DJAB WURRUNG COUNTRY, Australia – A standoff in Djab Wurrung country in Australia has been going on for the past 15 months between those who want to protect the approximately 3000 trees and including 300 sacred trees of the indigenous Australians and VicRoads, the traffic authority of Victoria, Australia, who want to bulldoze 12 kilometers of habitats just to cut down three minutes of travel time.
Djab Wurrung, or Tjapwurrung is the name of the indigenous peoples of Australia that inhabit the region. Their territory covers over 2700 square miles (7000 meters) and despite colonization, was never ceded, and remained in the hands of the Djab Wurrung people. Tjapwurrung is also the language spoken, and means “soft language” and is part of the Western branch of Kulin languages.
The highway was originally supposed to break ground back in 2010 as highway duplication to improve safety and travel between Buangor and Ararat which are along the path of the major truck route between Melbourne and Adelaide. The project was originally scheduled to finish next year, but it has been tied up in protests, court cases, and controversy.
Landowners, traditional owners, and the locals put forth an alternate route that wouldn’t endanger the sacred trees, but VicRoads refused to consider the northern route which would bypass the indigenous sacred lands. Those who oppose the currently proposed path don’t understand why having the duplicated highway track next to the existing track wouldn’t work as compared to the new path which goes out of its way into the beloved sanctuary for the women of the Djab Wurrung people. The locals, landowners, and traditional owners put in freedom of information requests and received blank pages in return.
An Australian newsgroup, ABC, uncovered that VicRoads made a land deal for the land with the now-defunct Martang Registered Aboriginal Party back in 2013 for the land. The Martang, which is run by only one family, were given hundreds of hectares of land east of the highway as part of a Trust for Nature covenant. The business branch of the Martang bought the land from the covenant they controlled and was then refunded the money by the covenant.
The initial cost of the project was slated to be around $86 million, but the delays from the protestors as well as the legal battles have ballooned the cost up to $128 million so far.
A spokesperson for VicRoads stated, “The western Victorian community has waited for this upgrade, and now we have all the necessary permissions to start, we’re getting back to work.”
The Djab Wurrung view the sacred trees as birthing trees, including one 800-year-old hollow tree where over 50 generations of women have given birth to children in the shelter and protection of the majestic tree. Birthing trees are very large trees with the middle hollowed out by fire where women would talk about women’s business, prepare for childbirth among the other women of the Djab Wurrung, as well as give birth to their babies.
Another ancient and revered tree endangered by the proposed path is a 350-year-old directions tree that has been shaped to resemble a woman. A directions tree is a tree that is planted by the mother and father after the birth of a baby in one of the birthing trees in honor of the life brought into this world. The father would take the placenta and the mother would take the seed from the bush tucker. As the child would grow, they would come to visit the directions tree that had been growing as they had so they could reflect their life and place in connection with nature.
Many of the other sacred trees are known as scarred trees (usually red gum or box trees) which can be found around sacred areas or major landmarks like rivers, lakes, and floodplains. The sacred areas scarred trees are found in are frequently initiation or burial sites, while in this case, the area has been a special women’s area. The way the indigenous Australians would use the bark would be to carve some out while leaving the rest of the tree alone to continue to grow and thrive. The way they cut the trees helped the sap cover over the wound so the tree could regrow some bark where the wound had been made.
Many stone tools and weapons have been found in the area which shows proof that the area was considered an important Aboriginal cultural and historical area. The trees of the area help tell their creation stories and their “songlines” which are a dreaming track which are where the local creator beings traveled during the Dreaming. The paths of the songlines are put into stories, art, dance, and music. A knowledgeable person can use a songline to navigate across the terrain and find water holes, landmarks, and other important and useful locations while traveling.
All these things–the scarred trees, the birthing trees, and that the area the Djab Wurrung are fighting to protect are kept alive in sacred memory through art and stories. For those protesting, this is a fight for the sacred history and culture of the Aboriginals who have already lost a great deal of land and history to modern progress.
Where Things Stand
So far, the government has agreed to a slight modification of the path to protect 15 of the 300 trees the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy and locals have fought to protect. Embassy elder Aunty Sandra Onus told Australian newspapers that the alternate route is $20 million cheaper and would protect the sacred trees.
The project is now officially two years behind schedule.
Many have compared the destruction of the Djab Wurrung’s sacred trees to be like destroying Notre Dame cathedral. Native rights have been threatened around the world in locations such as Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The native and aboriginal people of these lands are still fighting to protect the living connection of the land that their people connect with.
Those fighting to protect the birthing trees in Australia are wanting to protect their living relics that the Aboriginal people can continue to visit to learn about their stories and histories and not be resigned to learning about their culture only in history books and museums.
Even though work on the highway was set to begin again yesterday, the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy plans to seek another injunction today to further halt the construction.
To learn or offer support, information is available at the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy.