This June, a violent clash broke out in Tanzania between a group of indigenous Maasai herders and Tanzanian state security forces. In response to a protest about land rights, police opened fire on the Maasai with tear gas and live ammunition, injuring at least 30 people. One police officer was killed in the fighting by an arrow to the head. This incident is only the most recent skirmish in a long history of repression of the Maasai, one full of bribery and royal intrigue. The Tanzanian government claims that this repression is a necessary consequence of the difficult tradeoff between indigenous rights and wildlife conservation, but a closer look shows that it is really driven by greed. Government officials want to continue profiting off of Tanzania’s lucrative luxury tourism industry, one of the country’s largest, at the expense of indigenous communities.
The Maasai are a minority indigenous group in Kenya and Tanzania. They are nomadic pastoralists—raising cattle is central to their way of life—and are one of the most frequently romanticized ethnic groups in Eastern Africa. Images of Maasai warriors with spears, hoop earrings, and checkered shukas frequently appear in movies and safari advertising.
Ninety-three thousand Maasai live in the middle of an international tourist destination, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a globally-renowned safari destination, home to spectacular scenery and a variety of wild animals. Picture misty forests, sweeping plains, and watering holes with lions, giraffes, elephants, and gazelles. The gigantic caldera, formed by volcanic activity along the Serengeti, is the country’s largest tourist attraction, hosting 500,000 visitors a year. When the NCA was established as a multiple land use area in 1959, the British colonial government signed an agreement with Maasai elders: The Maasai would give up most of their traditional land in the NCA in exchange for explicit rights to live and graze their livestock in a restricted area.
However, the Tanzanian government has repeatedly undermined this deal by forcefully evicting thousands of Maasai from the NCA. This June in Loliondo, a protected area neighboring the NCA, the government designated 580 square miles as a game reserve, banning human settlement and grazing in the area. The designation indicates evictions from the Ololosokwan, Oloirien, Kirtalo, and Arash villages, which would displace up to 70,000 Maasai. Shortly afterward, state security forces entered Loliondo, preemptively detaining local leaders and installing a barrier around the new reserve. This is when the violence erupted. As the Maasai began to protest their illegal evictions, government forces fired and unleashed tear gas. Footage posted on social media shows a crowd of Maasai fleeing, as well as graphic bullet wounds.
The Tanzanian government conducted these evictions out of self-interest and corruption. In 1992, the government leased the exact same 580 square miles of land in Loliondo to the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a hunting company owned by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates. OBC’s hunting license was revoked in 2017 after the Minister of Natural Resources alleged that the company’s director, Isaac Mollel, tried to bribe him with over two million US dollars. A UN report details Mollel’s two arrests in February and March of 2019 on charges of employing foreigners without permits and ten counts of economic crimes. Despite this, OBC has continued to operate in Loliondo uninterrupted.
OBC has violently displaced thousands of Maasai from their land in the years since its creation. In 2009, OBC security guards and Tanzanian military troops burned down 200 homes in Loliondo, leaving 3,000 Maasai homeless. They burned 114 more homes in 2015 and another 185 in 2017, displacing over 20,000 Maasai in total. These evictions provoked international outrage: One 2014 petition gained two million signatures, and the European Parliament condemned Tanzania for human rights violations in 2015. But nothing has changed.
The Tanzanian government claims that these forced evictions are in the name of an important cause: Wildlife conservation. After all, the NCA and the Serengeti boast significant biodiversity and are home to many endangered species. The government argues that the Maasai’s growing population—which has swelled from 8,000 in 1959 to more than 100,000 today—and large herds of cattle pose a danger to wildlife. The government thus wants to paint the evictions and harassment of the Maasai as a necessary sacrifice to protect a globally important natural wonder. To a Western audience concerned about the environment, this may seem like a painful but understandable decision. However, a closer look shows that this is only a thinly veiled excuse.
Although the Tanzanian government may claim that it is evicting the Maasai to protect a wildlife habitat, its treatment of OBC tells another story. While OBC invites wealthy clients to trophy-hunt lions and leopards and impedes the Maasai from accessing vital water sources, the Tanzanian government has stood idly by. Moreover, the government allowed OBC to build a private airstrip in the middle of the savannah. The government’s claim that the exact same land must be uninhabited for wildlife preservation is clear hypocrisy.
Moreover, the claim that the Maasai and their herds are a threat to wildlife habitats ignores the role that Maasai themselves play in conservation. Visions of a previously pristine environment in Tanzania, untarnished by humans, ignores history: Maasai have grazed their cattle next to wild animals in Ngorongoro for hundreds of years. The Maasai do not hunt wild animals, and some of their traditional practices help protect the environment, allowing wildlife to thrive. For example, they have long executed controlled burns in the savannah to limit fly populations and maintain grasses for grazing. In areas where the Maasai are no longer permitted, bushes and scrub have overtaken grazing land, contributing to a decline in gazelle and buffalo populations and causing ecologists to call for a resumption of burning practices.
For the sake of both the Maasai and the wildlife on their land, the Tanzanian government must stop these cruel and destructive evictions. The Maasai should be given substantial control over decisions about their land, even in environmentally protected areas. They have successfully conserved their local environment for hundreds of years because they need it to survive. Rather than leaving the Maasai be, the Tanzanian government has decided to exploit their culture of caretaking to curry favor with international tourism corporations. The government is violating its obligations as a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and should thus be subject to intervention by the international community. But for now, press attention and UN investigations are the only things keeping the Maasai in place.
[Editor’s Note: This article was published in the Fall 2022 issue of the BPR magazine.]