crowd protesting Djab wurrung tree removal
Save Sacred Djab wurrung rally. Photo: Julian Meehan

The destruction of a sacred Djab Wurrung tree last week exposes the rotten core of the colonial relationship in Australia. It’s a prime example of the deceptions that continue to devastate First Peoples and their Country.

For several years, Djab Wurrung people have opposed the A$157 million duplication of Victoria’s Western Highway because important trees along one section – between Buangor and Ararat – would be bulldozed. Some trees are more than 800 years old and include important “directions” trees and birthing sites. One directions tree was felled on Monday.

The timing of this destructive act, while all eyes were on the easing of restrictions, is not innocent.

The timing of this destructive act, while all eyes were on the easing of restrictions, is not innocent. The swift pace of events suggests a timeline for completing the destruction of the trees before the metropolitan border is relaxed on 8 November.

Community members are unable to travel to their Country, unable to be together to mourn and heal. Allies are prevented from movement, conveniently reducing the numbers for Victoria Police.

Victoria’s Aboriginal Heritage Act is meant to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage. The Victorian government asserts it has followed due process and claims the trees are not significant. Yet Djab Wurrung community and supporters have been camping with the trees for more than 850 days in a bid to protect them. 

How can such an event occur in a state with apparently comprehensive heritage protection laws? The answer requires examining the deceptions at the heart of heritage management.

Substance and spirit lost

Victoria’s Aboriginal Heritage Act acknowledges Indigenous people are the primary authority on their own heritage. But in practice it provides a means by which developers, including the state government, gain a social licence to destroy that heritage.

In the 20 years of research I’ve conducted with Indigenous communities into cultural heritage management, this has been a consistent theme.

Under the law, cultural heritage management plans are drawn up to assess how a proposed activity might impact Aboriginal cultural heritage. These plans are often based on archaeological surveys, in which artefacts are often dug up and removed to allow development to proceed.

I’ve heard emotional stories from Aboriginal people describing having to pack enormously significant items into boxes and store them away. This process strips objects and materials from the places where they belong, harming connections to Country.

To count as heritage, a place or object must be classified according to archaeological science. Indigenous knowledge systems rarely carry significant weight in those classifications.

Djab Wurrung people say the significance of the trees was not given proper weight in the decisions made. That argument presented to the Supreme Court last week bought a stay from further works for three weeks until a further hearing.

The significance of these trees also lies in how they relate to each other, the landscape, Djab Wurrung people and their law. Yet as Elder Marjorie Thorpe has stated:

“What they want to do in this plan is actually put the road around the trees so it’ll be like they’ll be in a museum.”

Western views of heritage are about static objects from the past, contained in boxes or museums, stripped from the place that gives them meaning. This view fails to honour the substance and spirit of living cultures.

The acts of cultural desecration this week has devastated many traditional owners. It also led Djab Wurrung woman Sissy Austin to resign as an elected representative to the Victorian Treaty Commission’s First People Assembly.

Due process, or deceit?

The Victorian government says it’s following due process in relation to the Djab Wurrung trees. This is both true, and the mechanism by which the deceit of consent is sustained. For it is true only in the terms of the settler legal framework and the consent received creates a veneer of legitimacy needed to get on with the project.

Under the act, proponents must consult with entities formally recognised by the state, known as Registered Aboriginal Parties. In the case of the Western Highway project, Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC) is the Registered Aboriginal Party.

The people who established the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy are excluded from these formal consultation mechanisms. They consistently maintain they do not consent to the destruction of the trees.  Not all cultural groups are formally registered under settler law. They do not need to be, as they exercise their sovereignty under their own law. Victoria’s cultural heritage system fails to acknowledge this fact.

Division is further stoked by the application of colonialist definitions of heritage. Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allen, Major Road Projects Victoria and EMAC have said the tree did not pre-date European contact and was not culturally significant.

However, a lawyer acting for the Djab Wurrung Embassy has cited an independent report which found this and other trees were significant. The language chosen by government also deploys tactics of division. The premier’s recent statement claimed that the trees are only recognised “by some” as culturally significant. As Senator Lidia Thorpe stated, the system “provides manufactured consent”.

Valuing heritage by imposing colonial assumptions of antiquity or authenticity misrecognises the deep relational and cultural significance that Djab Wurrung people are clearly articulating. The cultural heritage system in Victoria exacerbates divisions which themselves are a product of the colonial legacy.

A legacy of atrocity

Consider all this alongside the resources routinely spent on colonial monuments. The Victorian government is spending A$100 million to restore Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, including forensic analysis to determine the original paint colours. Last year, the Victorian government also announced a proposal to heritage list the Eastern Freeway. And the federal government is spending A$50 million on a statue of Captain Cook.

This week’s desecration of Djab Wurrung trees follows another example of development trumping Indigenous rights: Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge. A subsequent inquiry revealed the structural problems inherent when a mining company governs its own accountability to traditional owners.

Accountability for this latest atrocity lies with the Victorian government. Such destruction is not due to mistakes or lax procedure. It is part of a system designed to destroy.

My respects to Djab Wurrung people who are mourning this loss and the desecration of their Country. I honour their long and continuing struggle. As a non-Indigenous person, it is my responsibility to expose how the colonial systems that enable this destruction work and hold them to account. That is the intent of this article.

Professor Libby Porter

Urban Planning with the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

Professor Libby Porter is Professor of Urban Planning with the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University. Her research is about how urban development causes dispossession and displacement and what we should do about it. Her work examines Indigenous rights in urban and environmental planning; gentrification and displacement; the impact of mega-events on cities; sustainability, urban informality and critical urban governance.

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  1. Thanks Libby for a great article. Law and culture are deeply entwined. Our laws reflect the culture in which they were made, and our laws will reinforce that culture once made. As Kieran Tapsell (2014:155) says ‘Law shapes culture as much as culture shapes law’. Whether the law is just or unjust, it also shapes behaviour. And that’s the problem in Australia.