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Beyond just conservation: a history of Maasai dispossession

23 February 2023

The traditional homeland of the Maasai, stretching from the Rift Valley lakes of Kenya across the Serengeti plains into Tanzania, is rich in endangered big game wildlife and biodiversity. When British colonialists established the Serengeti as a game reserve, later becoming a national park, Maasai communities were systematically displaced into the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area (NCCA) and neighbouring Loliondo, where they have now been living for generations. 

This ugly history of dispossession and violence is upheld by the government of present-day Tanzania, to serve the interests of tourism, foreign investment and (ostensibly) conservation. It is a history characterized by violent evictions, the displacement of tens of thousands of people, the destruction of property and livelihoods, the burning of houses and most recently, targeted actions of socio-economic sabotage. 

Conservation as a guise

The NCCA’s mission statement is ‘to sustainably conserve biodiversity and cultural heritage, enhance the livelihood of indigenous communities, and promote tourism for the benefit of the nation and the world’. Increasingly however, the latter seems to take precedence over the rights and lives of the Maasai. Tanzania’s positition is that the area’s growing population is encroaching on wildlife habitats and that the Maasai need to leave their ancestral homes around Ngorongoro and Loliondo: a clear contradiction of the NCCA’s stated mission. Maasai communities are now facing the destruction of their livelihoods under the guise of conservation, despite centuries of sustainable Maasai stewardship of these lands.  

In 1992, the government authorized the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), owned by Royals of the UAE, to take over 400,000 hectares of land, home to over 50,000 Maasai, for a private airport and game reserve for trophy hunting. Another round of forced evictions in 2009 left 3,000 homeless in Loliondo to allow the corporation to organize private hunting trips.  In 2015, Serengeti Park rangers burned 114 bomas (traditional Maasai homes), and in August 2017 another 185 homes, leaving approximately 20,000 homeless. 

The OBC, now smoothing over the expropriation of indigenous lands with conservation credentials, continues to be a factor in Maasai displacement, backed by the government of Tanzania. Last year, Maasai in Ngorongoro were informed that yet more of their land was to be parceled off by the OBC for hunting and tourism. A meeting between the community and the police turned into a peaceful protest. Protestors were met with violence which eventually resulted in the displacement of thousands as they fled for their safety.  

State sanctioned violence

Recently, four Maasai villages sought redress from the Tanzanian government for evictions carried out in 2017. The East African Court of Justice dismissed the case, ruling that there was insufficient proof that the applicants were evicted from their ancestral land. This ruling sends a dangerous message that state-sanctioned violence against citizens is acceptable when carried out in the name of conservation, and that seeking redress even through sanctioned legal means is a closed avenue for the Maasai of Ngorongoro and Loliondo. 

In April 2021, the government of Tanzania announced plans to relocate over 80,000 residents, most of them indigenous Maasai, from the NCCA. While the government is ‘asking’ the Maasai community to relocate from their ancestral land, the process of relocation has fallen far below internationally recognized standards, including that of free, prior and informed consent. The government has been redoubling its efforts with targeted attacks on the socio-economic foundation of the Maasai as a community. It is making deplorable situations even direr, rendering community lands uninhabitable in a targeted campaign of actions that amount to forced displacement. 

Impacts on cultural practices and essential services

Keeping livestock is both central to the unique cultural identity of Maasai and a means of material survival. In 2021, Maasai were restricted from accessing NCCA lands which contain salt licks, key for livestock health. The NCCA assumed responsibility for supplying salt licks to the community – which resulted in the deaths of over 300 heads of cattle following the consumption of a contaminated salt lick. 

More recently in March 2022, funds allocated as Covid-19 Relief for the Ngorongoro area were transferred to the Handenyi District, the ‘resettlement’ site identified by the Government of Tanzania. Since Hadeniyi is in the coastal region of Tanga, any livestock kept here would be susceptible to diseases, making the district an unlivable alternative. In its latest attempts to clear the way for tourism and trophy hunting, the government is now directly seizing livestock from Maasai herders in the NCCA. Between November 2022 and January 2023, it has, according to the community, forcefully confiscated over 4,000 cattle and close to 1,000 sheep and goats.  

Not stopping at depriving Maasai of access to their lands, the Tanzanian government is also cutting off essential services. In October 2022, health officials attached to the NCCA began talks with the area’s only hospital in a bid to take it over and have it downgraded from the level of a health centre to a clinic. Emergency and maternal services are among those reportedly now ended at a hospital now left with only two doctors. 

The Maasai continue to have their rights to property, education, access to healthcare, and ability to freely practice their culture, severely impacted. This must end. The sustainable stewardship of indigenous communities, the centuries of traditional knowledge and the harmonious co-existence between indigenous communities and the ecosystem cannot and should not be sacrificed in the name of conservation. The government of Tanzania must put a stop to this history of dispossession and violence and begin protecting the lives of Maasai with a human rights-based approach to conservation. 

Photo: Maasai people gather to discuss how to protest against evictions. Ngorongoro, Tanzania, 10 March 2022. Credit: R. Bociaga/Shutterstock.  

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