come too late for Traditional Owners.
Lawyers supporting the Djab Wurrung protectors have also submitted an application for an emergency declaration under Section 18 of the Act, which could buy Traditional Owners up to 48 hours while the Minister makes a decision in relation to Section 9.
Both applications have been received by the Minister's Department.
Work was temporarily suspended last year when the Federal Department of Environment and Energy requested a cultural heritage assessment.
The Environment Minister rejected an application by Traditional Owners in January, which sought protection of the area where the trees are located.
Last year, the Department of Premier and Cabinet told NITV News both Martang and the Eastern Marr Corporation, who are the registered Traditional Owner groups, had consented to the works.
But Eastern Marr has denied ever supporting the project.
A camp has been set up opposite Warrayatkin Rd on the Western Highway, between Arrarat and Buangor.