- An investigation by the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, has turned up allegations that the government of Tanzania is sidelining the country’s Maasai population in favor of tourism.
- The government and some foreign investors worry that the Maasai, semi-nomadic herders who have lived in the Rift Valley for centuries, are degrading parts of the Serengeti ecosystem.
- The authors of the Oakland Institute’s report argue that approaches aimed at conservation should focus on the participation and engagement of Maasai communities rather than their removal from lands to be set aside for high-end tourism.
The government of Tanzania is casting aside Maasai communities to make way for lucrative high-end safari tourism and hunting, says the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, in a report published May 10.
The four-year investigation revealed that groups of the Maasai in the Loliondo division of northern Tanzania have been kept off lands vital to their survival so that wealthy safari-goers and foreign royalty can have unfettered access to East Africa’s iconic wildlife.
The policy has led to widespread hunger and fear among the population, said Anuradha Mittal, director of the California-based Oakland Institute.
After thousands of Maasai have been threatened or displaced, “Their sentiment is that the next person to be evicted and displaced will be me,” Mittal said in an interview with Mongabay. “This is a fear that the villagers live with.”
The report cites firsthand accounts, communications with and within a safari company, and government and legal documents. It argues that authorities, eager to keep the deep-pocketed tour companies that operate in Tanzania happy, are driving the Maasai into poverty and dependence on aid to maintain the country’s tourism sector. The reason they often give is the protection of the environment.
But this issue isn’t confined to Loliondo or Tanzania, Mittal said.
“This is not just about a specific company. This is not just about a specific government,” she said. “This is happening across the world in the name of conservation, in the name of economic opportunity for governments.”
Conservation and the Maasai
It’s difficult to pin down an exact figure, but perhaps a million or more Maasai live in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, stretching across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. For centuries, large numbers have grazed their livestock in the area around the Serengeti plain. The name Serengeti translates to “the place where the land runs forever” in Maa, the group’s language.
In the 1950s, the colonial government in charge of what is today Tanzania asked the Maasai to leave Serengeti National Park, which was created in 1951, so the area could be devoted entirely to conservation. The Maasai living in the region agreed and moved into the vicinity of the nearby Ngorongoro Crater. But when concerns arose that too many people living there would impact the wildlife, they were again asked to move, with many ending up in Loliondo division.
This pattern, the Oakland Institute contends, has continued, justified as efforts to keep ecosystems intact, but also as a way to maintain the flow of tourism dollars, mostly from high-end safaris, into the country. Restrictions by the government on where the Maasai could and could not go, as well as their ability to cultivate small farm plots and gardens, had by the 1990s led to widespread malnutrition, one study found. The authors, who published their research in the journal Human Organization, concluded that the government’s success in protecting the region’s wildlife was coming at the cost of the health of the semi-nomadic Maasai.
In 1992, Tanzania’s prime minister, John William Malecela, lifted the ban on gardens in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to ease the pressure on the Maasai, and laws passed in 1999 were aimed at codifying customary claims to land in Tanzania. But that wasn’t the end of the setbacks to the Maasai’s way of life, according to the Oakland Institute’s investigation.
Mittal and her colleagues point to an emblematic example of the challenges that Maasai communities face in Loliondo, centering on a piece of land originally called Sukenya Farm near the border with Kenya. In 2006, Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland, the owners of Thomson Safaris, a safari outfitter based in Watertown, Mass., that has operated in Tanzania since the 1980s, bought a 96-year lease on 12,617 acres (5,106 hectares) of land for $1.2 million. Thomson and Wineland intended to turn the land into a nature reserve, according to the company’s blog.
“Purchasing the land in Loliondo was a way to protect a wildlife corridor from Kenya to the Serengeti, to provide a refuge for the endangered wildlife, to provide a place for tourists to see wildlife in the wilderness, to walk amongst the wildlife in an authentic setting, to meet the [Maasai] who have been our friends for years and to provide benefits to the community around us,” Thomson told Mongabay in an email.
But it would also mire them in an ongoing dispute over the land that started in the early 1980s. In 1984, Tanzania Breweries Limited purchased 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of this land from the district council. The sale drew the ire of some of the local Maasai, who said they grazed their animals on the land and should have been consulted.
