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Sacred Aboriginal 'directions tree' bulldozed to make a highway

Kate Ng
·3-min read
Djab Wurrung protesters hold placards up at Parliament House Canberra in September 2019 (Julian Meehan)
Djab Wurrung protesters hold placards up at Parliament House Canberra in September 2019 (Julian Meehan)

Aboriginal people and Australian activists are at loggerheads with the Victoria state government after a sacred tree was cut down.

The Djab Wurrung “directions tree” was bulldozed by state authorities on Monday to make way for a AU$157m highway duplication.

At least 50 protesters were arrested on Monday night after the tree was felled. According to Victoria police, 40 were arrested for refusing to leave a restricted area and a further 10 were arrested and charged with offences relating to obstructing police.

Activists from the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy have camped at the duplication site since 2018 to protest against the destruction of culturally significant trees.

Zellenach Djab Mara, a member of the embassy, told The Age that the tree was planted during a time when each child from the tribe had their own tree. When a child is born, their placenta was mixed with the seed of the tree, and the tree would become the child’s “direction tree”.

He described the felled tree as a “very spiritual tree, very moving and powerful”, adding the the Australian government did not have “consent or jurisdiction” to remove it from the site.

State authorities defended the removal of the tree and said it had not been designated as a culturally significant tree.

Jacinta Allan, Victoria’s Minister for Transport Infrastructure, said in a statement: “The tree that was identified in media reports today, usually referred to as the ‘Fiddleback Tree’, has been involved in multiple cultural surveys involving Djab Wurrung elders and has not been assessed as being culturally significant.

“In fact, the tree has been assessed by an arborist as being ‘maybe over 100 years old’ and is highly unlikely to pre-date European settlement.”

She said a “directions tree” that was identified was located almost 10 kilometres away from the site and will not be removed.

But Michael Kennedy, a lawyer representing landholders in the area and the protesters, told Australian broadcaster ABC that the tree felled on Monday was culturally significant and accused the state authorities of lying.

He said a report commissioned by VicRoads, which runs the transport network in the state, identified the tree as a directions tree.

“To say it’s not the directions tree is a lie,” he said. “This tree is one of the most magnificent trees one could see. It’s regarded as a spiritual tree and for them just to destroy it… it’s just scandalous.”

State premier Daniel Andrews insisted his government had deeply engaged with traditional owners about upgrading the highway at the site, and said legal agreements and settlements had been reached.

“There has been direct consultation with the 12 families who essentially comprised that traditional owner group. And we have done as we said we would do,” he said.

“This is a dangerous road. It needs to be built. We promised we would. We have been respectful. We’ve engaged. And we’ve been true to the spirit of the agreements that had been entered into.

“If we waited around to get 100 per cent buy-in on this, if we waited around for an absolute consensus, then that deadly stretch of road would go unimproved and we would see more people dying,” he told ABC.

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