• Aunty Marjorie Thorpe addresses crowd at Djab Wurrung protest (Rachael Hocking, NITV)Source: Rachael Hocking, NITV
Works will begin again on a controversial highway which affects lands the Djab Wurrung people have been fighting to protect.
Shahni Wellington

3 Oct 2019 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 3 Oct 2019 - 5:35 PM

Roadworks will resume this week after an agreement was reached between the Victorian government and Indigenous protesters who have vowed to protect sacred trees.

The state’s road authority plans to improve safety by widening the Western Highway, which connects Melbourne to Adelaide.

Opponents said that hundreds of trees sacred to the Djab Wurrung people would be destroyed.

However, under a deal with the state government Traditional Owners have agreed that work can begin on a 3.5km stretch of land identified as the ‘least culturally invasive’.

Part of the ‘interim settlement’ reportedly asks protesters – who have camped among the trees for more than a year - not to interfere with road work.

Activists known as the Djab Wurrung Embassy have welcomed the changes as a cheaper and less invasive alternative to the original design.

"This will enable the duplication alignment to be built six months faster, at far less cost and with best, least cultural heritage and environment impacts," the group said in a statement.

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Sissy Austin, a Djab Wurrung women who has been campaigning with the group, said she fully supported the decision made by senior Traditional Owners.

“We agreed from the very beginning around 15 months ago that we’re guided by our Elders, the Djab Wurrung women, within this fight,” she told NITV News.

“I have full respect for my aunties on that decision.” 

However, she also said that the group felt they did not have many options and that reaching a compromise with the state government was difficult.

“It’s really hard for us because even if you look at the list of what’s going to actually begin, country’s still being torn up for a road,” she said.

“But we’ve kind of been put in a position we’ve had to meet half way, and hopefully on our terms and conditions.”

The remainder of the proposed 12km of roadworks have been held up by an upcoming court case launched by campaigners who want the site given heritage protection.

That case is scheduled to be heard at a two-day trial in the Federal Court next month.

The government has argued that the road needs to be built after more than 100 crashes and 11 deaths between Ballarat and Stawell in recent years.

The design of the road has also been slightly modified to save 15 ancient trees.

One of those trees is said to be an 800-year-old sacred birthing tree, where Indigenous women delivered babies generation after generation.

"Even though the two registered groups that represent the Djab Wurrung people have formally approved the project, we have entered into this agreement as a show of good faith with the protesters," Victorian Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said.