Indigenous affairs commentators have questioned why the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has sparked nationwide grief, but the potential destruction of sacred trees on home soil remains largely ignored.
The Victorian government’s plan to bulldoze more than 260 Djap Wurrung trees to make way for a new road has outraged Aboriginal families around the country.
The ancient flora, some of which are more than 800 years old, have overseen hundreds of generations of Aboriginal ancestry and form an intrinsic part of the Djap Wurrung people’s cultural identity.
Among them is a sacred birthing tree, said to have been the birthing place of about 10,000 Djap Wurrung babies, connecting 56 families near Ararat in Western Victoria.
Another culturally significant tree includes a 350-year-old tree that has been moulded over time to resemble the body of a woman.
The collection of trees feature in a ‘songline’ or ‘dreaming track’, one of the paths followed across the land by ‘creator-beings’ during the Dreaming.
Indigenous women from the local Dap Wurrung group would go to the trees in their final moments of labour, giving birth to their children in the shelter of the hollows.
This is a scared birthing tree. It's 800 years old. 1000s of people were born here. It's a cultural cathedral of the Djab Wurrung people in Victoria, Australia. This and 3000 others will be destroyed to make a highway. We understand your pain France; we morn with you. #NotreDame pic.twitter.com/gYYpttBufn
— ridelines (@ridelines) April 16, 2019
Why does the government want to demolish the trees?
Bulldozing the plants will pave the way for a 12.5-kilometre road from Buangor to Ararat.
The works form part of a $42 million upgrade to the Western Highway.
One of the major reasons for the upgrades is the high number of fatal car crashes that have happened along that stretch of road.
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.
The Major Roads Projects Authority estimates more than 6000 vehicles travel along the Western Highway west of Ballarat each day, including 1500 trucks.
This traffic is expected to double by 2025.
The proposed road upgrades intend to save drivers two minutes of travel time.
An action group called the Djap Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy has hit out at the Victorian government over its construction plans, accusing it of destroying more than 800 years of history to save drivers the time taken to cook a packet of noodles.
“Over 50 generations have been born on these sites and the birthing trees themselves are 800 years old,” a statement on the embassy’s website says.
“We are protecting them from Vic Labor Party’s planned highway extension that is set to destroy this dreaming landscape.”
Anger over the government’s handling of the sacred site reared again this week as Australian leaders lamented the fire damage to the 856-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral.
Aboriginal affairs commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy of Australians mourning the loss of ancient artefacts in Paris, but being silent about the looming threat of our own ancient history being destroyed on home soil.
Devastating news about Notre Dame, a genuine shame to see a beautiful, historic, spiritual place destroyed. In Australia, this happens all the time – usually for the purposes of mining, development or – in the case of the 800+ year old Djab Wurrung birthing trees – a highway.
— Rae Johnston (@raejohnston) April 15, 2019
In February, the Major Roads Projects Authority responded to criticism of the project by announcing it had realigned one kilometre of the proposed road to save two significant trees.
“As part of our long-standing commitment to work with the Aboriginal community, these localised design changes will ensure the two trees are retained along the alignment between Buangor and Ararat,” a statement reads.
Other battles over sacred Indigenous sites are taking place all around Australia.
The Yuggera Ugarapul people in Queensland are locking horns with a property company that is planning to build a housing estate at an Aboriginal reserve at Deebing Creek Mission.
Notre Dame had a fire- get over it or start practicing what you preach. On the east coast there is a 800 year old sacred birthing tree that gov wants to bulldoze, Deebing Creek Mission is under development threats, mining companies constantly desecrate sites. Double standards.
— Ruby Wharton (@ruby_wharton) April 16, 2019
Federal backing of the Adani coal mine in central Queensland has also ignited outrage among Indigenous groups and environmentalists who fear mining activity will destroy the land and sacred sites in the area.