We Wouldn't Bulldoze An 800-Year-Old Cathedral, So Why Aren't Sacred Indigenous Sites Treated With The Same Respect?

The Djab Wurrung trees in Victoria have stood for 800 years. Now bulldozers are approaching.

For more than a year now, protesters have been camped at a site in western Victoria on Djab Wurrung country, trying to protect sacred Indigenous trees. The group, which started out at around 50 or so, has grown to include over 200 people.

Over 200 sacred trees are under threat from bulldozers at the site, which is sacred women’s country for the Djab Wurrung people. Perhaps most notably, this includes an 800-year-old hollowed-out tree that has been used by women as a space to give birth. The tree has seen the birth of more than 10,000 Djab Wurrung babies over 50 generations.

The Victorian Government – specifically Major Road Projects Victoria – is planning to upgrade part of the Western Highway that connects Melbourne to Adelaide, and will clear around 3000 trees in total during construction. The highway upgrade is to reroute a dangerous stretch of road that has seen over 100 crashes and 11 deaths in recent years.

Current plans have the rerouted highway swinging south, straight through the Djab Wurrung site. Traditional owners and their supporters have been proposing that the new route swing north instead, which would both avoid the sacred trees and cost the government less to build. For some reason, the government rejected this northern route. 

The destruction of these trees for any reason would be a massive loss for the Djab Wurrung people and Victoria as a whole, so to be threatened with bulldozers when there is another perfectly good option is particularly offensive to the protestors. It also has people throwing some pretty serious side eye to the signs in the windows of the Victoria Roads office, paying their respects to the local Indigenous people.

Actions speak louder than words, after all. 

The protestors that have been camping on the site were given a 14-day eviction warning on August 8, meaning August 22 was the day that authorities were expected to come in and evict everybody so that the trees could be cleared and construction could begin. As of now, nobody has shown up, and the camp still stands.

When the Notre Dame cathedral burned down in April, the world was devastated, and rightfully so. Watching history disappear in front of us really hurt. There were tears, there were songs, and over a billion dollars was quickly raised to restore it.

Like the birthing tree, the cathedral had stood proudly for 800 years. Nobody ever pointed a bulldozer at Notre Dame.

We’ve destroyed plenty of sacred Indigenous sites before. The Gumbi Gumbi trees, Nirmena Nala Cave, and Baiame Cave are just a few. All week we’ve been watching Pauline Hanson hype herself up to climb Uluru, then back out when she got scared – which might be funny if the situation wasn’t so bleak.

Do we give these sites less respect because they’re natural instead of brick and mortar? Do we really think that roads are more important than our history? Or do we just not respect our Indigenous people enough to care what is sacred to them? They’re uncomfortable questions with uncomfortable answers, but they’re questions that need to be asked. Preferably before the Victorian governments bulldozes the Djab Wurrung trees.

What Does Declaring A Climate Emergency Actually Do?

It's not the same as a state of emergency, for starters.

Last week, while Scott Morrison was busy making the Prime Minister of Tonga cry over Australia’s refusal to give up coal, some other climate news flew under the radar. Both Wollongong Council in New South Wales and Mornington Peninsula Shire Council in Victoria declared climate emergencies, bringing the total number of Australian councils to make this declaration to 33. Globally, around 800 councils have declared a climate emergency.

But does this declaration actually mean anything? Or have governments just found another way to look like they’re doing something?

There’s no solid answer, but it’s a symbolic gesture that could have a real impact. Firstly, declaring a climate emergency is not the same as declaring a state of emergency. A state of emergency can be called during something like a massive bushfire or terrorist event, and means that the government gets extra legal powers to fix whatever the emergency might be. Declaring a climate emergency doesn’t grant any extra powers to anybody, so from a legal point of view, it means pretty much zip. Unfortunately, governments know this.

Case in point, when Canada declared a climate emergency on June 18, people were stoked. They were less stoked when – the very next day – the Canadian government approved an oil pipeline that can move 600,000 barrels of oil every day.

Despite this, activist groups are still really pleased about the declarations by Wollongong Council and Mornington Peninsula Shire Council. As with improving anything, the first step is admitting there is a problem, and both Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion have praised the leadership of all the councils who have declared a climate emergency so far. Sure, declaring a climate emergency is only symbolic, but the movement behind it certainly isn’t. People have been rallying in the streets for climate action, and to see this response from councils feels like a victory. 

With every council that declares a climate emergency, more pressure is put on state and federal governments to do something. Unfortunately, hopes of the federal government doing much about the climate are not high.

The fallout of the Pacific Islands Forum has been dominating the headlines for the past week. Wollongong Council and Mornington Peninsula Shire Council declaring a climate emergency should have been big news, but instead we heard all about how Scott Morrison was trying to tell Pacific Island leaders that we shouldn’t get rid of coal, and how it’s totally great and definitely not the reason their island homes are going underwater.

The PM of Fiji, ladies and gentlemen.

And when Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, pointed out that Australia is doing a pretty garbage job of tackling climate change, Alan Jones came out with that charming “shove a sock down her throat” line (which, by the way, Morrison knows is definitely wrong because he has two daughters. But that’s an angry rant for another day).

The cherry on top was our Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack reckons that the Pacific Islanders will be fine because they pick our fruit.

Oh and Labor wouldn’t have done much differently btw. 

How good is Australia’s performance on the international stage?

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer scale of the climate crisis, and exhausting to watch the people in charge of Australia not do much about it. Individual councils declaring climate emergencies might not be the magic wand solution to fix the planet, but it’s a damn good place to start. 

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