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Tragic absurdity on the Western Highway



When we turned off the Western Highway into the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy it was dead dark. We were welcomed with cups of tea straight off the communal fire, a place to sleep, explanations of where it was culturally inappropriate to tread and an update on the pending eviction of the Embassy by Major Road Projects Victoria. The resident possum came down from the grandfather tree to get his night feed and we rolled into our sleeping bags not knowing whether the police would appear overnight or in the morning. At dawn police didn't arrive, but many supporters did.

Mob from across Victoria protest the removal of sacred Djap Wurrung trees. (SBS)The Embassy was set up 18 months ago to protect more than 260 sacred and ancient trees that were marked to be destroyed so the Western Highway can be widened. After less than 12 hours at the Embassy it was evident that viewing this issue through the narrow lens of a fight about some trees and a widening highway misses the bigger, national story. The eviction threat galvanised and consolidated a movement that understands Aboriginal culture and law matter, and that our common future rests upon recognising that we all rely on the health and genuine recognition of country in its fullest sense.

The way decisions about water, trees, minerals, eco-system protection and infrastructure are made in non-Indigenous Australia governance systems are evidently broken: from Adani to the Murray Darling Basin to fracking to the Great Barrier Reef. Unless we believe the profit imperative is the sole consideration these decisions are often legally absurd. The circuitous reasoning and convoluted governance structures that support such decisions sometimes smell of corruption and at other times don't make any sense.

The next morning, standing under ancient trees denied heritage protection, we heard that the Eastern Freeway will be heritage listed. The cognitive dissonance was intense, but our Indigenous friends seemed unmoved. For them, absurd government decisions have been informing and oppressing their lives, laws and country for more than 230 years: from terrra nullius to the NT intervention to the public drunkenness laws. By no means do they normalise this absurdity, but intimately experience it continually and inter-generationally.

In the age of climate change, where destruction of eco-systems and atmospheres is occurring at a fast rate and sanctioned by governments, these absurdities are lethal for collective humanity. The non-Indigenous support for the Embassy and the trees reflects a desire to reverse the absurd lie that human culture and nature are not in a continual and intergenerational relationship. The sacred trees are where countless generations of babies were born. It's where birth, its power and generative force was concentrated. Culture and human practices come into relationship with their environments in intimate ways that can be felt now. 

The absurdities surrounding the birthing trees are multiple. There is a cheaper option that doesn't destroy the trees, only three minutes of driving time will be saved by the $673 million upgrade, the spurious criminal charges against the Embassy spokesperson Zellanach Djab Mara reek of trying to silence him, the registered Aboriginal party that initially claimed the trees had no cultural value has subsequently been deregistered, and the reasons for Federal Minister Sussan Ley's decision are enough to make experienced lawyers squirm with colonial discomfort.

While some trees may be saved under the decision, as they have been found to be 'Aboriginal objects', this doesn't protect the interconnected relationships between all the trees and the Djap Wurrung people. The lawyer for the Djap Wurrung, Michael Kennedy, stated in relation to the governments decisions to not protect the trees that 'I think there is an issue of institutional control and institutional denial and if the government would open up and accept that they have made a mistake then everyone will win.'


"It's not about isolated random trees and extra bitumen. It's about what we collectively value and how we want to go forward together."


It's also extremely absurd if the self branded progressive Andrews government calls the cops against the Djap Wurrung during the Treaty process. Any government negotiating a Treaty in good faith should understand this issue is not about a few trees and road. It's about who we are, what we value and our common future.

Our shared future is safer if we protect these trees and join in solidarity with the culture that holds them, especially when there are other options for the road. Those trees and the Djap Wurrung matter, and if they don't — we're all in a lot of collective trouble. Not only because the trees go, but it will be clear that we're following a story and logic that is dangerously absurd.

In his Redfern speech Paul Keating said: 'There is one thing today we cannot imagine. We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through fifty thousand years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation.'

Twenty-seven years later we know indigenous Australians have been here for longer than 50,000 years and we face cataclysmic climate change together. It's tragic that 27 years later indigenous Australians are still denied a place in the nation on their own terms.

Djap Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy is claiming their own place, in their own law and their own sovereignty: free from the absurdities required to justify the destruction of our common home. Us non-Indigenous need to take up the full radicality of the Redfern Speech and start making decisions and taking action in the spirit of an honest treaty with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. It's not about isolated random trees and extra bitumen. It's about what we collectively value and how we want to go forward together. No-one wants to be on the wrong side of history.



Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay is Ecological Justice Project Officer at Jesuit Social Services in Melbourne.

Main image: Mob from across Victoria protest the removal of sacred Djap Wurrung trees. (SBS)

Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, ecological justice, Western Highway, Adani, Murray Darling



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Existing comments

What you value, I value too. What you lament, I lament too. I sit here, frozen, not knowing how best to strengthen your battle. All I know is that THE TIME IS NOW! Too much has been lost already.

Cheryl Long | 25 August 2019  

Please how can I help. I is often feel ashamed of being an Australian at present, but at times feel there is nothing positive I can do to change decisions made by politician more interested in being a politician than listening to the hearts and minds of real people.

Marie Cradock | 01 September 2019  

When opponents of the highway rebuild use the argument that it only saves 3 minutes they miss a much bigger issue. As someone who has driven that stretch of highway pretty much every day since 2015, sometimes early in the morning and in the middle of the night, the argument is so much more than shaving 2-3 minutes off my commute home or to work. Especially when it's 11pm in June with rain teeming down and B-Double bearing down on you. It's about actually being able to get home or to work safely. In the week prior to the big gathering there was at least 1 truck rollover and couple of car accidents nearby the embassy, and I was right behind a driver as the wheel of his trailer flew completely off. By all means plead your case but please acknowledge the other side's true position- to arrive safely.

Steve | 05 September 2019  

Great article; thank you for writing and sharing it. As at 08 Nov 2019 it's still an ongoing issue; works have started and several old-growth trees have already been felled, but protestors are still onsite and still holding ground, and the issue is not remotely resolved. The most frustrating thing about it all is that there is an alternate route available - one that doesn't damage indigenous heritage, and one that (bonus!) will be cheaper to complete and will be done faster. None of the defenders are opposed to the road being expanded; they just oppose the chosen route, which is the most damaging and most expensive of the available options. If VicRoads would concede to use the alternate route - the one that damages no indigenous heritage and that makes use of already-cleared land - then works could get started and this whole issue would be over and done with.

Rachel | 08 November 2019  

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