Indigenous woman Sissy Austin says a legal fight to save trees of cultural significance in western Victoria has taken a deep toll on her community.
Djab Wurrung traditional owners are trying to protect six trees they say are threatened by a Western Highway duplication project near Ararat.
A temporary ban on works is in place until a full legal challenge – a test of Aboriginal heritage protections – can be heard later this year.
Ms Austin gave evidence on Friday to a federal inquiry set up to examine Indigenous heritage protection after the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.
She said Djab Wurrung people were forced to put “bodies on the frontline” to save the trees because they weren’t properly protected by legislation.
“The power of Djab Wurrung country is indescribable and its the power of that country that has carried us throughout this battle,” she said.
“That hasn’t come without a toll. The toll it has taken on our elders has been heartbreaking.
“This long frustrating, dehumanising fight has taken such a deep toll on all of our spirits.”
Sections of the road duplication project have been completed but a 12.5km stretch of the highway – the main route between Melbourne and Adelaide – is being held up.
Authorities have said of the six identified trees of significance, only one has been earmarked for removal.
Ms Austin said she was left crying on the floor of a hospital where she was staying when a sacred directions tree was torn down in October last year.
Djab Wurrung lawyer Michael Kennedy told the inquiry an independent comparison of the road works with an alternative proposed northern route was required.
Committee chair Warren Entsch said the pain experienced by First Nations peoples over loss of heritage impacts communities in every jurisdiction.
The inquiry, which is expected to deliver its final report by October, also heard on Friday concerns from members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre who say access to a sacred cave in the southwest is controlled by the state government despite being owned by the Indigenous community.
“The committee understands that there can be conflict between the interests of First Nations peoples and other stakeholders. We need to get better at resolving these conflicts,” Mr Entsch said.