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Indigenous Maasai ask the United Nations to intervene on reported human rights abuses

Tanzania protest Ngorongoro

Maasai residents protesting after Arusha's Regional Commissioner John Mongella revealed plans to lease 1,500 square kilometers of ancestral land to United Arab Emirate (UAE) based Ortello Business Company. Image courtesy of Oakland Institute.

  • Maasai delegates at the United Nations conference on Indigenous people are calling on the forum to increase pressure on the Tanzanian government to address evictions, forced displacement and thousands of seized cattle in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo.
  • Land disputes at both sites have been grinding on for years after the government revealed plans to lease the land to a UAE-based company to create a wildlife corridor for trophy hunting and elite tourism.
  • Last year, the dispute reached a boiling point when Tanzanian police officers and authorities shot and beat dozens of Maasai villagers who protested the demarcation of their ancestral land. One Maasai man and one police officer have been killed.
  • At the United Nations forum, a Tanzanian government representative rejected accusations brought against it, pointing to a recent court ruling in its favor and a visit by an African human rights commission.

This story is published as part of the Global Indigenous Affairs Desk, an Indigenous-led collaboration between Grist, High Country News, ICT, Mongabay, and Native News Online.

NEW YORK—In Tanzania, the Indigenous Maasai say they face an ongoing, violent campaign to evict them from their lands and make way for protected conservation areas and hunting reserves. This week, the Maasai are in New York to ask the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, or UNPFII, to tell the Tanzanian government to stop taking their cattle, remove its security forces, establish a commission to investigate disputed lands and displaced people, and allow international human rights monitors to visit without restrictions.

“We, the Maasai people of Loliondo and Ngorongoro in Tanzania, are fighting against the Tanzanian government and wildlife trophy hunters who are threatening our livelihood, culture, ancestral wisdom, legacy, and basic human rights,” Edward Porokwa, executive director of the Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organization’s Forum, said. “There is no justification for this crisis created by the government.”

The Maasai land conflict in Tanzania is focused on two main areas: the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts over half a million visitors every year for safaris to see the park’s “Big 5” game — elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and rhinoceros. Around 80,000 Indigenous Maasai call the park home, but have faced decades of government efforts to push them off their land.

In a statement delivered at the Permanent Forum, Porokwa said that, since June 2022, the government has closed four nursery schools, nine water sources, and six mobile health clinics. The government says that Maasai are voluntarily leaving the area for resettlement sites. But the Maasai delegates say that they are essentially being forced out. “It is a forceful relocation by ensuring that people don’t get the basics,” Porokwa said. “They are there to die.”

And in Loliondo, which is legally registered Maasai village land, state security forces shot at Maasai villagers during last June’s protests over police demarcation of their land for a trophy hunting and safari reserve. In the violent confrontation, dozens of Maasai were injured and many fled across the nearby border to Kenya for medical attention. At least two dozen others were arrested, while some were not permitted to leave their homes.

Maasai pastoralists protest move to demarcate ancestral land in Loliondo, Tanzania. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.
Maasai pastoralists at a 2017 protest against evictions in Loliondo, Tanzania. In September 2018, the East African Court of Justice prohibited these communities’ eviction from this area. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

Last June, nine United Nations experts raised concern about forced evictions and resettlement plans, but the Maasai representatives at the United Nations say that the government has not changed its approach.

The Maasai delegates say that since June 2022, Tanzania has taken or killed over 600,000 of their cows and demanded over $2.5 million in fines for grazing. This is all part of what Maasai say is a massive campaign to destroy their pastoralist way of life.

At the Permanent Forum, a representative from the Tanzanian government pushed back on the Maasai’s claims, pointing to the East African Court of Justice’s 2022 dismissal of an eviction case brought by the Maasai, stating that the Maasai could not prove their claims about violent evictions. The Oakland Institute, a US-based nonprofit that advocates for Indigenous rights, called the ruling a “shocking blow to Indigenous land rights.” Tanzanian representatives at UNPFII declined to further comment on the matter.

Gatekeeping by the government

In January, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights conducted a monitoring visit to investigate the situation. But Maasai community organizations say that at every step, the visit was controlled by the government. Commission representatives were shepherded around by state security forces who intimidated Maasai and excluded them from some meetings, they say. Some Maasai waited for hours to speak with the Commission, only for them to never show up.

While the Commission’s final report on the visit did express concern about the situation, it also commended Tanzania’s commitment to protecting human rights. The Commission also recommended starting new consultations with the Maasai, as well as addressing their concerns about the resettlement program.

Maasai women in a community conservation project in Kenya, image by Joan de la Malla.

In December, José Francisco Calí Tzay, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples was scheduled for a week-long visit to Tanzania, but the visit was indefinitely postponed. Maasai leaders believe that the visit was scuttled out of concern that the special rapporteur would not be given full access to investigate. At the Permanent Forum, Calí Tzay called for a halt to the evictions and for the government to consult with the Maasai, but did not address the postponed visit.

With few options remaining, the Maasai have turned to the Permanent Forum to raise their concerns. Briane Keane is the director of Land is Life, an international organization that works with Indigenous peoples, including providing travel funding, medical assistance, and security assessments to the Maasai. Keane says that the United Nations is an important platform for the Maasai.

“It’s a place where they can be heard. The government of Tanzania is not listening,” he said.

The Maasai hope that international pressure may convince the government to finally listen to their concerns. But speaking out on the international level also comes with risks. Several leaders who spoke out against government abuses were forced to flee the country for their safety.

“Indigenous peoples are the most among the most criminalized peoples of the world,” said Keane. “There’s people being thrown in jail. There are threats. So, it’s very dangerous work sticking up for your rights when you’re as marginalized as the Maasai are in Tanzania.”


Banner image: A Maasai man in Maasai Mara, Kenya. Image by Kent Yoshimura via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at two new studies of African wildlife using bioacoustics and take a listen to some of the recordings informing that research. Listen here:

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Tanzania, siding with UAE firm, plans to evict Maasai from ancestral lands

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