A tree sacred to Indigenous Australians in Victoria has been vandalised in a “disgusting attack”, amid a long-running dispute over a major road upgrade.

An investigation is taking place after the sacred birthing tree near Buangor, 181km west of Melbourne, was spray painted with the words “build the road” and desecrated with three drill holes in its base earlier this month.

There are also fears the tree, which is significant to the Djab Wurrung people, was injected with poison.

Addressing the National Press Club last week, Proud Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, Senator Lidia Thorpe, labelled the move a “disgusting attack” that had left her “completely devastated”.

“The only way I can try and make the rest of the country understand the depth of pain we feel when sacred sights have been attacked is [by] likening it to the death of our mother – grief, loss, despair,” she said.

Major Road Projects Victoria (MRPV), which maintains the security of the site, confirmed test results showing chemicals have been referred to the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC). However, at this stage, impacts of the vandalism on tree health are unknown.

“We are deeply saddened by the desecration of the Birthing Tree due to the high nature of cultural significance the tree holds,” EMAC Acting Chief Executive Officer William Briggs said in a statement.

Protesters began calling for protection of the birthing trees in the area in 2018, which were due to be destroyed for a road project to duplicate the Western Highway.

Victoria’s supreme court later dismissed a case led by Djab Wurrung people to protect the trees in 2021, after state government lawyers decided they would no longer rely on a cultural heritage report previously approved by the relevant Indigenous body in 2013.

The project, which was due to be completed in 2020, is currency on hold while MPRV works with the Aboriginal Council to prepare a new Cultural Heritage Management Plan.

According to MRPV changes were made to the project design in 2019 to avoid a number of significant trees in the area, including the now-vandalised tree.

“We are continuing to work towards delivery of the Western Highway Upgrade between Buangor and Stawell to provide a safer, more-reliable journey for the road’s 6000-plus daily users,” a Major Road Projects Victoria Spokesperson said in a statement to news.com.au.

“We are currently working closely with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation as the Registered Aboriginal Party to prepare a Cultural Heritage Management Plan for the upgrade between Buangor and Ararat.

“We take seriously any incidents of trespass and vandalism at our sites and condemn recent acts that have impacted cultural heritage.”

The matter has been reported to Victoria Police and the First Peoples – State Relations has been informed, with an investigation currently taking place.

The EMAC has offered a $10,000 reward “for information that will lead directly to a prosecution and conviction for this act of harm to an Aboriginal Place”.

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