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Protesters against a Victorian highway project requiring the clearing of thousands of trees, including some sacred to the local Djab Wurrung people, say the issue exposes the government’s hypocrisy in treaty negotiations. By Tarneen Onus-Williams.

Protecting country

Doreen Nangala Carrol (left), Rieo Ellis (centre) and Allison Fuller at the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, Victoria.
Credit: Ryan Tews

The Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy is at the foot of Mount Langi Ghiran, about three hours west of Melbourne. Here you can smell the eucalyptus in the breeze coming from over the hills and the smoke travelling from the fire where the campers are warming water in a kettle to serve up tea and Tim Tams. Elder Aunty Sandra Onus sits by the fire telling stories and entertaining people with her jokes. You can tell they love her presence but are also intimidated by her strength to be out at a camp like this in the middle of winter. Currently, there are about 20 people camped at the embassy. When dusk hits, you can sense their determination as they prepare for a cold night’s sleep in 1 degree weather.

I was there at 7am on June 18 with about 30 others when Onus and Tracey Onus-Bamblett declared the site of the sacred trees as the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy. As a Yigar Gunditjmara, Bindal, Djab Wurrung and Yorta Yorta woman I have always been taught that if you look after the land, the land will look after you. This means respecting my country and the country of others.

The people at the embassy are protesting because VicRoads is intending to duplicate the Western Highway over 12.5 kilometres on Djab Wurrung country from Ararat to Buangor. If this duplication goes ahead, the project will destroy more than 3000 trees and many archaeological sites, including 30 scarred trees, from which pre-colonial Djab Wurrung people removed bark for tools, implements and canoes. It includes massive old red gums, where the trunks have been burnt out over the course of many generations to create large hollows for birthing, cooking and shelter. Two large trees about 800 years old have been marked for destruction in the construction process.

Sandra Onus has been instrumental in political movements in western Victoria for many years and has become a key leader in the campaign to save our sacred trees on Djab Wurrung country. She says she found out about VicRoads’ plan for the trees from Mairi Anne Mackenzie, a local farmer whose land had been obtained by compulsory acquisition. In 2016, Mackenzie took VicRoads to the Supreme Court over the project, which froze construction until November that year. Work was delayed again in 2017, when VicRoads failed to renew a planning permit.

VicRoads intended to restart construction on the Western Highway duplication on June 18, 2018. But in the lead-up, Sandra Onus contacted Djab Wurrung people and allies and requested their presence at the sacred site to assist in halting the roadworks. “I was completely overwhelmed by the support,” Onus says. “We still need that support.”

On June 18, we set up tents and settled in at the embassy site. It seemed as though there were no construction workers around until Meriki Onus and I saw bulldozers and trucks. We followed them down a dirt road and saw them drive into one of the paddocks, preparing to start work. We called others at the embassy for support.

We blocked the gate to stop construction workers entering or leaving. Victoria Police were also in attendance, letting protectors know they would take necessary steps with anyone stopping progress of the project. In response, embassy members called out for more supporters. For four hours, we held out until the construction workers had been advised by the VicRoads project leader to stop works for the duration of the day. To ensure demolition couldn’t continue, we set up a camp to occupy that site as well, which continues today with assistance from Djab Wurrung women such as Onus-Bamblett, Meriki Onus, Eileen Sissy Austin and Lidia Thorpe, the Greens member for Northcote.

“This action being led by women is incredibly powerful. Country is what grounds us as women in all that we do,” Austin says. “We connect with country on so many different levels. Our body, mind and spirit are only healthy when country is healthy. As women, the fight is not just for the physical landscape, it is the spiritual and non-material cultural connections that exist between Djab Wurrung women – us – and country. It is a powerful thing for black women to be leading on this fight.”

The cultural significance of these trees is of particular interest to Djab Wurrung women, and given this year’s NAIDOC theme, “Because of Her, We Can”, their potential destruction has been heartbreaking for us. In Onus-Bamblett’s view, VicRoads and the Victorian government are participating in gendered colonial violence. 

