Opinion

Lidia Thorpe
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 Langi Ghiran 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.

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.

The cruel irony in this standoff for the protection of our cultural heritage is that it occurs against a backdrop of the Andrews Labor government’s current process to negotiate a treaty with Victoria’s First Nations.

The way our concerns, elders and cultural values are being dismissed by the Andrews government gives us no confidence they will undertake the current treaty negotiations with Traditional Owners in good faith. Of the 38 Aboriginal nations across the state, the Andrews government has included only 12 with reserved seats for the assembly charged with negotiating the treaty.

It begs the question: What is this treaty for, if not to reconcile decision-making over the ownership, use and management of natural resources claimed by the Crown – land that we have never ceded in the past 230 years?

Indeed, when the Andrews government first decided to go down the treaty path in 2016, First Nations were led to believe that ownership and management of Victoria’s substantial Crown land estate would be part of the treaty negotiations. Since then, the Andrews government has embarked on a fire sale of Crown land across the state to private developers.

This is no way to negotiate. The protection of high cultural and natural values must be part of any treaty process, rather than brazenly destroying those values while the treaty process is under way. And with plans to destroy these trees for a road, no less than the survival of our culture is at stake.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Destroying sacred trees contradicts treaty hopes". Subscribe here.

Lidia Thorpe
is a Djab Wurrung Traditional Owner and the former Victorian state MP for Northcote.