The Victorian government has agreed to pause its destruction of culturally significant trees in western Victoria after the supreme court agreed to hear an application for an injunction from traditional owners.
A number of trees, including at least one identified as culturally significant, were cut down near Buangor, about 180km west of Melbourne, on Monday as part of a $157m project to duplicate the Western Highway.
They included a fiddleback known as a “directions tree,” which was regarded as culturally significant by Djab Wurrung people and had been the centre of the Djab Wurrung heritage protection embassy, a protest camp established two years ago to protect the trees.
Police arrested 50 people at the site on Tuesday, issuing $5,000 fines to people who had travelled from lockdown in Melbourne to protest the trees’ destruction. Protesters reported that a person who was using a lock-on device had their arm broken.
A spokesperson for Victoria police said that police removed protesters from the area “to ensure the safety of all people” and that specialist units were called to aid in the removal of protesters, “with no injuries reported”. Ambulance Victoria said it was called to the site but did not treat or transport anyone.
Later, the supreme court agreed to hear an application for an injunction brought by Marjorie Thorpe, a Gunnai and Marr woman. The Victorian government gave an undertaking not to do any further work on that stretch of the highway until the application for an injunction is heard on 10.30am on Thursday, and also not to take any further steps to approve a cultural heritage management plan for the site.
Indigenous Victorians have criticised the decision to begin cutting down the trees while people who live in Melbourne were still under lockdown and unable to legally travel to the site.
Sissy Eileen Austin, a Djab Wurrung woman and one of the leaders of efforts to protect the trees, announced that she would resign from the First People’s Assembly over the issue.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service called for urgent scrutiny of police powers following the alleged treatment of protesters and refusal to allow legal observers.
“We have received reports that police blocked road access to the sacred Djab Wurrung trees early [Tuesday] morning and they have refused access for lawyers, saying they are non-essential workers,” said the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive, Nerita Waight.
“There is mounting evidence of racial discrimination from Victoria’s Covid-19 policing, and now at least 50 activists protecting this sacred cultural site have been arrested, with many receiving $5,000 Covid-19 fines. There needs to be an urgent inquiry into Victoria police’s use of Covid-19 powers during the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for Major Road Projects Victoria (MRPV) said the road had been through a “long and rigorous approvals process” and was subject to a cultural heritage plan approved by the registered Aboriginal party, the Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation.
Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation negotiated in May 2019 to protect 15 trees of significance, including two identified as birthing trees – trees with hollows within which women would give birth. They include trees that are reported to be 800 years old.
“The tree that was identified in media reports today, usually referred to as the ‘Fiddleback Tree’ has been involved in multiple cultural surveys and inspections by traditional owners, which represent Djab Wurrung, and has not been assessed as having tangible heritage values,” the spokesperson said.
“The five large trees in the vicinity of Warrayatkin Road camp considered by some people to be of cultural significance will not be removed, including the birthing tree.”
Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation said that the fiddleback was not a culturally modified tree.
“Despite its age and majesty, extensive reassessments did not reveal any characteristics consistent with cultural modification,” the corporation said. “It did not appear to have been altered by our peoples for usage in our cultural traditions. Independent arborists have indicated that the tree in question is ‘highly unlikely’ to pre-date European occupation.”
However, an archeological survey funded by MPRV in December 2018 found that the fiddleback cut down on Monday had been identified as a directions or marker tree by traditional owners because it had a small circular scar and a quartz blade fragment had been identified nearby. It was one of 10 Aboriginal sites identified outside of two focus areas that centred around two culturally modified trees.
The initial cultural survey of the trees was conducted by Dr Heather Bluith, who was invited by the Djab Wurrung community as an expert on culturally modified trees. Bluith also conducted the cultural surveys into the sacred Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia that were blown up by Rio Tinto in May, and worked with the Gunditjamara people on mapping the now world heritage listed Budj Bim eel traps in south-west Victoria.