It has been 887 days since the establishment of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy to protect sacred women’s Country from the Victorian government’s Western Highway Duplication project in the state’s western districts. Much of the last 887 days has consisted of Djab Wurrung warriors protecting Country and fighting an endless battle in multiple forms.
Each individual has played their part in getting us to where we are today. Whether that be placing our bodies on the frontline, protesting on the steps of parliament, public speaking and media engagements, responding to red alerts, or receiving and coordinating camp donations, our allies have responded to the call-out led by Djab Wurrung women. You’re witnessing the power of grass roots communities.
Djab Wurrung peoples have to this date successfully sustained an act of protection and fight like no other. We are grounded in our connection and respect for Country, kinship and community. This respect and grounding is the vehicle that has successfully driven the Djab Wurrung thus far.
The rising of the Djab Wurrung as a collective has brought to the surface failed practices and procedures and it has questioned the decisions that have almost led to the irreversible destruction of birthing trees that are over 800-years-old and the surrounding culturally significant landscape.
There have been multiple court hearings, there have been bodies on the frontline, and there have been historic gatherings of Djab Wurrung clan and family groups – all of which bring us to now, and the most recent decision made by the federal minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, to reject Djab Wurrung’s application to protect Country under the Heritage Protection Act.
The spotlight is also currently on the Victorian government's Treaty agenda. I am an elected member for the South West Region on the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria and I am witnessing first-hand the contradicting agendas of the Andrews' Labor government. On one hand we are seeing progression towards a Treaty, while on the other we see the state government consent to the bulldozing of significant and sacred Aboriginal heritage.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), of which Australia is a signatory, applies to all Indigenous peoples across the country. The Victorian government and its constituents must consult beyond its questionable consent-gaining processes, including the government appointed Victoria Aboriginal Heritage Council.
Article 8 of the UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture”. This right applies to all First Nations peoples, not just those who have a seat at the table.
The difference between now and the last 887 days, is that the world is experiencing a global Covid-19 virus pandemic. This global pandemic does not discriminate who and how it impacts.
The news that the destruction of Djab Wurrung Country will go ahead hits us harder than ever before and has created a tidal wave of anxiety. Being in the thick of the pandemic and the related declaration of a State of Disaster in Victoria has left frontline warriors restricted by the health orders currently in force. In addition to the news that the road development will proceed, we are also faced with the priority of keeping our people healthy and safe. But these restrictions do not signify our defeat.
What you’re on the verge of witnessing is another rise of the Djab Wurrung. If the last 887 days hasn’t proven to the world what Country means to First Nations peoples, and the lengths that we will go to in order to protect our Mother Earth, I don’t know what will.
Sissy Eileen Austin is a Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorroong DjabWurrung woman. Sissy is South West elected member to the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and has been actively involved in the protection of DjabWurrung country since 2018.