'Chainsaws tearing through my heart': 50 arrested as sacred tree cut down to make way for Victorian highway

Calla Wahlquist and Nino Bucci
·6-min read

The Victorian government has cut down a tree that was culturally significant to Australia’s Indigenous Djab Wurrung women to make way for a highway in the state’s west.

The yellow box, known as a directions tree, was felled on Monday. The government has defended its actions, saying the tree was not one of those listed as requiring protection in an agreement with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, and was not the sacred directions tree that is now subject to a federal court action.

On Tuesday, police arrested about 50 people at the site. Videos posted on social media showed one man crying that police had broken his arm while removing him from a metal drum, but no injuries had been reported, a Victoria police spokeswoman said.

Related: The destruction of a sacred tree on Djab Wurrung country has broken our hearts | Sissy Eileen Austin

Guardian Australia has been told that among those people arrested were at least two legal observers, who attended the site to ensure police complied with the law, and several Aboriginal land protectors.

One legal observer, a second-year law student who did not want to be identified, said she was sitting near the sacred grandfather tree when police started to arrest people without properly cautioning them.

“They starting making really violent arrests, grabbing people by the head; four cops on top of one person. It then stopped for a bit, while they were deciding on who to arrest next. They then approached the other legal observer first, who was arrested and went with the police peacefully.

“They then came up to me and told me I would be arrested if I didn’t move on. I agreed to move on. They then arrested me immediately despite my compliance. They walked me out, away from my position as a legal observer, holding both of my arms.

“They handcuffed me with my hands behind my back, and left me in the back of a van for about 10 minutes. I was wearing the clearly marked legal observer vest throughout the whole ordeal, including whilst they held me in the van.”

Sarah Condon, a senior associate at the law firm Stary Norton Halphen, strongly condemned the arrest of legal observers.

“The purpose of legal observers is simply to monitor, record and report unlawful conduct by police or the use of excessive force. Their role is independent of the land protection itself.

“The arrest of legal observers at Djab Warrung today is deeply concerning, and erodes public confidence in authorities in these situations.

“Legal observers play a critically important role ensuring police and state accountability.”

The Victoria police spokeswoman said police had been at the site to protect contractors who were working there. She said about 40 protesters were arrested for refusing to leave a restricted access area and failing to comply with the chief health officer’s directions, and were released pending summons.

A further 10 protesters were arrested for obstructing police and charged with offences, including intentionally obstructing an emergency service worker on duty, refusing to leave a restricted access area and failing to comply with the chief health officer’s directions. They were bailed to reappear at Ararat magistrates court at a later date.

Other protesters received infringement notices.

“Victoria police respects people’s right to protest peacefully and are there to ensure no breaches of the peace or antisocial behaviour occurs as a result of protest action at the site,” the spokeswoman said.

“Officers work hard to provide a safe environment for all people involved in protests as well as the broader community.”

The protection of the birthing trees has been the subject of years of protest by Djab Wurrung people and other Aboriginal Victorians.

But Victoria’s first Indigenous senator, Lidia Thorpe, said the actions of the past two days had undone any prospect of meaningful compromise.

“We wanted a peaceful outcome, we came with peace and in good faith, and were willing to negotiate.

“But heavy-handed politics from the Andrews government has faded any hopes of that, or anything else into the future.

“The inherent violence of the system is being perpetrated against us on every level.”

The news of the tree’s destruction was met with grief and outrage last night.

“I can feel the chainsaws tearing through my heart, my spirit, my Djap Wurrung body is in pain,” said a local woman, Sissy Austin. “Today I laid on the floor and cried. Cried for our mother, Djap Wurrung country.”

The main birthing tree is believed to be 800 years old, and was a place where women gave birth. Placentas were mixed with seed and buried underneath the directions trees, tying them to a child’s life. A Gunai and Gunditjamara woman, Meriki Onus, said the destruction of the tree, especially coming on a day when the coronavirus lockdown restrictions were lifted in Melbourne, showed Aboriginal Victorians that “we don’t matter to the colony”.

The decision to fell the tree despite significant community opposition has been likened to the destruction of the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia.

Protesters at the site said they had been moved away from the trees on Monday by police and when they were allowed to return they found that the directions tree had been cut down.

A Major Road Projects Victoria spokesman disputed this, saying the tree was a fiddleback that arborists had assessed as unlikely to predate European settlement, not the identified directions tree.

Related: The government wants to bulldoze my inheritance: 800-year-old sacred trees | Nayuka Gorrie

The government later told Guardian Australia that the tree referred to as a fiddleback was one of those identified as a directions tree by those protecting the area but had not been identified as such by the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, which is the registered cultural heritage manager for the site.

The tree was removed near Buangor as part of a $157m project to duplicate the Western Highway. In the past seven years, the state government said, there had been more than 100 crashes on the highway between Ballarat and Stawell – 11 people had died and more than 50 were seriously injured.

The route for the road is through ancient trees directly linked to the songs and stories of the local Indigenous people, the Djab Wurrung. The trees tie them to nearby Mount Langi Ghiran, known as the black cockatoo dreaming site, and to the Hopkins River, which is connected to the eel dreaming.

After protracted negotiations, an agreement was reached last year between the state government and the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, the registered Aboriginal party for the area, to protect 15 trees. The trees that were to be protected during the roadworks were clearly labelled with their coordinates and a buffer zone was established.