Efforts to save the sacred trees in Djab Wurrung country have been dealt a savage blow, with the Victorian government allowing the removal of a 350-year-old yellowbox, known as the “Directions Tree”.
When a child was born in Djab Wurrung country, its placenta was mixed with the seed of the tree. That tree then became the child’s Directions Tree.
This particular tree was more beautiful than most, with a striking pattern of swirling, multi-coloured bark.
It was supposedly protected by a court order, due to be heard in December. But, the Victorian government sent in the police and it was cut down on October 27.
Hundreds more culturally significant trees are threatened by a $157 million highway duplication between Ararat and Buangor in western Victoria, that will save motorists a few minutes of driving time.
Activists have been trying to stop the destruction by maintaining a presence onsite for more than three years.
More than 50 people were arrested and Victoria Police closed off the Western Highway in both directions to prevent more activists from arriving.
People had locked on to trees, cars and barrels set into the ground. One activist’s arm was broken, as they were removed from a barrel. The police denied First Aid volunteers access. Legal observers and media spokespeople have been arrested, and media has been blocked from going to the site.
Everyone who is not locked on has been removed, often forcefully. Fourteen activists remain locked on.
Signage around the 800-year-old birthing tree has been removed.
Djab Wurrung spokesperson Zellanach Djab Mara, who has been living at the site, said he was “devastated and shocked”. Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said “we can feel the … chainsaws grinding through our souls, our spirits”.
The Djab Wurrung have been repeatedly sold out, not just by the state government, but also by the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, that signed off on the destruction of the Directions Tree.
Aunty Donna Wright said: “When Aboriginal corporations are complicit in the desecration and destruction of sacred sites they need to be held accountable”.
The government is sparing no expense to dismantle the blockade and build the unnecessary and expensive upgrade.
More than 50 police arrested peaceful protesters and confiscated their equipment. Dozens more police have been employed, at considerable expense, to block the highway and all back roads to the site.
The Djab Wurrung have never opposed the duplication; they have merely asked that Transport for Victoria (formerly VicRoads) move it to the north of the highway instead of the south.
Transport for Victoria has refused to even consider this option, even though independent analyses have predicted that it would be cheaper.
Sissy Eileen Austin, a Djab Wurrung woman, wrote in The Guardian: “Our hearts are broken, our trust in the “progressive” [Daniel] Andrews government is broken. We are experiencing a loss like no other, with the restrictions of COVID-19 further restraining us from coming together to mourn.”
The protest continues.
The Victorian Supreme Court has issued an injunction on the work to realign the Western Highway until November 19. The Victorian Premier, however, has the power to recall the police and Major Projects from the site immediately.
[This article has been updated to include the Victorian Supreme Court's latest decision.]