However, there are alternative claims that these trees are not culturally significant. A Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP) prepared by Martang – the area’s Registered Aboriginal Party – concluded the two culturally modified trees and surrounding cultural landscape were not of significance to Djab Wurrung people.

The Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy has pushed back against the conclusion in Martang’s report. On June 30, more than 50 Djab Wurrung people attended a community meeting at the embassy to discuss the cultural significance of the trees and this landscape, which is traversed by our dreaming stories and songlines. They used the opportunity to practise their culture by dancing and singing on country – one of the first times Djab Wurrung people have gathered at the trees in more than 100 years – to prove that this area is indeed culturally significant to Djab Wurrung people.

At the community meeting, the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, a native title claimant in south-western Victoria, pledged its support for saving the sacred trees and landscape, teaming up with the grassroots Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy to assist in facilitating dialogue with VicRoads.

Embassy members Meriki Onus and Jidah Clark have since been in conversation with VicRoads and the Victorian planning minister, Richard Wynne. “The minister was interested in hearing what we had to say,” Onus says, “however, I’m not confident it went anywhere. He is well aware of what’s going on. We haven’t heard from him since.”

The dialogue with VicRoads has similarly stalled. “Senior members from the VicRoads project team met with us to try and alleviate our concerns,” says Clark. “We’re still waiting for them to come back with options to save the trees.”

On Tuesday, a six-week stop works issued by VicRoads in light of the Djab Wurrung protests expired. We are now in a critical time for the embassy.

Clark and Onus have submitted a protection application for the trees to the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, which is currently being processed. Clark has also written an appeal to trade unions asking for them to support Aboriginal people as they have done in previous years in Victoria.

A GoFundMe page, set up to support the embassy, has received nearly $18,000 in donations. Some of this money was used to cover the expenses of archaeologist Heather Builth, who was elected by the embassy to work with VicRoads on a CHMP. Builth, who has done extensive work on Gunditjmara country at Lake Condah, was formerly contracted by the independent, majority Aboriginal-owned cultural heritage advisory organisation On Country Heritage, which is conducting the excavation of the Djab Wurrung site. However, before she commenced work she was informed she was no longer needed.

It remains to be seen whether VicRoads and the government’s Aboriginal Victoria department will accept Builth’s analysis on the area. If VicRoads and Aboriginal Victoria choose not to accept it, and fail to protect the trees, it will undermine the Djab Wurrung people’s sovereignty and right to make self-determined decisions on our country.

Sandra Onus says bureaucratic processes are preventing a meaningful and independent CHMP from being conducted, but the embassy wanted to ensure Builth’s expertise was not overlooked. “I’m sure Heather’s report will reflect the cultural significance of the trees and the necessity to preserve them,” Onus says.

Another group, Keep Original Route Supporters (KORS), which has also been working to save the trees, is advocating a different path for the Western Highway that VicRoads rejected because of the environmental impact it could have on the critically endangered golden sun moth – a choice to weigh environmental impact over cultural significance. KORS says this route will be less destructive and also $65 million cheaper. The Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy is currently unable to support their claim as a CHMP hasn’t been conducted on the alternative route.

For many, the lack of response from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his government has raised questions about the premier’s commitment to centring Aboriginal self-determination in treaty negotiations. The embassy has launched the #NoTreesNoTreaty campaign in response.

“You can’t sign a treaty with one hand and chop down our trees with the other,” says Meriki Onus. “It’s contradictory to righting the wrongs of colonial violence. Is the state government serious about a treaty when they continue to write racist laws and chop down our trees? I’m not feeling hopeful, but I welcome the opportunity for them to turn this around.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "The low road". Subscribe here.

Tarneen Onus-Williams
is a Yigar Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta and Djab Wurrung activist, community organiser and writer.

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