Contributed by Ben Wilson
Tomorrow (22 August) is the official deadline for the Djab wurrung to vacate their blockade and Heritage Protection Embassy from threatened sacred land in south-western Victoria, and the scene is set for a confrontation.
The sate government, with federal backing, is trying to widen a stretch of the Western Highway. This would destroy an area consisting of sacred trees. It is sacred because this is place important to indigenous women and children. Where for many generations people have been born and where they return when they die.
A standoff has been going on since June last year. Djab Wurrung people have rallied. Supporters from the broader community have come to help.
Work has been held up. There was a tilt at consultation for a while. But the government did not budge and ignored an alternative route that was put forward, which would protect the site.
Below is a statement made by Lydia Thorpe (17 August 2019 The Saturday Paper), former member of parliament and a leader of the Frist Nations. She talks about what is at stake, the anger that exists. There is also a short Video showing how the Djab Wurrung people are feeling.
Protecting the Djab Wurrung trees
The impact of the colonial invasion on Aboriginal peoples was never swifter nor more brutal than in western Victoria.
The deep volcanic soils and gentle rolling hills of the region, combined with active land management by thousands of generations of my people, created an open wooded grassland that provided some of the best grazing country to be found during the conquest of the Australian continent.
As a result, western Victoria is one of the most cleared and degraded landscapes in Australia. The fact that the Djab Wurrung people have survived is one of the most extraordinary stories of resistance and survival anywhere that European colonisation has been inflicted on indigenous peoples.
This struggle for survival continues to this day – exemplified by the current fight to protect our sacred cultural sites from a new freeway.
The western extent of the Great Dividing Range around the #LangiGhiran State Park, near Ararat, is where many of the few precious remaining examples of more than 60,000 years of occupation can be found. Along with those in the neighbouring #Gerriwerd – or Grampians National Park – these are the westernmost tall eucalypt forests of eastern Australia. And they include some of the last intact sites of enormous cultural value to my people, such as trees that may be 800 years old, where my ancestors were born, were buried and engaged in cultural practice.
It’s here the Victorian Andrews Labor government plans to duplicate the Western Highway into a freeway, to save motorists about two minutes’ driving time between Melbourne and Adelaide. To do this, they will destroy thousands of these precious trees and my cultural heritage. It is also in this place, on the side of the existing highway, that Traditional Owners – supported by non-Indigenous supporters from here and around the world – have held a continuous vigil to prevent their destruction for almost 18 months.
It is heartbreak that these deeply intimate cultural sites, which literally contiain the blood of Aboriginal women, giving these trees nutrients to grow for so long, are going to be destroyed to widen a road.
We’ve conducted demonstrations and media events, both on site and in Melbourne outside the offices of the ministers responsible for the project. We’ve held off the police and bulldozers many times, petitioned state and federal ministers to find an alternative route and, as a last-ditch effort, taken our plight to the courts for injunctions and reviews of the approvals.
The state government has had enough, finally giving us 14 days to pack up and vacate the camp or risk being forcibly removed. The eviction deadline is August 22 – after which I will face arrest for standing on my country and protecting the sacred sites of my ancestors from eradication.
As a result, we’ve requested that signs at all #VicRoads offices across Victoria that “acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Country across all the projects we deliver, and pay our respects to Elders past and present and to the ongoing living culture of Aboriginal people” be removed. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
On Thursday, Zellanach Djab Mara was arrested at the Djab Wurrung protection embassy. He was told it was related to an alleged theft of pallets.
We are not against the road. For more than two years, we have asked to negotiate a mutually acceptable route that doesn’t destroy high natural and cultural values. It’s alarming to see the Andrews government refuse to properly consult with Djab Wurrung Traditional Owners.
Martang, the Registered Aboriginal Party that originally signed off on the destruction of our sacred trees, has now been deregistered. This is just one example of the concerns about the integrity of the Registered Aboriginal Party process and its authority from the beginning.
The most recently Registered Aboriginal Party for the region, Eastern Maar, negotiated for cultural mapping to be undertaken for the impacted area and for the protection of a small number of trees. But the Djab Wurrung Traditional Owners were not consulted or involved in these negotiations, which occurred in secret and behind closed doors. Nor did we authorise Eastern Maar to cut a deal on our behalf. It’s yet another process where the principle of free, prior and informed consent has not been applied.
We are also angry that when members of the public contact the Andrews government in support of our concerns, they are told that Traditional Owners were consulted. We were not.
So far, our campaign has resulted in some changes to the road easement, saving six of about 300 trees that must be preserved. These trees, hundreds of years old, include birthing trees that have hosted the delivery of an estimated 10,000 Djab Wurrung babies, with ties to 56 family groups.
It is heartbreaking that these deeply intimate cultural sites, which literally contain the blood of Aboriginal women, giving these trees nutrients to grow for so long, are going to be destroyed to widen a road. With the destruction of these sites, the spiritual tapestry that connects our culture and language with our natural environment is further severed and cannot be retrieved, except in the memories and stories of our old people.
The Andrews government seems determined to proceed with the new road. Last year, Djab Wurrung Traditional Owners made a heritage protection order application, which was rejected in December by the federal environment minister at the time, Melissa Price. We applied for and won a judicial review in April, sending the project back to the new federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, for reconsideration. That application has also been rejected.
Djab Wurrung people have been making their stance clear
Video by Drmngnow