Aboriginal activists have vowed to stay at a protest camp and blockade tree removal for the Western Highway duplication at Ararat unless a deal is reached on cultural heritage.
Protesters started forming a camp along the Western Highway duplication site between Ararat and Buangor on Sunday afternoon in a last-ditch effort to save trees with claimed Aboriginal heritage.
The protesters set up a ‘Djabwurrung Embassy’ across from Warrayatkin Road and the next to a tree thought to be 800 years old.
The tree, along with some younger specimens, has been the subject of prior failed claims to official Aboriginal cultural significance.
VicRoads had scheduled to begin tree removal on Monday along the future site for new lanes along the Western Highway.
About 3000 trees of various sizes and ages have been marked for removal along the duplication route.
Djabwurrung Elder, Aunty Sandra Onus, said the group had prepared a legal appeal with the federal government to stop the works.
“We are trying to protect our trees from VicRoads’ destruction,” she said.
“We believe the trees are highly significant and we know that they have been modified, culturally, for a reason.
“You can see the importance of them by looking at them and how old they are.”
Aunty Sandra said millions of trees had been lost in Victoria “in the same of progress” and some of the trees between Ararat and Buangor had been used by Aboriginal women for cooking and shelter.
“I’m not against progress at all, but something has to give,” she said.
“Our cultural heritage has been impacted on for over 200 years and to the degree that there will be nothing left.”
Fairfax Media understands that VicRoads will proceed with the scheduled tree removals despite the protest.
VicRoads north west projects director Nigel Powers said there had been a rigorous assessment of these trees by Aboriginal Victoria.
“(The assessment) determined that VicRoads could proceed with the Western Highway duplication,” Mr Powers said.
“This vital upgrade will provide drivers with a safer and quicker journey, and ensure this key trade route can continue to support the region's primary producers.”
Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chair Geoff Clark put a call out on social media on Sunday afternoon for more protesters to attend the camps in the path of construction.
Mr Clark and other Aboriginal people have filed an ‘urgent’ application to federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.
“These applications are a last resort request of the Commonwealth because the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Vic) has failed to prevent the threats of injury and desecration,” the application stated.
“The Registered Aboriginal Party under the VAHA is Martang Pty Ltd and does not represent or act for all Djabwurrung Clans or People.
“It is there requested that the Minister make section 9, 10 and 12 Emergency and Permanent Declarations for the Area and Objects with respect to the culturally significant trees that are under threat of injury and desecration.”
The official start of construction for the $42 million project was on Thursday, with a sod-turning ceremony kicking off the creation of 12.5 kilometres of new highway lanes from Buangor to Ararat.
The latest effort to halt the tree removal follows other in-person protests staged around the trees and lawsuits against the state government in previous years.
VicRoads has previously and repeatedly pointed to official decisions by Aboriginal Victoria that did not support heritage claims for the trees.
The Buangor to Ararat lane duplication is part of a joint federal and state government project to improve efficiency and safety along the Western Highway.
State Greens Northcote MP and Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman, Lidia Thorpe, visited the Western Highway camp on Sunday and Monday.
“These trees have so much environmental and cultural significance to this area,” she said,
“Some of these trees are known as Birthing Trees, they have been used for shelter and for cooking by the local traditional owners,” she said.
Ms Thorpe said she hoped the state government would come back to the table and negotiate over the trees.
“It’s unfortunate that we have had to set up a blockade and go to the feds for an emergency declaration,” she said.
“We are calling on VicRoads to come and sit down with DJabwurrung Elders and look at an alternative route that experts have provided.”
Ms Thorpe said an alternative Western Highway duplication route, which has long been championed by activists in the region, would prove more cost effective and better for the environment.