July 2019


The Djab Wurrung Birthing Tree

By Sophie Cunningham
The highway construction causing irredeemable cultural and environmental damage

As I head across Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, I am driving in one of 12 lanes. Once on the Western Freeway the road narrows down to six lanes, and then to four and I settle in for a couple of hours. You notice a few things as you head west, across Victoria’s basalt plains. It’s an ancient landscape, riddled with old volcanoes, and now largely cleared for agriculture. It’s something of a relief when you begin to drive through land that, while being used for grazing, has held onto some of its large old trees.

Once past Beaufort, heading towards Buangor, I am on the recently built stretch of road known as Section 2a of the Western Highway Project. This road became – and I’m quoting a VicRoads report here – “the subject of intense public scrutiny” after there was “a severe underestimate” of the number of large old trees that would need to be removed to build the section. The original estimate was 221. The revised estimate of large old trees to be removed, made public in 2015, was 1350.

Past Buangor the road is down to two lanes. The 12.5-kilometre extension of the highway to be built between here and Ararat is Section 2b. I notice more remnant vegetation. More large old trees. A sign attached to the trunk of one tree standing by the old road reads “This tree is 600 years old.” I think about taking a photo but it’s hard to find a safe place to stop. This issue – the narrowness of the road here, how safe it might be – has been contentious for many years. There are variously disputed figures for the number of people killed and injured on this stretch of road. The state government describes the Western Highway as “one of Victoria’s key trade routes, providing a link between the region’s primary producers with Melbourne’s domestic and export markets”. I drive slowly now, looking out for the Djab Wurrung Embassy’s top camp. I see two massive old red gums to my left and, yep, there it is. I turn onto a dirt road, through the gate and ask permission to enter.

That drive was how this article began its life, some months ago. I’d wanted to celebrate the Birthing Tree, as it’s known, one of the 260 sacred trees under threat from the building of the highway’s Section 2b. I quickly realised that a single extraordinary tree was not the only issue at hand, and nor was that particular tree my business. What I made my business was the proposed destruction of close to 3000 trees, which vary from saplings to veterans – including the sacred trees – in the building of this section of highway. Doing so meant falling down into the widening faultlines between the Major Roads Projects Victoria (MRPV, a newly created division of VicRoads) and most other interested parties. Faultlines have, in turn, opened up between several of those groups: conservation groups, landowners and other locals, the Djab Wurrung Embassy and other Indigenous groups.

One place this led me was the “Victorian State of the Environment Report 2018”. It goes for 700 pages, and includes data visualisations in the form of arrows pointing upwards, which might indicate that something is increasing. That’s good if, say, it’s on the biodiversity increase of a particular region. Sometimes there’s a question mark alongside a key performance indicator of a particular ecosystem’s health and that means there is a lack of data. Most often, the arrows suggest a downward trend – of remnant vegetation, of biodiversity, of forest health. In short, the state of Victoria’s environmental health is poor and, despite much good work, the tools used to manage it are ineffective.

Here is just one example: it remains common practice to offset vegetation lost by planting new vegetation. Let’s consider the Birthing Tree in that context. It is an old-growth river red gum that is up to 800 years old. It has a girth of more than 7 metres and stands more than 30 metres tall. It has been culturally modified, with fire, creating a small room in the base of the trunk. Thousands of Djab Wurrung babies have been born, over multiple generations, within it. The placentas of those babies have been buried under the Directions Trees around it.

How do you offset that?

Indeed, you can’t meaningfully offset any “habitat” tree. The older the tree, the more nooks and crannies are weathered into it. Such a tree provides habitat and nutrients for dozens of mammals and birds, and thousands of insect species.

“It is important to situate myself when I write about these trees,” Nayuka Gorrie wrote in Guardian Australia in April. “My existence would perhaps not be possible without them. I am a Djap Wurrung person through my grandmother Sandra Onus … These trees are Djap Wurrung people’s inheritance.” Gorrie continues:

[Settlers] can’t understand what it means to be able to connect the blood coursing through your body to ancestors’ blood soaked in ancient soil and ancient trees. To sit in a tree that saw your people birthed, your people massacred, and now your people’s resistance is a feeling that the English language will never be able to capture … This connection may be … poetic but this connection is a threat. It is a feeling that reinforces our rights to this land. This connection must therefore, by the logic of the settler state, be destroyed.

