The Western Highway Conservation Group was formed to advocate for the protection of remnant vegetation on Western Highway roadsides and where possible, restoration after roadworks. We recognise that roadside remnants are an important genetic resource and often contain unique flora and fauna that have been removed from surrounding areas.
We enlisted the knowledge and experience of well-respected experts and have supported and participated in a dedicated consultative process for environmental matters that the then VicRoads set up in late 2015 for the Western Highway Duplication.
However, a family at Buangor on the Western Highway (one of whom was a member of the consultative group), has been working for some years to protect its farms from severance by an approved new highway route. They, and onsite protesters, support a new highway but want to ensure that any new route goes through a so called "northern option" though critical roadsides, avoiding their property.
It has been vigorously demonstrated that any route north of the approved route is vastly more ecologically damaging with greater tree numbers and high quality and rare vegetation communities at risk. This "option" would never be seriously considered, but for landowners and supporters, it has become an article of faith.
It has been vigorously demonstrated that any route north of the approved route is vastly more ecologically damaging
On the eve of planned Highway roadworks through farmland in June 2018, the landowners called on some Aboriginal contacts, claiming there were "birthing trees" in the way of the proposed road. One of the people who attended was Greens MP (now Senator) Lidia Thorpe. The Greens strongly support Lidia Thorpe's view of the situation - to the letter. Lidia brings to the Greens many Aboriginal members and others who support giving them a strong platform.
Since then protesters at the site, including Lidia and her mother, have questioned the legitimacy of both the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC) and the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations, including their ability to speak on behalf of Djab Wurrung. However, the Eastern Maar, who are represented by EMAC, say they are an inclusive corporation with representatives of all recognised Eastern Maar families on the board of directors. EMAC is described on its website as the peak body authorised to speak on behalf of the Djab Wurrung clan and it has also been the recognised Native Title holder for the area since 2011. Under the Settlement Act it has become the Registered Aboriginal Party for a large area [which includes the landowner farms and protest camps].
A year or so ago, 16 trees on the approved farmland route were identified by EMAC as having cultural heritage. The alignment was re-designed to avoid them. That's an astonishing and gratifying result for which protesters would I'm sure recognise and claim some credit.
One beautiful tall Yellow Box, with wavy bark earning it the description as a "Fiddleback tree," was not able to be saved. EMAC said: "Despite its age and majesty, extensive re-assessments did not reveal any characteristics consistent with cultural modification. It did not appear to have been altered by our peoples for usage in our cultural traditions."
Meanwhile the protest has been very successful in gaining mainstream media attention thanks largely to social media. As we know, social media is a mixed blessing and at times some of the material shared so easily between friends can be misleading. At worst, it is almost Trumpian in the repetition of falsehoods. The protesters, including the Greens, for example, claimed directly or indirectly that the "birthing trees will be cut down" long after they were emphatically protected.
Lately though, supported by the landowners, it's been claimed by some that the entire farmland through which the approved route passes, is "sacred." That status, curiously, does not seem to apply to the ecologically highly significant roadside just the other side of the fence which the landowners offered as a sacrificial lamb.
Our group, the WHCG, has observed the roads authority taking a great deal of trouble to consult not only with the people it is legally obliged to, but also protesters on the site itself. Since 2015, our members have seen a remarkable change in the willingness of the authority to see the impacts of their work from different perspectives. A sense of partnership and respect had built up. It's concerning that we may not see this on future projects or with other government bodies. That sense of trust and transparency must work both ways, even or specially when there is much disagreement.
The result is Victorians have been done a great disservice.
David Leviston, Western Highway Conservation Group