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Restorative approaches to environmental harms

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Australian local Council fined for destroying sacred tree

The Clarence Valley Council in New South Wales (Australia) has been fined $300,000 for destroying a tree it knew was sacred to the local Gumbaynggirr people . The scar tree , which was hundreds of years old, was registered as a culturally-modified tree on the Aboriginal Site Register in 1995, making it an offence to harm or desecrate it.

The Clarence Valley Council Aboriginal Elders said the scar tree was culturally significant to the Gumbaynggirr people. "It was a marker for the Aboriginal population in the area, directing them to an area now known as Fisher Park," said Brett Tibbett, a local Gumbaynggirr man, in an interview with ABC News. Lisa Southgate, who recorded the tree to protect it, it the same interview said she was shocked and saddened to learn what had happened: "Aboriginal objects such as this are extremely important to the Aboriginal community as they provide a link between the present and the past and people's ongoing links to the culture and landscape".

The Council has to pay the $300,000 penalty, in accordance with the outcome of the restorative justice conference, to the Grafton Ngerrie Local Aboriginal Land Council. The money will fund (1) a feasibility study to establish a ‘Keeping Place’ in the Grafton area for Aboriginal cultural heritage items, including the long-term storage and/or display of the scar tree; (2) research into local Aboriginal cultural heritage, including scar trees, to inform the development of educational resources to be toured in schools in 2019 and/or to establish a permanent exhibition in Grafton; and (3) fund a series of one-day ‘Clarence Valley Healing Festivals’ to be held in the various local Aboriginal communities in the Clarence Valley throughout 2019 and 2020 to celebrate Aboriginal culture and promote reconciliation through dance, arts and crafts, food, medicine, language and Elder talks.

These programs aim to recognize the active agency by Aboriginal people, as the knowledge holders and keepers of the cultural heritage, to redress the harm done and as such to redress the nonrecognition of Aboriginal cultural heritage and the Aboriginal people that the commission of the offense expressed.

This case is the first time after the Garrett v Williams-decision from 2007 that the New South Wales Land and Environment Court, presided by judge Brian Preston, allowed for a restorative justice conference to address the damaged relationships between the Clarence Valley Council and the Aboriginal community. The careless act by the Council not only physically destroyed the tree, it also caused emotional and cultural harm to the Gumbaynggirr people. During the conference the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and the General Manager of the Council each personally apologised for what had happened, as did the Council field workers who removed the tree. The Aborginal community accepted the apologies without reservation. The restorative agreement to which the participants of the conference agreed also included measures by the Council to increase awareness and cultural sensitivity among Council staff about sacred Aboriginal objects, improve Aboriginal consultations procedures in planning and development and improve Aboriginal employment opportunities.

Source: ABC News Australia
Photo credits: Jeff Thomas, supplied to ABC North Coast

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