Australian court suspends road work after Aboriginal tree chopped down

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An Australian court suspended on Thursday work to expand a highway after officials cut down an ancient tree that Aboriginal people said was a sacred “directions tree”.

Transport officials cut down the yellow box gum tree, estimated by Indigenous Djab Wurrung people to be hundreds of years old, on Monday, when police arrested more than 50 people camped out at the area to try to save it, according to news reports and social media.

Victoria state’s Supreme Court granted a stop-work order until Nov. 19 for the 12 km roadworks that would impact the area significant to Djab Wurrung women, who traditionally used it for birthing practices, near the town of Buangor, 170 km (106 miles) northwest of Melbourne.

“They can destroy Country and they can destroy trees but they can’t destroy our spirit,” a spokesman for the protesters, Zellanach Djab Mara, said in a statement from the camp, known as the Djab Wurrung Embassy.

The destruction of the tree comes five months after mining company Rio Tinto destroyed, with state approval, a sacred rockshelter in Western Australia that was 46,000 years old, sparking an outcry, executive dismissals, a parliamentary enquiry and an acceleration in state legal reform.

State highway authority Major Road Projects Victoria wants to realign the stretch of highway after a series of fatal crashes in recent years.

“The tree ... has not been assessed as having tangible heritage values,” by traditional owners that represent the Djab Wurrung people, the authority said.

The Easter Marr Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC), which legally represents the area, said that the tree, while majestic, did not appear to have been altered by Aboriginal people for usage in cultural traditions.

“Over several years, EMAC fought an exhaustive battle to save culturally significant trees, to the extent possible given our statutory limitations,” it said.

An earlier road realignment it secured had saved 16 trees that were identified as culturally significant, including two birthing trees, “marker”, “directions” and “grandmother” trees, it said.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Robert Birsel