- In northern Tanzania, more than 70,000 Indigenous Maasai residents are once again facing eviction from ancestral lands as the government reveals plans to lease the land to a UAE-based company to create a wildlife corridor for trophy hunting and elite tourism.
- Maasai leaders have filed an appeal at a regional court, seeking a halt to all plans for the area and calling the renewed attempt to seize the land a blatant violation of an injunction that barred the government from evicting Maasai communities in a case that involved violent evictions.
- According to sources, the regional commissioner of the region told Maasai leaders that the leasing of the land is in the national interest to increase the country’s tourism revenue and was a tough decision for the government to make.
- The timeline for the displacement of Maasai is still developing, while plans for the relocation of another group of Maasai in a UNESCO World Heritage Site will begin at the end of February.
In 2018, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) granted an injunction prohibiting the Tanzanian government from evicting Maasai communities from 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) of ancestral, legally registered land in the Loliondo division of Ngorongoro, northern Tanzania.
Today, 70,000 Maasai pastoralists are once again at risk of eviction after the government disclosed a plan to lease the same parcel of land to the Otterlo (sometimes spelled Ortello) Business Corporation (OBC), a company based in the United Arab Emirates, to create a wildlife corridor for trophy hunting and elite tourism.
OBC is a hunting firm said to be owned by the UAE royal family. According to the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank based in the U.S., OBC will control commercial hunting in the area. This is despite the company’s past involvement in several evictions of the Maasai people in the region and the killing of thousands of rare animals in the area, including lions and leopards.
The decision to lease the land to OBC was made known to Maasai leaders on Jan. 11, 2022, by John Mongella, the regional commissioner for the Arusha region, according to a statement by the Oakland Institute.
Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, quoted Mongella as telling Maasai leaders that the government planned to remove them from their land at some point this year, even if this decision will be painful to many.
A Maasai leader who spoke to Mongabay on the condition of anonymity said that Mongella continuously stressed that leasing the land is in the “national interest” and should therefore also be of priority to the Maasai people.
Renewed attempts to seize land
Approximately 15 villages within the proposed area would be impacted by the decision. The strip of land that is legally registered in the Loliondo division of Ngorongoro district is vital for Maasai pastoralists, who have sustainably stewarded the area for generations, according to the Oakland Institute.
Mittal said the creation of the wildlife corridor and the displacement of the communities would exacerbate hunger and poverty, given that pastoral livelihoods depend on the region’s grazing areas and water sources. The strip of land is part of the 4,000-km2 (1,544-mi2) Loliondo Game Controlled Area that became a multipurpose area for hunting, conservation and pastoralism.
Mittal said the Maasai have developed a symbiotic relationship that has allowed local ecology, domesticated livestock, and people to coexist in a resource-scarce environment.
“This local knowledge has been largely credited as allowing the large mammal population and ecological diversity to grow under the stewardship of the Maasai,” Mittal told Mongabay. “Replacing them with tourists and hunters will likely negatively impact the environment and health of wildlife populations.”
When informed of the decision, the Maasai leaders indicated they would not leave the area and have signed a statement opposing the plan.
On Jan. 13, thousands of Maasai gathered in Oloirien village, one of the communities in the area, where they staged a protest and promised to not leave the area until the government reverses the decision. Tanzania Wildlife Authority rangers, who were erecting border beacons for the wildlife corridor, were forced to leave the area after confrontations with the people of neighboring Malambo village, which brought the protests to an end. Leaders say protests will resume if the rangers return.
In addition, leaders of Oloirien, Ololosokwan, Kirtalo and Arash villages have filed an appeal at the East African Court of Justice, asking for a halt to all plans.
The leaders say the renewed attempts to seize the same land is a blatant violation of an injunction that barred the Tanzanian government from evicting Maasai communities from the area. This case involved violent government-led evictions of Maasai villages in August 2017.
At the time, under the instructions of the government, homes of Maasai families were burned to the ground leaving thousands homeless while several residents were arrested.
The injunction also prohibits the destruction of Maasai homesteads, the confiscation of livestock, and the office of the Inspector General of Police from harassing and intimidating the plaintiffs. The injunction remains in effect until a ruling on the full case can be heard. A hearing date has not yet been set.
“That the Maasai are once again facing eviction to please the UAE royal family shows the Tanzanian government continues to prioritize tourism revenues at the expense of the Indigenous pastoralists who have sustainable stewarded the area for generations,” Mittal said.
Tanzania’s economic development depends heavily on the private sector. Tourism contributes 17.2% to the country’s gross domestic product, and 25% of all foreign exchange revenues. In 2020, then-President John Magufuli announced that the government would put great emphasis on several economic sectors, including tourism.
Otterlo did not respond to several requests for comment through social media, and the telephone number listed for its office in Tanzania is no longer in service. The Oakland Institute’s attempts to reach out to Otterlo went unanswered.
Multiple relocation plans in motion
The Tanzanian government’s plan to evict the Maasai from Loliondo is not the only one in motion, but is rather part of a larger plan to resettle communities in the region to make space for a conservation area, tourism and hunting. There are preparations to implement a multiple land use and resettlement plan in the neighboring Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) that will relocate another 80,000-plus Maasai within the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The NCA is considered one of the most cinematic landscapes on the planet, seeing over 1 million wildebeest migrate through the area, and is home to the critically endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis).
According to Mittal, the first group of Maasai are expected to be relocated at the end of February. The NCA plan proposes to divide the conservation area into four zones. At least 82% of the area currently accessible for pastoralism will be designated as a conservation area, and the remaining 18% will be classified as multiple land use for human and wildlife. Evicted pastoralists in the World Heritage Site will be resettled to this 18% of land.
A Maasai activist and community representative, who requested anonymity, has appealed to the Tanzanian government to put a stop to its plans to evict communities and wait until the court case is concluded.
“The myth of protected areas takes away not only our rights as people but our ability to exercise our responsibilities related to land,” the leader said as he appealed for international support on behalf of his community, noting that Tanzania is a signatory to the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
CORRECTION: Current proposals for the removal of Maasai from Loliondo are still developing, but do not include relocating the Maasai from Loliondo to the NCA as stated in a previous version of this article.
Banner image: Maasai community in Kenya. Image courtesy of Wayne Tilford via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here:
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.