THE federal government has rejected an application from an Indigenous group requesting works on the Buangor Western Highway duplication to cease.
The Djab Wurring Heritage Protection Embassy sought protection of an area between Ararat to Buangor where it believed sacred trees were present.
Activists have been camped at the site since June 2018 due to Aboriginal heritage concerns.
Works were suspended in August at the request of the Federal Department of Environment and Energy in order to undertake an assessment of the area’s cultural heritage.
A Federal Department of Environment and Energy spokesperson said former Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg received the application in June under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
The spokesperson said Mr Frydenberg appointed a reporter to write a comprehensive report of matters detailed in the Act.
“This report has been completed and submitted to the Department of the Environment and Energy and was provided to the Environment Minister. The report provided the Minister with a thorough understanding of the decision-making context with regard to the applications,” they said.
“The Environment Minister wrote to the relevant Victorian Ministers under section 13 of the Act to seek their views on whether there is effective protection of the area and objects under state legislation.
“Roads and Road Safety Minister Luke Donnellan responded to the Environment Minster’s letter on October 30. In this letter, Mr Donnellan stated that he was satisfied that there is effective protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage in the area. The Minister decided not to make a declaration to protect the area or objects on December 19.”
The spokesperson said Mr Donellan’s decision not to make a declaration was on the basis of the significant road safety upgrades.
“In further support of this decision, the Major Road Projects Authority committed to avoiding one tree and to undertake further consultations, which could result in the avoidance of other trees,” they said.
“The heritage significance of the area and objects to Aboriginal people, the level of threat, and effect of such of declaration were all carefully considered by the Minister in making this decision.”
In December Aboriginal Elder Aunty Sandra Onus said it was critical to protect the Indigenous culture and heritage in the area.
“I can't understand that they would want to destroy something so ancient that belongs to us, especially as pertains to our birthing trees,” Aunty Sandra said.
“We can’t stop the highway from going through but where we can avoid losing the trees we should. I agree we need highway - I'm not against progress.”
The Buangor bypass is part of the $672.3 million duplication of Western Highway between Ballarat and Stawell.
Major Road Projects Victoria development and performance director Andrew Williams said the organisation had not yet made a decision regarding the government’s stance.
“We're taking the time needed to fully consider the decision by the federal government and what it means for the delivery of this stage of the Western Highway Duplication,” he said.
In a statement from Major Road Projects Victoria, a spokesperson said a project team had worked closely with the Djab Wurrung community for “several years”.
“Major Road Projects Victoria received notification in early January from the Department of the Environment and Energy that no protection declaration would be made on an area known as Djab Wurrung Country,” they said.
“More detail as to the reasoning behind the decision is expected from the federal government in the coming weeks. In light of the decision our next steps will be to review project delivery requirements and timelines and until then works will remain suspended.”
More to come.