One thing the settler state did was use the wood of the river red gums for railway sleepers as the rail network grew from 410 to 7650 kilometres by the end of the 19th century. Once the most widely distributed eucalyptus in Australia, they were – and continue to be – standing in the way of a developing nation. We’ve lost millions of the river reds, most recently due to the combination of drought and the mismanagement of the Murray–Darling Basin. Regeneration events, in which masses of the seedlings sprout, are rare. Seedlings lasting to maturity rarer still. Three thousand trees, let alone 260 sacred trees, is a critical loss.

The state government says it is “committed to working with Aboriginal Victorians towards Australia’s first treaty” but its actions indicate that it is more committed to working with Aboriginal Victorians who don’t get in the way. There is certainly greater enthusiasm for solutions that are material (involving compensation, for example) rather than solutions that require meaningful engagement with spiritual or environmental concerns. One of the Djab Wurrung Embassy camp’s leaders, D.T. Zellanach, said in a recent interview: “In order for the colonial system to have sovereignty they’ve got to deny true custodians their history; if they wipe us out, they don’t have to prove their legitimacy. They’re using brute force to forcibly remove us.” It turned out to be a prescient observation. On May 15, 10 days before a Federal Court hearing regarding the legitimacy of the highway extension was due, Zellanach was arrested on charges of missing a court date, driving on an expired licence and resisting arrest. He was denied bail and finally released without a fine on May 27 after pleading guilty in the Ararat Magistrates’ Court. The magistrate conceded that his 26 days in custody was too long a sentence for a minor offence.

Australia has one of the worst records of deforestation in the world, and the level of greenhouse gas emissions from tree clearing between 2016 and 2030 is projected to be the equivalent of operating at least three to four extra Hazelwood coal-fired power plants during this period. Australia’s forests are particularly effective carbon sinks, currently storing solid carbon equivalent to almost 38.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is about 70 times the country’s annual net greenhouse gas emissions. If we are concerned about emissions we can’t just talk about coalmines, we have to talk about trees.

Of course, reports have been written on the local environmental, cultural and heritage issues that pertain to extension 2b of the Western Highway, in order to comply with various planning regulations. Many contain good research and analysis, but there are so many issues at stake that the reports compete to be heard. Heritage assessments, for example, tend to prioritise the built environment rather than the natural one; that is, buildings over culturally modified trees. This world view was highlighted by the outpouring of grief when Notre Dame was engulfed by fire. That cathedral is close to the same age as the Birthing Tree, which is as important to the Djab Wurrung people.

These reports, paid for by various interested parties, are rarely read in the spirit of negotiation. What happens instead is an escalation of dispute and a focus on work-arounds. An alternative route for the highway section has been one possibility offered by way of negotiation. But it seems that a serious modification of the route was never on the table, despite the fact that the change would have – by one count – saved four times as many ancient trees. Instead, minor modifications were made to save two of the sacred trees. In May the MRPV announced “an agreement with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation on which critical trees should be retained”. This seems to have led to the preservation of a further 13 sacred trees. Close to 250 other ancient, sacred trees, as well as another 2750 other trees, will still get the chop. The Djab Wurrung Embassy was not consulted.

And the Birthing Tree itself? It has been “saved”, whatever that means given the surrounding landscape is unlikely to escape the roadworks.

When discussing the case in public, the MRPV talks a lot about safety issues. Many people I spoke to complained – off the record – that the MRPV used the concept of safety as a blunt instrument in such negotiations. Whatever the truth of the matter, widening roads is not the only way to address safety concerns. The pressures on roads through the use of trucks as the major form of transport (rather than, say, often extant railway lines) is just one of the related issues that needs free and frank discussion. Another is: what are the safety implications of living in Australia in 50 years, if climate change is not mitigated? What are the economic implications of a land too hot, dry, burnt or drowned to support an agricultural industry? What are the moral implications of further disenfranchising First Nations peoples? What is the point of developing regulatory regimes if there is no appetite for policing them? The focus seems to be on gaming what has become an elaborate system of commissioning and writing reports.

I find myself thinking back to the “Victorian State of the Environment Report 2018”. Could I attempt my own data visualisation? Would a knot convey the situation better than arrows? Or a series of lines, running parallel? In the end, I realise the roads themselves will make the visual point well enough, as they cut a swathe though the west of the state. In the short term, those roads will get some Victorians to their destination more quickly and efficiently. But in the long term, it’s not likely any of us will be happy with where we end up.

Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is the author of nine books, including the novel This Devastating Fever and the essay collection City of Trees.


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