The Maasai have suffered over a century of forced evictions from their ancestral lands in Tanzania in the name of both game hunting and conservation. Has recognition that global biodiversity goals depend on indigenous peoples come too late?
A Maasai in Ngorongoro [Source Credit: Clément Martin]
Abel, a Maasai herder (1), and his extended family welcomed us to their boma – a compound with round huts and a corral with an acacia thorn and nettle fence – in the Loliondo area of Tanzania’s northern Arusha region. The fence protects their livestock from predators, though nowadays they are less worried about lions (which find easier prey on the savannah) than about the authorities: ‘Please don’t photograph our faces, or anything that could identify this place,’ Abel said.
He had reason to be wary: he and 20 other Maasai had just spent five months in Arusha prison. ‘There were 70 people in a cell meant for 25,’ he said. ‘They’re going after influential people and traditional leaders, anyone who’s educated or in touch with Western organisations [that defend indigenous rights],’ such as Survival International (based in the UK) or the Oakland Institute (US). ‘They’re trying to stop us organising against OBC.’
OBC (Otterlo Business Corporation) is a safari company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has run trophy hunting tours to Tanzania since 1992. On 6 June last year the Arusha regional administration announced that a 1,500-sq km area within the Loliondo Game Controlled Area (LGCA, north of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and east of Serengeti National Park) would be cleared of its human population and turned over to OBC for its exclusive use. During the next few days, police marked out the area with white posts.
Abel said, ‘The Loliondo district commissioner told us “It’s a presidential order. You must comply, and we’ll discuss the details later.” Of course, we protested. We wanted to hear about these “details” and our future status in this country – whether we’d still be treated as full citizens. Things got heated and we ended up spending the night in police cells.’ Meanwhile, Maasai in boma right across the area that was being marked out were tipping each other off by mobile phone and confronting the police.
In the night of 9-10 June, some of the marker posts were uprooted and next morning the police tried to disperse protesters using tear gas and live ammunition. Images of the clashes, in which dozens of people were wounded, went viral worldwide. Some of the Maasai were armed with assegai (spears) and bows, and a police officer was killed by an arrow.
Seeking safety in Kenya
Hundreds of Maasai fled to neighbouring Kenya, where they stayed with relatives (semi-nomadic, many have family on both sides of the border). Meanwhile, Tanzania’s home affairs minister Hamad Masauni tightened border security and ordered an investigation of NGOs operating in Loliondo. In late November, after those leaders arrested during the protests were released without charge, many of the Maasai who had crossed over to Kenya returned.
The evictions are thought to have affected some 70,000 Maasai. Abel said, ‘They started by fining anyone who crossed the boundary line 100,000 shillings [around $40].’ Because the Maasai rarely have cash and usually barter for goods and services, many had to sell their cattle ‘at low prices, because it was the dry season and they were thin’, one of those present said. ‘If people couldn’t pay, the authorities seized their livestock.’ An investigation by the Oakland Institute found that 5,880 cattle and 767 sheep and goats were seized in November and December (2); and the confiscations continued in January.
I used to live here. These are the graves of my ancestors. They’ve given my land to people who’ve been relocated. I can’t come here any more. Lukas Simeon
‘It’s all in the name of conservation,’ said Abel. ‘But the government can’t teach us anything about conservation. Unlike these rich foreigners, we don’t kill wild animals – we’ve always lived alongside them. We’re not the ones endangering them. You find more wildlife in areas where Maasai live, whether it’s in Tanzania or Kenya.’
For many years the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, formerly World Wildlife Fund) took the view that nature reserves should have no human inhabitants. Both now recognise the part that agro-pastoralists and hunter-gatherers play in conservation: ‘Global biodiversity goals … will be unattainable without full inclusion of indigenous [peoples] and local communities [IPLC]’ (3). The figures speak for themselves: ‘91% of IPLC lands are considered to be in good or fair ecological condition and at least 36% of … currently identified Key Biodiversity Areas lie within IPLC lands.’
Tourist 4×4s gathering at the lunch break area in Ngorongoro [Source Credit: Clément Martin]
Maasai evictions in Kenya
In 1904 and 1911 the colonial authorities in Kenya – then part of British East Africa, while Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania without Zanzibar) was part of German East Africa – evicted the Maasai from 50-70% of their ancestral lands to make way for game and British hunters (who had all but exterminated the Indian subcontinent’s tigers in 50 years) (4). In the 1950s West German animal conservationist Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael promoted the idea that Africa’s unspoilt natural environment was under threat from Africans themselves. Their film Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959), shot in Tanzania (then Tanganyika), won the 1960 Oscar for best documentary feature. This success helped Grzimek to persuade the British, and later Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere, to clear the Serengeti and Ngorongoro of their human population.
