• The Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy have had its latest application to the Federal Court upheld. (Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy/Facebook)Source: Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy/Facebook
Shadowed by Victoria Police and private security, workers on the $651 million Western Highway upgrade began to remove branches from numerous trees at one eastern section of the project as concerned protestors issued a rallying call.
Rachael Hocking, Jack Latimore

11 Sep 2019 - 6:18 PM  UPDATED 11 Sep 2019 - 6:18 PM

Workers began lopping branches from numerous trees on Wednesday as part of the proposed $672 million Western Highway Duplication project between Buangor and Ararat in Victoria’s western districts. 

Major Road Projects Victoria (MRPV) employees, supported by police and security reportedly began to clear branches at a site nearby the intersection of Hillside Road and the Western Highway.

The work follows a demonstration on the steps of Parliament House in Melbourne on Wednesday attended by up to a thousand protesters who oppose the roadworks.

In a written statement provided to NITV News, a spokesperson for MRPV said Wednesday’s activity continues the early works that have been carried out for the past several weeks across the 12.5 kilometre site.

“We’re continuing to install fencing, establish a site compound and complete surveying work,” the MRPV spokesperson said in a written statement.

“Early works have started and will continue progressively over the 12.5 kilometre alignment. Major works are dependent on the contractor’s scheduling and weather conditions.”

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The recognised cultural authority group for the Djab Wurrung landscape urges state government to respect its decision-making, as protesters opposing the highway upgrade assemble on steps of parliament.

The statement also claimed MRPV had “all the necessary cultural heritage permissions” to proceed with the highway upgrade.

Earlier this week, the Aboriginal representative body recognised as the authority to speak on behalf of the Djab Wurrung clan under theTraditional Owner Settlement Act 2010, issued a statement urging the state government to respect the integrity of their decision-making for the highway upgrade.

The Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC) said the appropriate measures and processes had been followed in regards to preserving cultural heritage.

In May, EMAC announced that the  Djab  Wurrung community had “secured important cultural heritage outcomes as part of the revised route” of the Western Highway upgrade .

In a statement at the time,  Eastern Maar Elder Ros Howden, a senior custodian for the trees, said she was happy with the outcomes of negotiations with the government. 

“These trees are now protected and the road can go ahead,” Ms Howden said. 

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Senator Janet Rice has implored the state's premier Daniel Andrews to listen to First Nations people, describing the threat of destruction of the Djab Wurrung trees while working towards a state treaty as "gobsmacking".

Concerns remain

The Cultural Heritage Management Plan for the upgrade was first approved by  the now deregistered RAP, Martang  Pty Ltd, in October 2013.

The plan reportedly included measures to protect 21 Aboriginal heritage places along a proposed 12.5 kilometre route, but would also see around 3000 trees destroyed. 

Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation has been working with the Victorian government since 2017 after concerns were raised about two birthing trees on the project alignment.   In February, the design of the project was altered to protect the two culturally significant trees.

Additional design revisions have allowed for 15 more trees of significance to the Djab Wurrung to be protected.

HoweverEastern Maar member Marjorie Thorpe on Tuesday told NITV News that she had “major concerns” around the approvals process for the project.

"I've been to every full group meeting and never at any stage did the full group decide they want to go against saving these trees," said Ms Thorpe. 

In a video posted to social media on Wednesday, Djab Wurrung Embassy founder Zellanach Djab Mara, who has occupied a protest site at the foot of one of the significant trees for around 15 months, said he was “devastated” to see trees along the alignment lopped.

“We’ve seen trees being cut and I’m so angry and so upset. So it’s time my people, it’s time to step up.”

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Djab Wurrung Traditional Owners say they are heartbroken following a suspected arson attack on a significant tree close to the camp where First Nations protestors and their supporters have gathered to oppose a controversial development for Victoria's Western Highway.