In the ensuing years, however, Tanzanian Breweries Limited didn’t use much of the land, ostensibly abandoning it in 1990. Meanwhile, the Maasai continued to move their herds through in search of grass and water, and they would set up traditional compounds called bomas in the area.
When Wineland and Thomson acquired Sukenya Farm through their company, Tanzania Conservation Limited (TCL), some of the adjacent Maasai communities objected. For one, the size of the land had grown to include an additional 2,617 acres that the Maasai say the brewing company illegally took several years before the sale. Maasai communities also said that once again, their traditional lands had been sold without their consent, and their lawyers argued that the Maasai communities’ use of Sukenya Farm in the preceding decades amounted to a legal claim on the land.
This all came as a surprise to Thomson and Wineland.
“Unbeknownst to us,” Thomson said, “we would be used as a pawn, a political football, in a broader game on the board of Loliondo that is a struggle between NGO local interests and national government interests for political, economic and territorial control of Loliondo.”
The land has been the subject of several court cases. In 2015, a Tanzanian court upheld TCL’s claim to the land for 10,000 acres, but said that the extra 2,617 acres had been illegally acquired.
If it should not have been part of the sale, Wineland contends that the addition happened before she and Thomson purchased it. “The title deed reads 12,617 acres,” she wrote in an email to the Oakland Institute on Nov. 21, 2017. “Any changes made to the size of the land did not happen under the ownership of the land by TCL.”
In the 12 years since TCL acquired the land, according to the report, Maasai communities point to several instances in which herders have been driven off the land, now called Enashiva Nature Refuge. The Oakland Institute surveyed the testimony by both sides of the recent court case over the land involving several communities and TCL, which alleges that at times TCL staff would call in the local police to force the Maasai off the land. That led to arrests, beatings, shootings and the destruction of bomas, the report says.
“All these will remain allegations as the villages could not provide evidence in court to prove any of the allegations,” Wineland wrote in her emailed response to the Oakland Institute.
Thomson also told Mongabay that Mittal’s team “failed in its due diligence” because it didn’t speak with representatives of Thomson Safaris while in Tanzania. Nor did the researchers include the perspectives of village leaders who are supportive of the company’s work.
Mittal said she aimed to find unvarnished accounts of what was happening in Loliondo, and she said that in village after village, she saw people who weren’t happy with TCL and Thomson Safaris’ presence in the area.
Thomson, who said that Thomson Safaris “vehemently” denies any allegations of abuse, insists that the company’s relationship with local communities is quite different than how it’s portrayed in the report.
“There are no conflicts with our neighbors, in fact we have letters requesting more dispensaries, water bore holes and school buildings,” he said, referring to the clinics, wells and schools that the company has helped fund in communities near Enashiva. Wineland also co-founded Focus on Tanzanian Communities, a nonprofit charity involved in social and economic development.
In his testimony during the court case, Thomson said, “The police are only called when the situation is escalating and people are feeling like they’re being threatened or something of that nature.”
However, Mittal points to internal communication within TCL that surfaced during the discovery phase of the litigation, indicating that TCL staff would call the commissioner of Ngorongoro district (which includes Loliondo) in response to herders grazing livestock, cutting wood or farming. The district commissioner would then call the police, according to court documents.
On July 30, 2012, a TCL staff member wrote in an email, “Nice to know that it is the [district commissioner] and police that are dealing with this, that we are out of that picture in the sense that we did not have face to face conflict and the usual thing of being accused of beating people …”
A hunting concession
In another part of Loliondo, a land dispute has long simmered between Maasai communities and the Otterlo (sometimes spelled Ortello) Business Corporation. In 1992, the Tanzanian government gave Otterlo permission to hunt on 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles) in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, which the Oakland Institute estimates is home to 50,000 Maasai.
Otterlo has a post office box and phone number listed in the city of Arusha. But its Twitter account is in Arabic, with a handful of posts related to conservation, poaching and community development, and Otterlo is reportedly controlled by people close to the royal family of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
The Oakland Institute reports that the license has effectively turned the Loliondo Game Controlled Area into a private hunting reserve for the family, complete with an airstrip and Emirati cellphone networks.
