The Djab Wurrung people in southeastern Australia are fighting to preserve a sacred ground, home to majestic 800-year old birthing trees that have been a sanctuary for many pregnant women, as a proposed highway update threatens the destruction of thousands of trees. For more than a year, demonstrators have camped out and demanded the project be cancelled. However, federal environmental minister Sussan Ley rejected their claim in late July, and Major Road Projects Victoria gave an eviction notice to demonstrators along the seven-mile strip to leave by August 22.
According to the New York Times, the $42 million highway upgrade includes the widening of an existing road from two lanes to four and changing part of its route. State authorities say these changes will make the road safer, as fatal crashes have happened along the route over the years. After approaching two Aboriginal organizations about the plan, the government altered the proposal to spare 15 trees, but protesters argue that the entire area should be protected.
“This is it. This is our women’s safe place. The creational place,” said Zellanach Djab Mara, a Djab Wurrung cultural lore man. He has likened saving the handful of trees to preserving only a portion of a church building. “You can’t recognize some parts of a church. You have to recognize the whole church.” If the land is destroyed, it will be “the end of many things for us culturally,” added Sandra Onus, a Djab Wurrung elder.
Earlier in July, the Australian government announced its intent to hold a national referendum within the next three years regarding the formal recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. According to the New York Times, since the Constitution’s ratification in 1901, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples have rallied for a formal representative role in government.
Dean Parkin, an Indigenous leader who helped draft the Uluru Statement from the Heart, stated that constitutional recognition was “really about bringing the wisdom and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people closer to the Parliament.” The Uluru Statement was a compilation of proposals presented by Indigenous activists to the public in 2017. It called for the formation of an Indigenous advisory board in the government as well as treaties between the government and Indigenous groups.
Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has committed over $100 million to holding the referendum, little has been shared about the details. For Parkin and other leaders, the government’s promise in July is worth celebrating as a step toward recognition, but they are wary of the Liberal Party’s lack of specifications regarding the referendum. Sean Gordon, the chairman of an Indigenous think tank called Uphold and Recognize, said it was unclear whether the government would be “true to what Indigenous people ask for in the Uluru Statement.”
The tensions surrounding the highway upgrade issue bring up a more complex question of whose history is seen as more important and significant. Although the government states that two Aboriginal cultural heritage organizations have approved the redesigned route and continues to push for the renovations, the Djab Wurrung people disagree, saying that those groups do not represent them. Claiming that the highway upgrade is valid because two institutions, one of which is now formally de-registered, have approved of it is similar to claiming that others have a greater authority in deciding what is best for the Djab Wurrung people – even though it is the Djab Wurrung who will be the most affected by the changes. This attitude discounts the voices of oppressed people, and it reflects patterns of discrediting minorities in the past.
Indigenous Australians have struggled for recognition and equity for generations. They have historically been subject to discriminatory government policies, including internment, forced sterilization, and child removal from families. When European settlers first arrived in Australia, land was taken from Indigenous Australians through the implementation of racist policies. In certain areas, including Djab Wurrung territory, white settlers committed massacres of Aboriginal people to take farming land for themselves. According to the New York Times, Indigenous Australians experience greater rates of incarcerations, youth suicide, and illness today compared with other Australians. These disparities reveal the intergenerational problems that must be overcome, and it also heightens the weight of this issue as one deeply woven into the fabric of Australian history.
“Without the truth of the past, there can be no agreement on where and who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future,” said Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians. “History is generally written from a dominant society’s point of view and not that of the suppressed, and therefore true history is brushed aside, masked, dismissed or destroyed.”
According to the New York Times, the local council has welcomed the planned renovations. Kevin Erwin, chairman of the Western Highway Action Community, said, “The majority of the community want this road to go ahead. The path of least damage has been chosen, and we just need to get on with it.” Some residents have added, saying that the delays to the project were frustrating. Although these opinions do not reflect the whole of the community, as there are others who fully support the activists’ right to protest, the assumption that majority rule is the best consensus for decision-making again discredits the voices of Indigenous people in Victoria. The Djab Wurrung’s perspective on the highway upgrade should not be discounted, especially considering the pattern of oppression that it has faced historically.
It is not within the boundaries of the government to determine what is or is not culturally significant for the Djab Wurrung people; rather, it is the government’s responsibility to recognize the rich history and culture held by Indigenous people. Furthermore, it is their responsibility to recognize the Djab Wurrung’s voice in this issue. In order to move toward a solution, the local government should consult directly with the Djab Wurrung people regarding the highway upgrade. A decision could be reached to satisfy both parties, keeping the sacred land and trees intact while improving the safety of the highways. However, the Djab Wurrung should not have to compromise their cultural heritage for the convenience of the government. According to the New York Times, not only have 50 generations of the Djab Wurrung been birthed inside of the sacred trees, but “their traditional creation stories are read in the terrain, and their ‘songlines,’ which trace the paths of ancestral spirits, are tied to the land.” Depending on whether or not the sacred Djab Wurrung land remains preserved, the highway conflict in Victoria could also become a stepping stone for healing among the Australian Aboriginal people.
Moving forward more broadly, the Australian government should heed recommendations of the 2017 Uluru Statement and consult with Indigenous leaders regarding the details of the referendum. Indigenous people cannot be excluded from discussions surrounding their rights and responsibilities, and only from conversation can true reconciliation emerge. The government should further reflect upon their commitment to hold a referendum in relation to other issues, as this will increase the level of confidence and hope that Indigenous people have in the state.
The activists fighting to keep bulldozers off sacred Indigenous land have appealed the environment minister’s decision in federal court, and according to The Age, protesters are mostly unfazed by the eviction notice. Zellanach Gunaikurnai, a traditional keeper who has camped along the proposed highway for over a year, said the that eviction notice changes nothing. “We’ll do our due diligence and do what we need to do in order to save our country and our lands. We’re not going anywhere.”
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