The Victorian Government has this week cut down a large tree to make way for a highway upgrade, a move Indigenous Australians and activists have labelled cultural genocide because the tree is a sacred artifact to the Djab Wurrung community.
On Tuesday, as Victorians celebrated the last day of strict COVID-19 lockdown, around 60 people were arrested and others forcibly dragged away after attempting to stop the removal of a tree lovingly referred to as a ‘directions tree.’ The tree was the result of an ancient Djab Wurrung Indigenous practice where a child’s placenta is planted along with a seed to create a spiritual link to ancestors.
The tree’s removal allows for the construction of a new road that is expected to save commuters two minutes of travel time.
People across the country have taken to social media to express their anger.
"The Andrews Government has used today as a political distraction from the desecration of a sacred Djab Wurrung women’s site, to silence the voices of Djab Wurrung mob, women and allies. It is completely sinister. While the colony is celebrating, mob are in mourning,” Gomeroi yinnar woman and journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber said on Twitter.
Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts, an activist and proud Indigenous woman, echoed Hayman-Reber’s post.
"If you are serious about black lives, then you must be serious about black land,” she wrote on Instagram. “Our land is our ancestors’ spirit, the mother of all mothers protecting and nurturing our animals, our nature, our bodies and our souls.”
Activists have compared the cultural significance of the tree’s destruction to Notre Dame burning down, which generated global horror.
"You can replace your centralised whiteness and gentrified structures that continue to perpetrate harm on my people, but you cannot replace the sacred sites and our landscapes that carry over 800 years of history, protection and strength for our people,” Turnbull-Roberts added.
Activists also claim the destruction meets three of five acts of genocide as defined by the United Nations, and is in breach of the Human Rights Charter and the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Update: I have been able to *confirm* that the tree in this picture - which is widely referred to as the Djab Wurrung Directions Tree - has been chopped down and removed.— Miki Perkins (@perkinsmiki) October 26, 2020
Story and more detail to come. pic.twitter.com/904QPI7m8Q
Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan said the tree had been thoroughly assessed and was not on a protection list.
"The tree, usually referred to as the Fiddleback Tree, has been involved in multiple cultural surveys involving Djab Wurrung elders and has not been assessed as being culturally significant,” Allan said in a statement, according to the ABC.
The Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, a group that has worked alongside the highway project, backed Allan’s statement.
“Despite its age and majesty, extensive re-assessments did not reveal any characteristics consistent with cultural modification,” the corporation said, in contrast to local activists. “It did not appear to have been altered by our peoples for usage in our cultural traditions.”
On Wednesday, the Victorian Supreme Court was asked by the lawyer representing the Djab Wurrung community to review the case.
Alongside investigating the events that led to the tree’s destruction, the Djab Wurrung people demanded the court grant an immediate work stoppage on any further land clearing. The community claims an additional 3,000 sacred trees, including 260 large old-growth trees, are set to be removed in the highway upgrade.
The following day, the court granted an interim injunction to stop all future clearing.
The case is expected to be heard in the Supreme Court on Nov. 16.