Otterlo has also played a part in keeping the Maasai from using the land, according to the report, as in a 2009 eviction of 200 bomas by Otterlo security and a government “paramilitary” unit. Accounts hold that the action affected 20,000 people and rendered 3,000 homeless. Government officials said the Maasai were evicted because their cultivation of the land was degrading it.
Otterlo did not respond to several requests for comment through social media, and the telephone number listed for the office in Tanzania is no longer in service. The Oakland Institute’s attempts to reach out to Otterlo by telephone and postal mail also went unanswered.
Mittal said she was skeptical of the conservation case for this and other evictions. Accusations have swirled around Otterlo’s practices, charging that the company’s guests have hunted threatened species like lions and leopards, used helicopters to collect live game, and left behind wounded animals.
“How do you call it conservation when you build airstrips, when you kill rare animals?” Mittal said.
Amid accusations of corruption, Otterlo lost its hunting license this year, and the new natural resources and tourism minister, Hamisi Kigwangalla, called for an investigation into Otterlo’s operations.
But in March 2018, members of the Emirati royal family reportedly visited the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, and Kigwangalla welcomed them with a tweet: “I hope you enjoy your experience in Tanzania. And please call again, and be our ambassadors. #VisitTanzania #MyTanzania.”
Kigwangalla did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comments, but he issued a statement in response to the Oakland Institute’s report, calling the conclusions in the report “misleading.” He said the government had intervened to protect wildlife and the environment along with human life, and had worked with Tanzanians, NGOs and investors.
“The Government of the United Republic of Tanzania will continue to cooperate with well-intentioned stakeholders in the conservation and development of the people in managing and sustaining existing resources in the area of Loliondo and other parts of the country in the broader interests of the Nation,” he added.
Continued evictions to protect the land
August 2017 brought another round of evictions by the government to the Loliondo area, this time driving 20,000 Maasai from their homes. There’s no indication that Otterlo or Thomson Safaris (or TCL) was involved in the lead-up to these expulsions. But the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism again indicated conservation was a primary goal, saying in a statement that the effort was meant to protect the environment and benefit tourism.
Thomson similarly invoked the need to address the impact that people have on the environment in his comments to Mongabay.
“Everyday [sic] we see the march of civilization trample over the reefs, the forests, the wildlife and habitats. Tanzania’s population is set to double in the next 25 years,” he said.
“The [Maasai] population with their livestock is [sic] no exception,” Thomson said. “At a national and local level, they are a current major pressure on their own environment and those that border them.”
But Mittal argues the Maasai and their livestock have lived in harmony with the wildlife of the Serengeti ecosystem for hundreds of years. And yet, Tanzania and other governments insist that pushing groups like the Maasai to the side is necessary for conservation.
“That is one of the purposes of the report … to question, what is true conservation?” she said.
“Unfortunately, this is a trend [in] conservation, despite us knowing better, that the best way to conserve is to have local communities involved and engaged,” she added. “In this case, our report points to the failure and perhaps even complicity of the Tanzanian government in sustaining the foreign corporations.”
Mittal sees some hope for the Maasai. Minority groups in Tanzania like the Maasai can apply for special land titles called Certificates of Customary Right of Occupancy that give communities the right to manage their traditionally held land, and they can’t be taken away. She also said restrictions on their cultivation of the land — a survival tool that has sustained the Maasai through droughts and is often overlooked in their characterization as purely nomadic herders — should be removed, especially for garden plots.
Above all, she wants the examples of the way the Maasai have been treated, as cataloged in the report, to inform future decisions on land use in Tanzania and beyond.
“I hope that they’ll be learning, not just the readers in the media, but really the policymakers and the government of Tanzania and private actors who are in these countries,” Mittal said, “to be able to do things differently and rectify the situation.”
Banner image of Maasai from the village of Naiyobi courtesy of the Oakland Institute.
John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
McCabe, J. T., Perkin, S., & Schofield, C. (1992). Can conservation and development be coupled among pastoral people? An examination of the Maasai of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. Human Organization, 353-366.
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