One of the Aboriginal groups that VicRoads relied on to approve tree removals for the Western Highway duplication to Ararat has denied it ever supported the project.
On Wednesday night, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation released a statement critical of how the Department of Premier and Cabinet had handled the process both before and after protests shut down the tree removal on Monday.
The Department of Premier and Cabinet serves to support both Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins.
Eastern Maar chief executive Jamie Lowe directed his comments in response to the Department’s own statement on Tuesday that VicRoads had widespread support from two Aboriginal groups to remove 3000 trees between Ararat and Buangor.
The statement from a department that works closely with the premier was significant given Mr Andrews’ prior alignment with social justice and Aboriginal causes.
“The Department’s media release misconstrues the involvement of Eastern Maar in the consultations making it appear as though we were involved in consultations since 2013, when we were not consulted until 2017,” Mr Lowe stated.
“It states that Martang and Eastern Maar are registered Aboriginal parties for “their respective areas” but does not clarify that Eastern Maar are not the registered Aboriginal party for the area of the road works and is not formally recognised in that capacity and were never consulted in that capacity.”
Mr Lowe said it was wrong for the Department to claim that Eastern Maar had signed off on a Cultural Heritage Management Plan for the removal of trees.
Mr Lowe said the Department had, in fact, denied Easter Maar access to the management plan on the grounds that it did not hold the Registered Aboriginal Party status for the area.
“It is a false claim to say that Eastern Maar Traditional Owners have approved a Cultural Heritage Management Plan that we have never seen,” Mr Lowe said.
“The assertion by the Department that Eastern Maar was consulted and stated that the trees held no cultural significance is incorrect.
“When Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation was consulted in 2017 – after the approvals for the road were already in place - we sent a group of approximately ten people out to view the trees, including female elders and Eastern Maar board members.
“No one could determine whether either of the trees in question was a birthing tree, however it was agreed that the trees were part of a culturally significant landscape.
“This was communicated to the department immediately after the site visit in November 2017.”
On Sunday afternoon, members of the Djabwurrung Aboriginal people started to form a camp in the path of works to duplicate the Western Highway from Buangor to Ararat.
The protesters, who were joined by supporters from Ballarat, Melbourne and New South Wales on Monday and Tuesday, said they would blockade the works to protect four trees they claim held Aboriginal cultural significance.
VicRoads had planned to remove 3000 trees along a 12.5 kilometre stretch as part of the two-year, $42 million duplication project.
Mr Lowe said VicRoads had agreed to halt tree removal works following a meeting with Eastern Maar and Aboriginal Victoria.
“VicRoads has stated that they will not commence removal of the trees until the Eastern Maar full group have had time to meet to discuss the trees,” Mr Lowe said.
“It is Eastern Maar’s view that flaws in this process do not lie with VicRoads but with the Department.
“Eastern Maar has today sent a letter to the Department seeking they retract the media release and commission a new Cultural Heritage Management Plan.”
In response to Eastern Maar, VicRoads north western project director Nigel Powers said the roads agency was “seeking a peaceful and respectful resolution and will continue to work closely with all relevant parties to get on and deliver this vital project”.
Mr Lowe also said Eastern Maar had requested the Department consider recent academic reports that claimed to uncover new evidence of greater Aboriginal cultural significance around four trees at the centre of the protests.
The Department of Premier and Cabinet has been contacted for comment.
Fairfax Media understands that Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation contacted Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the traditional owners for the Geelong and Ballarat areas, after releasing its statement on Wednesday night.
The Wathaurung people are part of the Kulin Nation of Aboriginal groups that are the traditional owners of the areas in and around the wider Melbourne and Port Phillip bay areas.
The Department of Premier and Cabinet’s office on Exhibition Street in Melbourne is located on the land of the Traditional Owners of the Kulin Nation.
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.
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