On the day Victoria’s COVID restrictions eased, the Andrews government escalated their attack on the Djap Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy.
The protest camp was set up by traditional owners and supporters on Djap Wurrung country in regional Victoria to protect a rich cultural landscape threatened by the extension of the Western Highway.
On 26 October, riot police brutally arrested protesters and moved to dismantle the camp. One person’s arm was broken, and scores of people had their cars impounded and were left stranded.
The Directions Tree, a centuries old Yellow Box that is believed to have grown from a seed planted with the placenta of a Djap Wurrung ancestor, was cut down.
Djap Wurrung woman Sissy Eileen Austin explained the devastation that this had caused, saying: “They have broken the hearts of Djap Wurrung women, Djap Wurrung children, Djap Wurrung people. We are the last generation that will ever see that directions tree and if you think of it like that, it’s a massive loss.”
The attack on the camp produced outrage across Victoria, and enough pressure that a court injunction was granted on any further works until 19 November.
There have since been two protests in support of the Heritage Protection Embassy outside the Supreme Court.
For two years traditional owners have been fighting to protect this landscape, and a number of trees sacred to Djap Wurrung people. These include birthing trees that are hundreds of years old, were culturally modified prior to invasion, and continue to be an important site of cultural and spiritual connection.
The extension of the Western Highway at the expense of this sacred women’s site has highlighted the hypocrisy of the Andrews government’s treaty process through the Traditional Owner Settlement Act as well as the weakness of heritage protection laws. It has exposed their continued attacks on Aboriginal rights, even as they gesture to advancing rights via the treaty process.
In response, many Aboriginal people have raised the slogan “no trees, no treaty”.
On resigning from the First People’s Assembly of Victoria, Sissy Austin put it succinctly, “You cannot treaty with a government that destroys cultural heritage, it is Djap Wurrung now but it could be anyone next.”
Trade union solidarity
Solidarity between the union movement and Aboriginal people has been particularly important. Union activists worked to push the Victorian Trades Hall Council to support the protest camp in opposition to the Andrews Labor government.
In 2018 Djap Wurrung activist Meriki Onus joined the picket line at the Chemist Warehouse strike and addressed striking workers, linking the destruction of the site to the fight at Chemist Warehouse over sexual harassment.
This helped lay the groundwork for Aunty Sandra Onus, a Djap Wurrung Traditional Owner, to address the Trades Hall executive in March 2019.
A motion of support and solidarity was unanimously passed calling on the Victorian Government to “urgently resolve the issue” and pledging to take solidarity action if this did not occur.
In August 2019, after the Victorian government served the protest camp with an eviction notice, rank and file unionists organised a car convoy to the camp leaving from Trades Hall. Luke Hilakari, Trades Hall Secretary. addressed the protest.
It is disappointing that when the Directions Tree was cut down in October this year Trades Hall was silent—a reminder that consistent pressure from below is crucial to pushing trade union leaders in the right direction.
Negotiations between Traditional Owners and the Victorian government are fraught and ongoing.
However, a number of highly significant trees have been saved.
This long struggle is a glimmer of what is possible when connections are made between the trade union movement and the fight for Aboriginal rights.
It should be a source of hope and inspiration for people fighting for justice all over the continent, against Black Deaths in Custody, for climate justice and in the campaigns to protect country and cultural heritage from destructive industries like fracking.
By Geraldine Fela