Minister urged to stop cultural site being 'desecrated' for housing project

'To desecrate our land, just for the purposes of houses is not appropriate to our well-being.'

Indigenous elders are hoping the Commonwealth will rethink its plan to destroy an ancient forest in Darwin that’s been in continuous use by their ancestors for thousands of years.

Their concern centres around a plan by the federal government’s property business Defence Housing Australia (DHA) to build 800 homes at Lee Point. While the company has agreed to cease work at the 132-hectare site, it's keeping bulldozers there for now.

The temporary halt to the construction occurred after an emergency application to protect the cultural site was filed by Larrakia Dangalaba elder Tibby Quall to Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.

Tibby Quall standing at Lee Point, wearing a large cowboy hat.
Tibby Quall arguing "desecrating" his people's traditional lands for the purposes of housing is "not appropriate". Source: ECNT/Rebecca Parker

On Monday, Mr Quall told Yahoo News Australia the reprieve is welcome as his old people have occupied the site “for time immemorial”. “We carry on the responsibility of our heritage and our customs. To desecrate our land, just for the purposes of houses is not appropriate to our well-being, culture and nature,” he said.

Our culture is strong in the belief that for thousands of years our old people have lived here.Tibby Quall

When can emergency declarations be made?

The emergency declaration was lodged with Minister Plibersek by Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) on behalf of its client Mr Quall to try and project Lee Point.

Minister Plibersek (left) and an aerial shot of Lee Point (right)
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek (left) has been asked to intervene and protect an ancient forest (right) scheduled to be bulldozed by a Commonwealth business for housing. Source: AAP/Supplied

EJA senior specialist lawyer Bruce Lindsay said on Monday he understands works at the site will cease for a week while the minister considers the application.

"Commonwealth Aboriginal cultural heritage laws are an important and powerful mechanism for protecting First Nations cultural heritage for generations to come," he said in a statement.

Under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, the minister can make a declaration to protect an area if it is considered significant and under threat of injury or desecration.

DHA’s website confirms it has voluntarily stopped work at the site, however it declined to answer any further questions from Yahoo.

How did we get here?

Police had stood guard at Lee Point last week, allowing contractors from DHA to begin bulldozing the site. “This is my country,” Larrakia woman Lorraine Williams had shouted as she told the story of her land.

Left - Lorraine Williams. Right - A tree that was likely from 1759.
Larrakia woman Lorraine Williams wants to protect Lee Point, a site where many trees predate white settlement. Source: Environment Centre NT/Graeme Sawyer

“It’s upsetting for Larrakia because we are just seeing our country being demolished all the time. And it’s horrible. It’s actually really upsetting. And it’s not good for our health,” she told Yahoo in June.

Lee Point is home to endangered species, including a sizeable chunk of the remaining Gouldian finch population and the black-footed tree rat.

Some parts of the site cannot be bulldozed to protect the finches, but hundreds of trees, some of which are believed to be over 400 years old are set to be destroyed. Work at the site controversially began during NAIDOC Week, an annual time of remembrance and celebration of Indigenous culture.

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