• Protestors of the removal of sacred Djab Wurrung trees wrote slogans in chalk. (Nish Morris)Source: Nish Morris
As demonstrations continue around the Djab Wurrung sacred trees, questions are emerging around what Victoria's Treaty negotiations mean when it comes to the destruction of cultural landscapes.
Madeline Hayman-Reber

23 Mar 2019 - 8:50 AM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2019 - 11:30 AM

Demonstrators continued to oppose the destruction of a number of trees said to be sacred to the Djab Wurrung people in the in the western districts of Victoria this week. 

The trees have been marked to make way for an upgrade to the Western Highway and earlier this week the bulldozers and police moved in to clear the way for work to proceed.

Two trees have been formally identified as culturally significant, but the Djab Wurrung said they want others several others protected as well. Activists from all walks of life have travelled to the site, near Ararat in the west of the state.

"Within twenty-four hours of a tip-off that Victoria Police intended to break up our community blockade, over one-hundred-and-fifty people arrived and put their bodies on the line to stop work," said Traditional Owner Sandra Onus in a written statement.

"We won’t be moved, Daniel Andrews. The existing freeway easement will destroy trees that have been culturally modified and used for traditional cultural practice for up to eight hundred years. They are of enormous cultural value to [Djab Wurrung] people.

"As we have been saying now for over two years, an alternative must be found that will not destroy outstanding natural and cultural values."

On Thursday morning, more than a dozen protesters stood outside Victorian Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne's office holding placards with colourful slogans. 

One statement, written in chalk on the pavement outside Mr Wynne's window, read "more like Richard Lose lol". Another simply read "Labor is about to bulldoze 800-year-old sacred Djab Wurrung trees".

A spokesperson for Mr Wynne said the minister had already responded to the concerns of the Aboriginal community and changed the alignment of the Western Highway duplication project between Buangor and Ararat. 

“Discussions with the Aboriginal community highlighted the significance of two trees, and we’ve taken proactive steps to protect them by changing the road alignment," said the spokesperson.

“The project has overwhelming support from locals and will provide a vital boost to the regional economy. With cultural and environmental sensitivities firmly in mind, work will now recommence progressively on this long-awaited project.”

The protest group is currently appealing a decision by Federal Environment Minister, Melissa Price, to reject a Heritage Order that would put a halt to the work.

Lawyers for the group said they are insisting on a Section 18 Declaration of Emergency Protection for 48 hours, with a requirement of 60 days moratorium on clearing the trees from Major Road Projects Victoria, while awaiting the Minister's decision on a Section 9 application to protect the area.

The orders will also require "Protection Zones" to be constructed around the trees with a minimum 100 metres circumference.  

With the fight for the trees ongoing, Traditional Owners and Victorian Aboriginal community members are now asking questions about the validity of Victoria's Treaty process. 

"We’re alarmed and disappointed by the Andrews government’s heavy-handed approach to try to overwhelm us with [Tuesday's] police presence, especially given they are currently working to reach a Treaty with Victoria’s Traditional Owners," Ms Onus said.

"This is no way to negotiate. The protection of high cultural and natural values must be part of any Treaty process, not be brazenly destroyed while the Treaty process is underway."

Peak body endorses fight to save birthing tree

The Djab Wurrung said one of the trees under threat is at least four times older than the nation of Australia, and may have been the site of the births of over 10,000 babies.

On Thursday, as part of Close The Gap Day, the peak body Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM) endorsed the fight to save the tree.

"Continued desecration of culture and tradition will only result in increasing the gap in health outcomes. If we as a Nation are serious about closing the gap and improving health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, our culture must be recognised and protected," Marni Tuala wrote for Croakey Blog.

"Birth is a sacred time, the beginning of our story, for women, for babies and for communities, birth is ceremonious. Countless generations of #Djabwurrung stories have begun under the protection of this tree and all that it holds and represents.

"To disregard the significance of this birth site would be a continuation of the ethnocentric practices that were the foundation of colonisation and the catastrophic policy eras that have followed."

The Djab Wurrung will hold a community meeting on Sunday, before meeting with Victorian Transport Minister, Jacinta Allan, on Monday next week.

NITV News requested comment from the Federal Environment Minister, Melissa Price, and Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

The Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner was also unavailable for comment.

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