Why The Djab Wurrung Story Is So Important

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An 800-year-old tree that was considered sacred and incredibly important to the history of an Aboriginal community has been bulldozed.

The tree was chopped down and carted off for the sake of building a highway bypass and it was all done with approval from the Victorian Government.

This story really highlights how protests work in 2020 and how appealing to the system doesn’t always work so well.

Back in 2018, the Victorian and Federal Government announced that they were going to invest over $670 million upgrading the Western Highway.

The highway passes by a patch of Djab Wurrung country that’s home to over 260 trees that are sacred to their people.

Lidia Thorpe is a Greens Senator in Victoria and a Djab Wurrung woman, and she’s described how the trees feel kind of like a cathedral, that’s how meaningful they are.

But the VicRoads plan is to widen the highway and cut through this land between Buangor and Ararat.

The fight to protect the trees has been raging for over two years now and it’s been incredibly complicated.

Members of the Djab Wurrung Nation, alongside activists, even moved back onto country back in 2018 to stop the highway rerouting through the site.

Then on October 26th, a huge fiddleback known as a ‘directions’ tree was cut down.

It was a painful blow to the community and activists said they felt totally betrayed by the Andrews Government.

So, the protestors decided to step up their actions and put bodies on the line to protect the remaining trees.

Some of them started actually climbing up the trees and sitting there to stop them being cut down.  And taking that action worked.

Jim Malo: “All it took was just, there were five people up in the trees and one person in the end was the only person left up there preventing work from going on.”

That’s Jim Malo, he’s a politics reporter at Junkee.

By scaling the trees, the Djub Wurrung protestors have managed to extend an injunction and stop the highway work until November 19th.

It’s not a lot but it’s given them a few more weeks to organise after the destruction of the directions tree.

Jim thinks that this story really shows what form of protesting can actually be effective.

He wrote an article for Junkee where he pointed out that trying to protest in the “right way” wasn’t enough for the Djab Wurrung protests and it wasn’t enough in any of the other protests 2020 has seen either.

It took the Djab Wurrung protestors climbing the trees to make their voices heard, and Jim reckons a lot of other groups have realised that they need to climb their metaphorical trees too.

He specifically pointed out the School Strike for Climate students. Tens of thousands of people have marched with them but the Government still refuses to budge on climate policy.

JM: “For children who are hearing all of this from scientists but then also watching politicians just not do anything about it.

Like why, why would you spend your time calling them and sort of voting for them…The other option is to you know, disrupt them, to show that, if you’re not going to listen to us about our future, something that is obviously intangible to you, then we need to do something that is going to, to make it tangible.”

Jim said that when the school strikers were forced to focus on grassroots movement instead of their massive peaceful marches, they actually became a much more effective force.

In July, the group managed to lobby Samsung to withdraw their financial support from the Adani coal port by specifically targeting the company and protesting outside its headquarters.

Some Of the Biggest Protests In The Past Couple Of Years Have Refused To Fight Within Conventional Systems.

Back in 2019, Extinction Rebellion shut down entire cities, even if it pissed people off.

And the Black Lives Matter protests also achieved some remarkable successes with tactics that totally defied convention.

Jim thinks that this year has been a turning point and he hopes we actually continue to see a return to more radical protest movements.

JM: “We shouldn’t spend our time thinking about like, ‘Oh is this going to upset someone?’ Because we should probably spend more time thinking about the violence that’s being put onto us from, you know, down above, right?

To take away someone’s future by not acting on climate change is violent. And the way to respond to that is not by, you know, sort of begging and pleading but to sort of show that we’re going to lock down the city streets, you know, for hours to prevent economic activity.”

 The Takeaway

What’s happened with the Djab Wurrung trees is devastating but it’s also a really important case study for where we’re at with protests more generally.

2020 has been this huge, definitive year for social movements and it seems like a lot of people are rediscovering that playing by the rules, isn’t always the best option.