Arrests have been made at an Aboriginal protest camp in the west of Victoria, as public outrage surrounding the state-sanctioned removal of a 'Directions Tree' continues to mount.
More than 25 arrests by Victorian Police were being reported on Tuesday at the site of the 'top camp' of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, about 2.5 hours drive west of Melbourne.
The clashes between protestors and Victoria Police on Tuesday followed the felling of a mature Yellow Box tree - referred to by some Djab Wurrung people and their supporters as a 'Directions Tree' -and the dismantling of other protest sites in the area on Monday.
The Djab Wurrung Embassy has stood on Djapwurrung Country since 2018 in an effort to protect ancient trees slated for removal to make way for a highway upgrade by Major Road Projects Victoria and the Victorian government.
The Western Highway Upgrade involves a road duplication across a 12.5 kilometre section located between Ararat and Ballarat.
On Monday, a towering yellow box tree was cut down and removed, protest camp sites dismantled and protestors moved on by Victorian Police.
Outrage and distress at the actions of Major Road Projects Victoria, Victoria Police and the Victorian government have been shared on social media with protestors also calling for additional support at the site.
Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, was asked in his Tuesday morning Covid-19 media conference about the destruction and removal of the tree.
The Premier emphasised his government's consultation process with Eastern Maar Traditional Owners and the importance of completing the highway upgrade to improve road safety in the district.
"We have had court processes, we've had agreements, we've had settlements, we have fundamentally done as we said we would do, and we have directly consulted and continue to consult with the 12 families that are the Traditional Owners of this particular part of our state," said Mr Andrews.
"They speak for that Country - I'm not casting aspersions on others who may have views still, but ultimately we've got to get on and get this done."
The family groups referred to by Mr Andrews make up the board of the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, a Recognised Aboriginal Party by the state, which has been involved in the project since 2017.
The Eastern Maar Traditional Owners maintain primary responsibility for cultural heritage decisions in the area.
Mr Andrews also said he understood that not all Traditional Owners were supportive of the agreements made by the Eastern Maar group.
"If we waited around to get 100 per cent buy-in on this, if we waited around for an absolute consensus, then that deadly stretch of road would go unimproved, and we would see more people dying on that road and I'm just not prepared to settle for that," he said.
Grief and controversy
News of the removal of the tree was met with a public outpouring of grief from members of the Djab Wurrung Embassy, environment activists, and supporters.
The felling of the tree was likened by some to the destruction of 46,000 year old rock formations at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's Pilbara region earlier this year.
The Djab Wurrung site is sacred for Djab Wurrung women, used for centuries as a place to give birth.
The tree removed on Monday had not been identified as a 'Directions Tree' by cultural experts representing the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation.
Previously, negotiations between recognised Eastern Maar Traditional Owners and the state have seen designs for the highway upgrade changed, with six culturally significant trees protected, including two 800-year-old birthing trees.
Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorroong DjabWurrung woman and elected member of the First Peoples' of Victoria Assembly, Sissy Eileen Austin, expressed her pain at the tree's removal.
Ms Austin has been part of the frontline battle to protect the area from any destruction.
The process has involved an on-going and arduous legal battle in the courts, with the Djab Wurrung Embassy filing proceedings against federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, for the third time earlier this month.
Minister Ley has previously rejected the Djab Wurrung Embassy’s application to protect the cultural landscape under the Heritage Protection Act.
Late last year, the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation voiced its opinion on an "imperfect" process between the state and Traditional Owner groups.
"Eastern Maar understand the complexities and sensitivities around widening the highway but what also needs to be understood is that the appropriate measures and processes have been followed," the group said in a 2019 statement.
"We are also strengthened by the voice of our citizens who like anybody have the right to question any decision-making process."
NITV News understands that the 'Directions Tree' was supposedly dated to be 350 years old by independent arborists, as commissioned by a local farmer whose property will be impacted by the highway development.
The Western highway upgrade was given environmental approval in 2014.
According to the state government, 43 people have died in car crashes along the 12.5 kilometre section marked for development in the last ten years.
- More to follow.