Grzimek, a veterinary surgeon in the Wehrmacht before the second world war and later director of the Frankfurt am Main zoo, was also a member of the Nazi party, so his plan could be seen as racist. Historian Guillaume Blanc points out that while agro-pastoralism is recognised as contributing to biodiversity conservation in France’s Cévennes National Park, the prevalent view is still that ‘in Africa, a nature reserve should be empty’ (5). Blanc calls this ideal of nature without human inhabitants ‘green colonialism’: ‘The white man’s burden of civilisation in the colonial era was replaced by the Western expert’s burden of ecology.’ To this way of thinking, ‘the modern, civilised world must continue to save Africa from Africans.’
As African countries gained independence in the 1950s and 60s, many former colonial administrators found a second career in park management. The new states turned game reserves into wildlife sanctuaries to promote tourism (which generated 10% of Tanzania’s GDP before the pandemic (6)) and began imposing rules on ethnic minorities whose way of life (nomadism, hunting and gathering, nakedness) they considered incompatible with centralised government and modernity.
But although the Maasai have a strong warrior tradition and many are still semi-nomadic, they are no longer hunters: the days when a young man had to kill a lion to prove his strength are gone. Maasai herders also try to prevent any contact between their cattle and wild gnu, which carry diseases such as malignant catarrhal fever. The livestock maintain the savannah by grazing and fertilising it with their dung: in the Serengeti, whose Maasai population was evicted in 1959, rangers have to cut back the vegetation regularly to keep down the invasive plant species Bidens pilosa.
After more evictions in 1974, herbivore diversity decreased (7). Abel said, ‘We’re already seeing the impact of global warming: this is January, which is normally the middle of the rainy season, but it’s hardly raining at all. On top of that, we’ve got OBC. I don’t know what’s going to become of us – it’s completely changing our way of life.’
OBC belongs to Al Ali Holdings, owned by the UAE’s deputy defence minister General Mohammed Abdulrahim Al-Ali, who was named in the 2016 Panama Papers. Dubai’s emir Muhammad Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and his son Hamdan are among its clients. On social media, OBC is silent on the recent violence in Loliondo, but has posted photos of Maasai women at a well dug by the UAE Water Aid Foundation, established by the Al-Maktoum Foundation. On 13 December 2017 it tweeted, ‘The local communities surrounding every hunting concession should benefit through the community development programmes.’
Evictions from the LGCA
Yet for the last 15 years Tanzanian police have frequently evicted Maasai from the LGCA, where OBC was already permitted to operate. The company boasts it offers ‘sustainable’ hunting, but the local press and Kenyan NGO Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition were already condemning its excesses in 2002: these included using helicopters to herd animals towards locations where they are easier to shoot, setting up salt-licks to attract them, and exceeding quotas (8). The LGCA lies on the migration routes of herbivores and their predators between Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve. In the 2000s Kenya (which banned trophy hunting in 1977) observed a marked fall in the numbers of migrating animals arriving from Loliondo. OBC’s 1,500-sq km reserve has its own landing strip, which enables direct flights to the Gulf, and some Maasai suspect wildlife is being trafficked to Dubai Safari Park.
Violence linked to the Loliondo evictions came to public attention in July 2009, when police from the Field Force Unit burned some 200 bomas, forcing their inhabitants to flee. This eviction was illegal under Tanzanian law (OBC’s hunting licence implies no land rights (9)) and was condemned by Tanzania’s human rights and good governance commission, the Danish ambassador to Tanzania, Bjarne H Sorensen, and the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya. There were further evictions in 2013 and 2017.
The government can’t teach us anything about conservation. Unlike these rich foreigners, we don’t kill wild animals – we’ve always lived alongside them. You find more wildlife in areas where Maasai live. Abel
In October 2017 Tanzania’s president John Pombe Magufuli dismissed Jummane Maghembe, the natural resources and tourism minister. His replacement, Hamisi Kigwangalla, stopped the evictions, ordered the return of seized livestock, asked the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau to investigate, and dismissed a number of officials suspected of giving preferential treatment to OBC, including the ministry’s wildlife director Alexander Songorwa and some security officers (10). OBC’s Tanzanian executive director, Isaac Mollel, was even imprisoned for a time. Abdulrahman Kinana, then secretary-general of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Party of the Revolution), was accused of taking bribes from the UAE and forced to resign in May 2018. OBC’s days in Tanzania seemed numbered.
Then, in March 2021, Magufuli died. He was succeeded by Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who is on good terms with the UAE (for her official visit to Dubai in February 2022, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper was lit up in the colours of the Tanzanian flag). She backed the controversial Kinana’s candidacy for vice-chairman of the CCM last April.
A rural Maasai market at Ngare Sero between Ngorongoro and Loliondo [Source Credit: Clément Martin]
'We've been betrayed'
Four months after visiting Dubai, Hassan ordered OBC’s 1,500-sq km reserve to be enclosed and its population removed – carefully avoiding any mention of ‘evictions’. ‘Everyone’s scared. My family were evicted from the Serengeti in 1959,’ said Charles, a Maasai leader. ‘The agreement with the British at the time was that we’d never be evicted again. We’ve been betrayed.’
Tanzania’s current ‘relocation’ policy also covers the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Established in 1959 thanks to the Grzimeks, it covers 8,288 sq km and includes the world’s largest unbroken and unflooded caldera (collapsed crater of an extinct volcano), measuring more than 300 sq km. It attracts half a million tourists a year.
