Work at an intensely controversial highway project in Victoria has been suspended until 2pm Thursday, thanks to new legal action arguing the project does not adequately identify trees the Djab Wurrung people hold as sacred.

The ABC reports that lawyer Michael Kennedy, who represents members of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, filed the challenge with the Victorian Supreme Court.

Work on the highway project won’t go ahead until after tomorrow’s hearing takes place, with Kennedy hoping a stop-work order goes even further than that.

The court order comes after work crews felled a yellow box tree at the start of the week, despite members of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy previously identifying it as a culturally significant directions tree.

Sixty activists protesting the tree’s destruction were arrested by Victoria Police on Tuesday, ABC reports. Demonstrators were also hit with fines for breaching COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

The tree’s destruction was also condemned by Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, the state’s first Aboriginal senator.

Speaking to PEDESTRIAN.TV on Tuesday, Thorpe said the tree’s destruction was the result of a “racist and oppressive system that Aboriginal people have to deal with every day.”

The ABC notes it was Thorpe’s mother, Djab Wurrung elder Marjorie Thorpe, who filed the latest legal action.

Senator Thorpe’s Victorian Greens colleague, MP Samantha Ratnam, today said the party would push a motion in Parliament to protect the trees, dissolve police presence on-site, and rescind the lockdown fines.

The Victorian Government’s $157 million project, which aims to reroute a highway between Buangor and Ararat, has been the subject of intense opposition for years.

Members of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy have camped near the clutch of culturally significant trees since 2018, hoping to protect them from destruction.

But Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday said the Victorian Government has already engaged with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, the traditional owners group associated with the land, to guard 16 trees from the highway works.

That group has also presented a different view to members of the Embassy.

The Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation today said the tree felled on Monday was not a yellow box, but a fiddleback, and that prior investigations did not find it was used in cultural traditions.

“Despite its age and majesty, extensive re-assessments did not reveal any characteristics consistent with cultural modification,” the group said.

That assertion seems unlikely to alter the deep emotion and cultural connection many people felt towards the felled tree.

“We’ve got people that are very ill as a result of this devastating news,” Senator Thorpe said yesterday.

“It is like losing a loved one in your family.”

Image: Lidia Thorpe / Twitter