- A Maasai leader interviewed by Mongabay said that restrictions on crop cultivation and cattle grazing at Ngorongoro are causing widespread hunger and despair.
- On Thursday, the Oakland Institute and Rainforest Rescue delivered a petition with 94,000 signatures to UNESCO and the Tanzanian government, asking them to scrap a rezoning plan that could displace tens of thousands of people.
- While tourism to Ngorongoro has spiked in recent years, the share of profits spent on community development has dropped significantly.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in northern Tanzania. Widely considered to be one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, the NCA is home to 115 species of mammal alone, including the famed “Big Five” of the African safari scene: elephants, buffaloes, rhinos, leopards and lions. Long a staple of nature documentaries, the “great migration” of millions of wildebeest through Ngorongoro gives rise to cinematic showdowns between predators and prey. Archaeological discoveries made there have provided some of the best evidence that humankind itself originated in Africa.
But long before there were cameras, pickaxes, or 4x4s in Ngorongoro, there were the Maasai people. For hundreds of years, the Maasai have walked the plains of northern Tanzania, grazing cattle and building small clusters of fenced-in homes called boma. But despite predating the existence of the Tanzanian state, many of them say officials in charge of the NCA are doing everything they can to push them out of Ngorongoro.
“The restrictions are getting harder and harder,” one Maasai leader who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisal told Mongabay. “They want to reduce the number of people staying in the area.”
On Sept. 9, the advocacy groups Oakland Institute and Rainforest Rescue delivered a petition with 94,000 signatures to UNESCO’s World Heritage Center and the Tanzanian government, calling for the cancellation of a plan to rezone the NCA that they said could lead to the displacement of 80,000 people. Earlier this year, the governing body in charge of the NCA issued eviction notices to 45 people and ordered the destruction of 100 buildings in what researchers say was an attempted first step toward implementing that plan.
“There’s a long history of people being marginalized who live there, all in the name of conservation. It started with the colonial powers and remains today,” said Arunadha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute and co-author of a report criticizing the treatment of the Maasai in Ngorongoro.
The eviction notice was canceled days later following public outcry in and outside of Tanzania, but threats to the Maasai in the region aren’t new. In 2018, the Oakland Institute documented cases of homes being burned in the neighboring Lilondo Game Controlled Area, in what the group said was an attempt to keep Maasai pastoralists from disturbing safari operations.
Most of the Maasai who live in Ngorongoro were driven there in the late 1950s to clear the way for its more famous neighbor, Serengeti National Park. To sweeten the deal, British colonial administrators promised that the newly created 809,440-hectare (2-million-acre) NCA would be a “multiple use” area, where pastoralists could graze their cattle and preserve their livelihoods alongside conservation and tourism management.
But in subsequent years, authorities imposed harsh restrictions on permitted activities by the Maasai, culminating in a ban on the cultivation of crops in 2009. The Maasai in the NCA say the heavy-handed rules have led to widespread hunger and poverty, forcing some to take dangerous jobs outside of their traditional way of life.
“The restriction of cultivation has affected people’s lives. Since they cut off cultivation, a lot of children have experienced malnutrition, and youth started to move out to seek other work like being a watchman or security guard,” said the Maasai leader. “Some of them have been killed.”
In a report released earlier this year by the PINGO’s Forum, a Tanzanian pastoralist rights group, Maasai interviewees said the restrictions were causing widespread despair in the NCA.
“Driven by hunger and poverty women and youths are leaving Ngorongoro because hunger is no longer bearable. In distant lands women and children are victimized by criminals. Some women have died of hunger. It is genocide against Ngorongoro pastoralists,” one woman told researchers.
In 2019, a joint monitoring mission by global conservation authority the IUCN, UNESCO, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) released an assessment of the state of the NCA. The population of wildebeest and “other animals” was said to be stable, but the assessment cited tourism impacts, the presence of invasive plant species, and an increase in the number of people living in the NCA as threats to its “outstanding universal value.” Around 10,000 Maasai lived in the NCA shortly after its establishment in 1960; now, the number of people in the NCA is said to be closer to 100,000, partially due to an influx of migrants from nearby areas who arrived before crop cultivation was banned.
Among the concerns expressed in the joint mission’s report was the construction of houses with modern materials inside the NCA, which were described as “out of context.”
In the assessment’s wake, the Tanzanian government released its own plan to address overpopulation in the NCA by changing the terms of its land-use model. If implemented, the proposal would further restrict the amount of land where the Maasai can graze cattle or live; non-Indigenous migrants would be asked to leave; and incentives would be offered to Maasai living in the NCA to resettle elsewhere.
“They are doing all this to the Maasai communities because they want to push people out and give the wildlife priority, and the only way to do that is to prevent Maasai people from grazing so these areas are just for wildlife,” said the Maasai leader interviewed by Mongabay.
Over the past few decades, the number of tourists visiting Ngorongo has skyrocketed. In 1984, around 55,000 people visited the NCA; by 2018, the number was 650,000, generating around $55 million in tourist revenues. Near the famed Ngorongoro Crater, high-end lodges built to cater to wealthy visitors dot the landscape, complete with the infrastructure to service them.
But as the influx of cash from tourists has grown, the cut directed toward the Maasai has dropped sharply. In 2014, 12.6% of NCA income was spent on “community development.” In 2018, it was only 4.8%.
“Tanzania and UNESCO talk about the potential for economic growth with tourism, but nobody’s concerned with the impact of tourism on the environment,” Mittal said. “Their concern is the people who have conserved that environment for a very long time.”
Maasai in the NCA say that they’re not opposed to the government’s efforts to reduce the number of migrants living there, but that any changes made to the land-use plan should bring an end to the restrictions on their livelihoods, not new ones. No matter what happens, they say, the idea of leaving their home is a non-starter.
“We are not going anywhere,” said the Maasai leader. “We don’t know where we would go.”
Banner image: Maasai women in a community conservation project in Kenya, image by Joan de la Malla.