Killing a culture

“We need to be proud today,” Premier Daniel Andrews told Victorians as he announced an end to 111 days of lockdown.

But there were no celebrations at the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, where for more than two years, those camped at the site have peacefully guarded hundreds of sacred trees and protested their planned destruction. On Monday, as the premier spoke, one of these trees – described as the culturally significant directions tree – was felled to make way for the expansion of the Western Highway.

On Tuesday morning, police moved into the Embassy, arresting at least 50 people.

The felling of this tree was an act of cultural vandalism. A justice system that valued Aboriginal cultural heritage and the legacy of the longest continuing cultures on Earth would rule it a criminal violation.

Instead, all we have from the courts is an extension of a stop-work order barring the felling of more trees until November 19. The ruling buys time for the Djab Wurrung people to organise, to decide what comes next in a years-long battle to try to persuade the Victorian government or its federal counterpart to listen.

Time and again, they have been rejected or ignored. It should not be this way.

The Djab Wurrung people have made clear they do not object to the road the Victorian government says necessitates the destruction of hundreds of sacred trees. All they have asked for is genuine consultation and respect for Country.

But destruction is the default of Victoria’s Cultural Heritage Management Plan process. It is a system that forces Aboriginal people to prove their cultural heritage is worthy of saving – piece by piece, tree by tree. It is not fit for purpose to negotiate the use of land that was never ceded in the first place.

If the Andrews government remains committed to a treaty process with First Peoples, it must listen to the Djab Wurrung people. The matter isn’t settled, as the premier continues to insist. Nor is the decision a binary choice between felling trees and saving lives on our roads. The Djab Wurrung people have offered up less destructive options, but the government has been unwilling to engage.

The significance of these trees is not imagined by the Djab Wurrung people, it is bound up in generations of connection to the land. As Senator Lidia Thorpe wrote last year, the trees marked for destruction “include birthing trees that have hosted the delivery of an estimated 10,000 Djab Wurrung babies, with ties to 56 family groups”.

The colonial history of western Victoria is brutal. Destruction was the default, in the name of agricultural expansion. “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,” Thorpe wrote last year.

By refusing to engage in a meaningful negotiation with the Djab Wurrung people, or even acknowledge their concerns are real, the Andrews government is merely continuing the colonial project that scarred the heart of our country.

It was Lidia Thorpe who again said it most clearly this week: “Djab Wurrung people and country have been violated once again. Couldn’t kill us, so they’ll kill everything else that keeps us alive.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2020 as "Killing a culture".

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