AN announcement Friday that the Western Highway duplication project will be altered to protect two culturally significant trees has been met with mixed reactions.
The announcement, from Transport Minister Jacinta Allan’s office, stated that the route between Buangor and Ararat will be re-aligned to include around one kilometre of localised design changes which will retain the two birthing trees.
Traditional custodians and others have been camped at the site for several months and about 3000 trees of various sizes and ages have been marked for removal along the duplication route, including several scar trees, birthing trees and other culturally modified trees.
Traditional custodian Zallanach Gunaikurnai said that he had been told by project manager Major Roads Victoria that the rest of the project will now go ahead, incorporating the alteration.
“After hearing the news this morning about Major Roads Victoria being given the approval to go through, I feel disappointed to know that government still aren’t recognising who we are as a people and the connection to the country,” he said.
“I’m very happy that they’ve recognised the significance of those two trees, but still saddened that they haven’t recognised the landscape they sit upon.
“I feel very sad about that fact but I still feel a sense of hope – there is still room for education.”
Mr Gunaikurnai said a consultation process will now follow.
“What we’ve said is we will take more time to go back to community and discuss that with the Djab Wurrung people and the women of country, the elders, and take direction from them around the next process.
“There is still room for consultation (with Major Roads) throughout the process so I feel a little bit disheartened by the decision.”
In the meantime, Mr Gunaikurnai said the camp was still receiving verbal abuse from some motorists.
“It is very unpleasant to be here under these circumstances but we are here,” he said.
The costs of the realignment are still being determined in consultation with the contractors.
However, they will be managed within the current project budget.
Work was suspended on the Western Highway in June 2018 and remained suspended while the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy assessed a protection declaration application.
That application assessment has impacted on the construction timeline slightly but work will now recommence progressively along the alignment to ensure any additional delays are minimised.
“We’ve worked closely with the Djab Wurrung community and discussions with them highlighted the significance of these two trees,” Major Roads Victoria Director Performance and Development Andrew Williams said.
“We’re making localised design changes to the Western Highway duplication that will ensure the two trees are retained along the alignment.”
Landscape archaeologist and author of Ancient Aboriginal Aquaculture Rediscovered, Dr Heather Builth, spent over a year compiling a report about the significance of the site and an alternative route, known locally as the northern alternative.
Dr Builth said she was disappointed with Friday’s news, and that the Northern alternative had never been acknowledged.
“The northern alternative, to my knowledge, has never been explored as a viable option by VicRoads,” she said.
“(That’s) highly disappointing considering the cultural heritage values and the cultural landscape values of the Djab Wurrung that will now be lost forever as a result of not even considering a way to avoid what has been proven archaeologically and ethnographically to be a fine example of a landscape that people lived in.
“That will be just cut up, so that’s it, they’re not there any more. There will be two trees left.”
Dr Builth said that culturally modified trees were increasingly rare and must be recognised before they die off.
“At this particular point in time, for various reasons, there is a refusal to recognise these features for what they are and what they are a result of, which is generations of Aboriginal people looking after people in this landscape,” she said.
“These were shelter trees, and a necessary part of their domestic ethnographic landscape. They are extraordinary and they are hundreds of years old.
“Leaving two trees standing without all the other features of the cultural archaeology around them – it’s sad.”
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