explainer

"The pain of our ancestors": A sacred Aboriginal tree was cut down to make way for a highway.

On Monday, chainsawed pieces of a once-towering Yellow Box eucalypt tree were loaded into the back of a truck in western Victoria.

To the state government, that tree represented an obstacle to its new Western Highway, which is currently under construction between Ballarat and Stawell. 

To the Djab Wurrung traditional owners, it represented a connection to their land, to their ancestors and ancient songlines.

Watch: "I'm tired of begging and asking for our humanity": Indigenous Lives Matter.


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This sacred 'Directions Tree' was felled on Monday, despite the best efforts of protestors who have spent years trying to save a corridor of more than 200 culturally significant trees from the $672 million highway duplication project.

News of Monday's events drew an outpouring of grief from a number of Indigenous people, activists and allies.

"I can feel the chainsaws tearing through my heart, my spirit, my DjapWurrung body is in pain," tweeted Sissy Austin, a Djab Wurrung woman and member of First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria.

"Today I laid on the floor and cried. Cried for our mother, DjapWurrung Country."

So how did this happen? And how has the government responded?

Let's take a look.

What is the significance of the trees?

The contested area falls in a 12.5 kilometre section of the new highway between Buangor and Ararat. 

That land is of particular significance to Djab Wurrung women, as it is home to several Birthing Trees, including one that is more than 800 years old. According to estimates, women have delivered babies in these sacred hollow-trunk trees for 50 generations.

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The area's Directions Trees also hold deep meaning.

Speaking to Sydney Criminal Lawyers last year, Djab Wurrung man Zellanach Djab Mara explained: "After a birth, the father would have the placenta and the mother would have the seed from the bush tucker. They would go and plant a tree, which is called a Directions Tree. 

"That tree would then represent that baby. And that baby would grow in conjunction with that tree. So, that’s there for that child to go back to and reflect on their life."

So, why build a highway there?

The Daniel Andrews Labor government has promised that the Western Highway upgrade will get motorists to their destination "sooner and safer".

"More than 6000 vehicles travel the Western Highway west of Ballarat each day, including 1500 trucks. This traffic is expected to double by 2025," Major Road Projects Victoria states.

"There have been more than 100 crashes and 11 fatalities on the Western Highway between Ballarat and Stawell in recent years. It is vital for the safety of the community that this upgrade is completed."

It argues that the current plan for the highway has undergone an extensive public consultation process and is the "most environmentally and culturally respectful option".

How has the dispute unfolded?

A group of traditional owners established the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy at the highway construction site in June 2018 to protect their sacred country from being razed.

Their presence, and a series of legal challenges, managed to halt construction last year. 

However, in September 2019, the Andrews government reached an agreement with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (the registered Indigenous organisation for the area) to proceed, by altering the plan so that 15 culturally significant trees would be spared. 

According to the government, the tree felled on Monday was not one of those protected under the agreement.

But the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy — which is independent of Eastern Maar — has asserted that the Yellow Box was, nonetheless, a sacred Directions Tree and ought to have been saved.

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Protestors swarmed on the site this week in the hopes of halting further destruction. But Victoria Police followed, arresting 60 people by Tuesday afternoon.

Footage reportedly taken at the site on Monday, captures protestors being pulled to the ground by groups of uniformed police.

Construction is due to continue.

Featured image: Meriki Onus/Twitter

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