Though the Maasai were evicted from the caldera in 1974, the rest of the NCA is ‘multi-use’ – which means agro-pastoralism is tolerated, and it has at least 80,000 Maasai inhabitants (many descended from families evicted from the Serengeti), with boma, permanent houses, schools and a hospital. However, since January 2022 the authorities have expressed concern that it is becoming overpopulated (in the 1960s there were only a few thousand Maasai). Hassan says that ‘Ngorongoro is getting lost’ and has established a ‘voluntary relocation scheme’.
In February 2022 prime minister Kassim Majaliwaa met people from Ngorongoro and ‘suggested’ they leave. But those we talked to said that, in fact, ‘everything was already decided. They’d started building houses for displaced families in Handeni in December.’ Each family would be given a house, two hectares of land and 10m shillings ($4,300) in compensation. As of January 2022 some 5,000 Maasai had already left Ngorongoro and 5,000 more were preparing to go; close to 150,000 from Loliondo and Ngorongoro may eventually be evicted. On 15 June the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned this as ‘arbitrary displacement prohibited under international law’ without ‘free, prior and informed consent’ (11).
Philip is head of a boma near the Ngorongoro crater. After their 4×4 safari, some tourists come to experience Maasai culture: they watch traditional dancing and singing, see fire made by rubbing sticks together, visit a traditional hut, and buy Maasai handicraft products, especially bracelets made of multi-coloured beads. Maasai nowadays often greet tourists with the words hakuna matata (‘no problem’ in Swahili), an expression popularised by Disney’s The Lion King (1994) – and trademarked by the studio.
Besides encouraging people to leave Ngorongoro by offering them new homes elsewhere, the government is steadily scaling back services available inside the NCA. The area’s only hospital, at Endulen, run by the Catholic Church since 1965, treats around 20 patients a day. No longer receiving government subsidies, it has had to cut staff numbers and has been downgraded to a clinic. Since 2021 the government has issued no permits for building inside the NCA, preventing renovation.
The Flying Medical Service, an Arusha-based nonprofit that provides an air ambulance service for isolated bomas, is no longer permitted to cover Ngorongoro. On a (discreet) tour of Endulen by car, we saw abandoned houses and bomas being demolished to prevent anyone moving in. Workmen were also demolishing the Osotwa Primary School, which used to have 400 pupils; eight more schools are to go, as well as four churches and a police station.
Daniel, our source in Endulen, said, ‘This isn’t Loliondo. There are too many witnesses here, and violence is incompatible with tourism, so the pressure to leave is more subtle.’ With no access to healthcare or education, people will have to go. Five luxury hotels may be built in Endulen. ‘Conservation is just an excuse: they want to develop tourism. And that will have a much bigger impact on the environment than the Maasai.’
Former Ngorongoro residents have been forced to move to Msomera, a village 600km to the east in the coastal Tanga region. Maasai have lived in this more densely populated region for generations. They have settled down to farming (maize, beans) and their way of life is very different from that of the semi-nomadic Maasai back west. Some of Msomera’s original Maasai residents told us they were dismayed when the government started building houses for the newcomers on their land. Feeling they had no more to lose, they waived anonymity, despite the risks, and took us to see for ourselves in a car with tinted windows, by a roundabout route to avoid army roadblocks.
'We've survived on our families' help'
‘Our land has been given to people from Ngorongoro,’ said William Kanyinge, a traditional leader in his 60s who carried his oringa (baton) with pride. ‘The local media have never raised the issue, and the authorities threaten anyone who complains.’ Our guides showed us some little green houses with corrugated iron roofs. ‘I lived on this land for 35 years, and they evicted me to build those houses and the church,’ said Emmanuel Kilossu. He lost 40 of his original 50 hectares. ‘And look,’ said Lukas Simeon, showing us some gravestones. ‘I used to live here. These are the graves of my ancestors. They’ve given my land to people who’ve been relocated. I can’t come here any more.’
When the rightful owners tried to cultivate their land, the new occupants called the police, who drove them off. Kilossu said, ‘So far, we’ve survived on last year’s harvest and help from our families. But what about next year?’ Deneth Mwarabu’s land was given to a former national assembly member from Ngorongoro. Relations with the newcomers are terrible: ‘Our children fight at school. When the soldiers go, there may be violence.’ Newcomers have prudently built fences around their homes.
The Maasai’s customary rights to their ancestral lands are covered by article 24 of Tanzania’s constitution, and the government is required to follow strict procedures when appropriating land. Arusha lawyer Joseph Oleshangay plans to contest the appropriations. Meanwhile, on 30 September, Maasai land rights suffered a first blow when the East African Court of Justice, based in Arusha, dismissed a case brought by former residents of Loliondo who were seeking compensation for eviction in 2017. As Oleshangay says, ‘The government likes the Maasai as a tourist asset but when they try to defend their rights, it doesn’t treat them as full citizens.’
Translated by Charles Goulden
(c) 2023, Le Monde Diplomatique