VicRoads and the Victorian Government have stopped work on the Western Highway from Buangor to Ararat while discussions are held with Traditional Owners who are currently protesting the planned removal of 800-year-old trees.
The protestors told NITV News on Monday that over 260 trees in the area were sacred to the Djap Wurrung people, including a birthing tree, which they estimate to have ties to 56 families or more.
NITV News understands VicRoads have now stopped work at their own accord to consult with protestors. The halt is not due to the injunction submitted by protestors and is not a result of any legal action.
"We’re seeking a peaceful and respectful resolution and will continue to work closely with all relevant parties to get on and deliver this vital project," Project Director of the North Western Projects Department, Nigel Powers told NITV News.
"Initial works on-site will involve the establishment of a site office, geotechnical testing and top soil removal. It will not involve the removal of the trees in question."
Both VicRoads and the Victorian Government insist that all of the required assessments have been made.
"There has been a rigorous assessment of these trees by Aboriginal Victoria, which determined that VicRoads could proceed with the Western Highway duplication," VicRoads said.
"The safety of our staff, contractors and protestors is our number one priority, and we'll continue to work toward commencing the duplication in a peaceful and respectful manner."
The Department of Premier and Cabinet told NITV News that both Martang and the Eastern Marr Corporation, who are the registered Traditional Owner groups, had consented to the works.
"The Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) is aware a group of local residents and Traditional Owners are currently protesting against a VicRoads highway duplication project at Buangor in Western Victoria," the statement reads.
"Traditional Owners have approved a cultural heritage management plan (CHMP) allowing construction of the Western Highway duplication project. Both Martang Incorporated (Martang) and the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC), who are the formally recognised Traditional Owner organisations that represent the Djab Wurrung people, have stated they do not believe the trees to be Birthing Trees or to otherwise have cultural significance."
"The protestors claim the project will harm trees they allege to be Birthing Trees/Sacred Trees. At all stages DPC has actively sought advice from Martang and EMAC, who are the formally recognised Traditional Owner organisations that represent the Djab Wurrung people, who did not confirm these assertions."
However, EMAC says they were not initially consulted about the removal of the trees and were only asked for input in the past year.
"EMAC was first consulted about the trees and roadworks in 2017. This was also the first time we had heard they may be birthing trees," Director Jamie Lowe said.
"I have seen a media release sent out by Aboriginal Victoria which says we were consulted and said there was no cultural significance. This is incorrect. First, they do not clarify we were not consulted at all until 2017. Second, we did state that the trees formed part of a culturally significant landscape.
"When we were consulted, we sent about 10 people out to view the trees, including women who are Elders. No one could determine whether either of the trees in question was a birthing tree, however, it was agreed that the trees were a part of a culturally significant landscape and we communicated this to Aboriginal Victoria."
Mr Lowe said a meeting with Martang and the Traditional Owners who are protesting would be held sometime next week.
"Eastern Maar people hold in highest regard cultural heritage and protection of cultural heritage," he said.
"We have culturally strong, family-based decision-making processes and all families were provided with the opportunity to send representatives out to view the trees."
Martang did not respond to NITV's requests for comment.