Hikurangi swamp and the Pukemiro Forest around Ngararatunua went from a plentiful food source for his hapu to being largely alienated within a generation, Ngati Kahu kaumatua Richard Shepherd has told the Waitangi Tribunal.
The tribunal yesterday wrapped up hearing week five of Te Paparahi O Te Taki inquiry into Northland Treaty claims at Forum North in Whangarei.
Mr Shepherd said he went into the army in 1956, aged 18, with the hapu in sound cultural position, retiring from the service 33 years later.
He said as a child the swamp and forest provided all the food the hapu needed. When he left home for the military, there was no indication that in 40-plus years things would have changed dramatically and his tribal way of living would be under threat.
"Reflecting on my 33 years in the military, on my service during the Malay emergency, operation on the Thailand border and the Vietnam conflict I realise that whilst deployed to these foreign places there has been a deliberate and systematic undermining of my culture," Mr Shepherd said.
He said by the 1970s the swamp was a shadow of its former self and the kai had began to disappear.
"I always expected the swamp would remain the swamp, the place where we could catch tuna, kewai, gather watercress, puha and taro and therefore fulfil the demands of our tikanga during hui or tangihana," Mr Shepherd said.
He said many Maori went overseas to fight for New Zealand in various wars.
"They were men of the land. The expectation was they would, on return, be repatriated to the land. This did not happen because in their absence land purchasing continued at such a pace that there was simply not enough Maori land left to go around."