Protestors who have been camping for more than a year next to a sacred Aboriginal site are planning a showdown with authorities who are due to evict the group on Wednesday.
In a standoff that is set to escalate tensions, activists are preparing to hold their ground at the site of 260 Djab Wurrung trees in western Victoria that are among 3000 plants to be bulldozed for a highway.
It comes as the Victorian Government this week applied for sections of the notoriously congested Eastern Freeway to be granted heritage status for its “aesthetic and historical values”.
The works in western Victoria form part of the state government’s $42 million upgrade to the Western Highway between Buangor and Ararat – a stretch of country road the government said is deadly.
Between 2010 to 2015, there were 72 smashes on the Western Highway between Ballarat and Stawell, including five fatalities and 32 that resulted in serious injuries.
But some Aboriginal action groups are fighting the project, arguing the ancient trees feature in a ‘song line’ that has overseen hundreds of generations of Aboriginal ancestry and form a core part of the local Djab Wurrung people’s cultural identity.
For the past 14 months, dozens of members of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy have been living at the site in a makeshift commune in a bid to halt the path of the planned highway extension.
Construction work of the new road was due to begin in March but the plans were stalled because of the conflict.
On August 8, the Victorian Government issued the group an eviction notice in a final push to remove the demonstrators, giving them 14 days to leave the site.
Their time is up on Wednesday, but the activists have made it clear they will not go without a fight.
— Samantha Ratnam – Leader of the Victorian Greens (@SamanthaRatnam) August 21, 2019
“We have lived here on Country for 14 months now, and at the end of the day we’re not going to put up with it, we’re not going to tolerate it,” Zellenach Djab Mara, a Djab Wurrung “Lore Man”, said in a statement on the embassy’s website.
“We are the traditional custodians of this part of country, and by not engaging with us, Daniel Andrews is asking for this to get ugly.”
PROTECT SACRED LAND Stand with Djab Wurrung : This Wed 21st . Stand with Djab Wurrung people to prevent destriction of Sacred Birthing Trees pic.twitter.com/vZKV6YbaML
— DRMNGNOW (@drmngnow) August 19, 2019
The Victorian Government, however, says it addressed concerns over the sacred site in February by changing the design of the proposed road to avoid bulldozing 15 culturally significant trees.
The new route has the backing of two Aboriginal organisations that claim to represent the Djab Wurrung people, the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation and Martang, which is now deregistered.
Aboriginal Victoria has released a statement saying the government “actively sought advice” from the two Traditional Owner organisations throughout the planning process.
“We’ve respectfully asked people camping on the project alignment to vacate the site and remove their personal belongings so work can continue,” a government spokesperson told The New Daily.
However, the protestors say the Aboriginal cultural heritage organisations that approved the redesigned route do not represent them, and that they were not adequately consulted about the roads project.
“We’re not moving until our sacred lands are protected,” Mr Mara said.
“This country belongs to the women and children of the Djab Wurrung people, our ancestors and our future generations.”
Workers in 8 cars buzzing around the Djab Wurrung Embassy area. The day they've been advised for 'eviction' on state paperwork is tomorrow, Wed 21 Aug. I know there's been false alarms, and I've tried to avoid hollering 'red alert!' every 5 mins, but this seems like the big one. pic.twitter.com/Uw2x3RHoNu
— Tom Tanuki (@tom_tanuki) August 20, 2019