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Indigenous Peoples

Maasai evicted from their lands to make space for trophy tourism in the Serengeti

Indigenous Maasai people have been ordered to leave their homeland in Tanzania’s Serengeti Park for it to be turned into a hunting ground for tourists, a report highlights.

Maasai people from four villages in Loliondo, on the outskirts of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, famous for the annual wildebeest migration, are being evicted from territories they’ve occupied for thousands of years, according to an investigation by think tank the Oakland Institute, in a case of land grabbing. The Maasai represent one of the largest known pastoral groups worldwide, with about one million people roaming across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, but “hundreds of homes have been burned and tens of thousands of people driven from ancestral lands in recent years to benefit high-end tourists,” the report highlights.

Read more:

Serengeti national park rangers burned 114 bomas (traditional homes) © Conservation Watch
A Maasai bomas (traditional home) burnt down by Serengeti Park rangers © Mulemwa Ochilo

Maasai and foreign trophy hunters’ coexistence

Tensions between the Maasai and the Tanzanian regime began in 1992, when the latter licensed Otterlo Business Corporation, owned by a senior official of the United Arab Emirates government, to organise hunting expeditions in Loliondo, a 4,000 square kilometre stretch of land on the edge of the Serengeti Park in northern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya.

Maasai and foreign trophy hunters managed to coexist © Conservationist watch
Maasai people and foreign trophy hunters managed to coexist © Mulemwa Ochilo

For almost two decades the indigenous herding communities and foreign trophy hunters managed to coexist. Until 2009, when the Tanzanian regime imposed stiff laws that completely prohibited the indigenous people from farming and herding cattle within a 1,500 square kilometre stretch of the Lolondio Game Controlled Area, where licensed hunting is allowed.

On the back of these laws, armed agents swooped into the area, arresting and torturing its inhabitants and demolishing hundreds of homesteads.

Read more: LifeGate’s Manifesto on how to organise responsible travel

masaai man arrested serengeti tanzania
This Maasai man was arrested, beaten, tortured and forced to leave his ancestral land by the police © Mulemwa Ochilo

Activists point to abuses

Not surprisingly, environmental and conservationist activist have cried foul. Despite tourism being a major revenue contributor towards Tanzania’s national budget, critics say the government has prioritised safari firms at the expense of indigenous communities.

tanzania human rights activist
Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, head of the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre © LHRC

“What is appalling to us is that the government has been reviewing boundaries and subsequently evicting communities in the name of conservation,” Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, head of the Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre, denounces. “This really makes me weep because the pastoral lifestyle of these indigenous people will become a thing of the past,” she said.

She continued, pointing out that it’s shocking that the Tanzanian government can choose to sign what she describes as a death warrant for thousands of animals, in exchange for money. “The only reason there are still big cats and large game animals in the Serengeti National Park is because the Maasai are involved in the conservation process,” she concluded.

oakland institute serengeti report
Tourism in Serengeti National Park © Tanzania Media

Trophy firms encroaching on customary land rights

Since Otterlo was first granted 400,000 hectares of land for hunting, the government has mounted successive eviction operations. “The company has warned the area needs greater ecological protection because herds are increasing while water sources are drying up due to climate change,” says Auradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. He also wonders why the Tanzanian government has chosen to side with a safari company who is encroaching on the customary land rights of the Maasai community.

Moreover, in defiance of past governments’ promises that the Maasai would never be evicted from their land, the report notes Serengeti Park rangers burned 114 bomas (traditional homes) in 2015 and another 185 in August last year. Along with other demolitions, local media report more than 20,000 Maasai have been left homeless.

Read more: Sustainable tourism, a practical guide

Tanzania's Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Hamisi Kigwangalla
Tanzania’s Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Hamisi Kigwangalla © The Citizen

Activists cooking up stories?

Tanzania’s Tourism Minister Hamisi Kigwangalla said he was aware that a hearing had begun in court in which the Maasai people have sued the Tanzanian government. “There are no human rights violations and the government has found a solution to the conflict in Loliondo that is acceptable to all sides, these NGOs are just cooking up stories,” he maintained.

Meanwhile, Tom Kuirrung, a victim of the ongoing evictions in Serengeti Park complained of police brutality, adding that he and his fellow cattle herders are so afraid of authorities that, “we flee when we see vehicles approaching because we think they’re hunters who have connived with the state to arrest and beat us,” in his own words. He described Kigwangalla’s assertions as baseless and ridiculous.

masaai women protesting tanzania serengeti
A Maasai woman holds a placard that reads “We will fight for our land until the end” © Mulemwa Ochilo

The impact on livestock, deprived of water

One Maasai quoted in the report said Thomson Safari, another hunting firm operating in the area, “has built a camp in the middle the village, blocking access to waterholes and fertile soils. Imagine this, a stranger comes and constructs a big building in the centre of your home; how can you feel,” reads their testimony.

“It’s frustrating because our livestock can’t go to the waterholes because we’re constantly beaten, arrested and sometimes threatened or tied-up and driven off by uniformed armed officers. Our cattle are dying and sadly there are no other alternatives routes for us to access streams or fertile land to cultivate,” the Maasai details.

tanzania children malnourished
Restricted access to land has made the indigenous people more vulnerable to severe famine during drought and this has led to a rise in malnourished children © Tanzania Media

Famine and malnutrition loom

The restricted access to land has made the indigenous people more vulnerable to severe famine during drought years, and all the appeals locals have made for the government to change policy, in response to a growing number of children becoming malnourished, haven’t been fruitful.

Read more: How agriculture and climate change are related: causes and effects

serengeti masaai fear trophy hunters
Trophy hunters in the Serengeti National Park have left behind a climate of fear, so much so that young herders flee when they see vehicles approaching, thinking it might be the authorities or investors coming for them ©Mulemwa Ochilo

Working with local communities?

Responding to the findings through a press query, Thomson Safari rejected the accusations levied against it, saying: “Our company employs 100 per cent Maasai staff, allows cattle on the property to access seasonal water and we’re also working with local communities and the government to conserve the savannah in terms of improving access to water and formulating a sustainable grazing policy,” the company stated in an email.

It was also quick to shift the blame for this and past conflicts in the Serengeti on NGO activists. “These activists stirred up villagers and led to staff being assaulted by young warriors armed with clubs, spears, knives and poison arrows,” it complained.

Donald Deya of the Pan African Lawyers Union
Donald Deya of the Pan African Lawyers Union, who is representing the Maasai in the lawsuit, said the Tanzanian government is intimidating witnesses from appearing in court © Pan African Union

Maasai people ask witness intimidation to stop

The Maasai people who sued the Tanzanian government for the right to return to their villages, now occupied due to hunting activities, have asked a regional court to stop the government intimidating witnesses supporting their legal bid to move back to their ancestral land.

“What is shocking at this moment is that the government is trying to intimidate the villagers to withdraw the case. The police have gone back to the community, they’re summoning leaders and arresting them. So far about seven men have been charged with attending an unlawful meeting,” Donald Deya, CEO of the Pan African Lawyers Union, who is representing the Maasai community in court, said.

Featured image: Young Maasai boys pose for a photo. They’re more vulnerable to severe famine during drought and this has led to a rise in malnourished children © Tanzania Media
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