Some Indigenous elders and community advocacy groups have expressed concern that the Barton Highway duplication will cause irreparable damage to Aboriginal cultural trees and a spirit circle located in the area.
According to the Onerwal Local Aboriginal Land Council, under the current proposed design, seven out of eight Aboriginal cultural trees will be destroyed as the Barton Highway is realigned towards Murrumbateman.
Several Indigenous parties and cultural experts have asserted that the trees constitute sites of cultural significance, such as a scar tree and a ring tree, Council Chair Lillian Bell says.
After significant community consultation and lobbying from the Council and other advocacy groups, two of the scarred trees on the ACT/NSW border will not be destroyed but will instead remain in the median strip with a dual carriageway on either side.
Ngunnawal elder Wally Bell says this change in design is still not adequate, and the two ring trees will be destroyed if they sit on the median strip due to drainage issues and the impact of exhaust fumes.
Another site of concern is the spirit circle at Kaveneys Road at Jeir.
Mr Bell explained that one of the issues Aboriginal people come up against time and time again is having to ‘explain’ or ‘prove’ to non-Aboriginal people and the government that the trees do constitute a site of cultural significance.
“Bureaucrats don’t have any idea what culture means to us,” he said.
The spirit circle, explains Mr Bell, is a natural formation of trees where his people used to camp when they journeyed along the pathway where the Barton Highway now runs.
A cleansing ceremony would once have been conducted there to keep bad spirits away. The fire would then have been kept alight all night to keep the travellers safe, he said.
“There are no clearly defined markings on the trees, and that’s the hard part for people to come to terms with, it’s what’s known in archaeological terms as ‘intangible’ – cultural knowledge that’s been passed down through generations without needing the written word,” Mr Bell continued.
Mr Bell is unconvinced that any real action has been undertaken to understand the significance of the sites, with Transport for NSW engaging an archaeological firm who labelled the site as one of ‘possible’ cultural significance.
Similarly, Ms Bell says Transport for NSW has relied on ambiguity by obtaining an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit and then seeking to destroy the trees anyway, despite being deemed culturally significant.
“Transport for NSW continues to show disrespect for Aboriginal cultural heritage by persisting with its plan to destroy our ancient heritage, despite other options being available,” she said.
The Onerwal Land Council says they support the completion of the Barton Highway Project if it can be amended to bypass the trees.
ACT Minister for Heritage and Environment Rebecca Vassarotti wrote to her NSW counterparts in mid-September asking for an explanation of the role the NSW Government has played in ensuring the protection of these cultural trees.
While she has received recognition of the letter, she is yet to hear a response.
The issue has also come to the attention of the Federal Greens, who have called on NSW – the only state in Australia without stand-alone Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation – to continue to work to develop greater legal protections for sites of cultural significance.
In its Winter update, Transport for NSW said its realignment of the northbound carriageway would preserve two identified ring trees of Aboriginal cultural significance near Hall Travelling Stock Reserve.
The update also referred to an Aboriginal Heritage pedestrian walk-through that is currently being completed and environmental surveys being carried out to investigate the prevalence of threatened fauna and flora in the region.
In May, Transport for NSW said it was committed to the preservation of “Aboriginal cultural heritage and recognises the impacts of the Barton Highway upgrade”.
The Barton Highway duplication, which began in November 2020, is currently in its first phase. Work is scheduled to be completed by 2023, weather permitting.