Tanzania: Maasai people resist forced evictions
Tens of thousands of Maasai people are at risk of eviction from their land in Tanzania due to government plans to use the territory for tourism development – including hunting tourism. Maasai people in Loliondo and the Ngorongoro Conservation area face imminent displacement. They have organised pockets of resistance, dismantling border beacons and obstructing the land demarcation process. However, they are encountering violent government repression. The forced relocation threatens to proceed largely without international scrutiny.
In a clandestine meeting on 6 June, Tanzanian authorities decided to convert 1,500 square kilometres of designated village land in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area into a game reserve for tourism and trophy hunting. This area, in Tanzania’s northern Arusha Region, is home to around 70,000 Maasai people. This Indigenous group will be displaced if these plans are pursued.
The government is also planning to evict some 80,000 Maasai people from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where they have lived for generations and have had legal residence status since the 1950s.
The government denies it is forcefully evicting people, stating that all relocations will be voluntary. However, there have been reports of harassment and intimidation by police officers supposedly advising Maasai people to leave. Locals were not consulted about the plans and the authorities have so far been unwilling to negotiate, claiming that the purported tourism and conservation benefits justify their decisions.
Tanzania’s plans mean that close to 150,000 Maasai people will be displaced from Loliondo and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, an act that goes against long-established international law. It also ignores a 2018 injunction from the East African Court of Justice that placed a temporary block on relocation, pending a final court decision.
Some families have already made the move to a reservation 600 kilometres from their homes, while others have been driven out by violent clashes with the Tanzanian authorities, fleeing across the border to Kenya. There they remain in a makeshift camp, without consistent food supplies or proper medical care.
As well as displacement, Maasai people face the loss of their cultural heritage. Maasai people have a long and deep relationship with the land and its resources. Their pastoral lifestyle is central to their identity. Maasai culture attaches high value to amassing and grazing large herds of cows. People believe their god – known as Engai or Enkai in the Maa language – created cattle especially for them. Removing Maasai people’s ability to rear livestock, prohibiting them from accessing watering holes and blocking lands for grazing, is akin to cultural erasure.
The removal of Maasai people from their ancestral land may also have environmental consequences. While the government claims the move is needed for conservation, Maasai people have for centuries lived in harmony with nature, and through their stewardship the lands were able to flourish. There is evidence that wildlife was more abundant in the area before the establishment of national parks and game reserves. Replacing these with tourists and hunters paying to slaughter animals for sport offers no promise of environmental protection.
Voices from the frontline
Joseph Moses Oleshangayi is a Tanzanian human rights lawyer and activist for democracy and Indigenous peoples’ land rights, currently working with the Legal and Human Rights Centre.
The Maasai eviction is largely caused by the government’s lust for money. The tourism and hunting business promises to bring a lot of capital, and unfortunately, that can only happen if the Maasai are removed from their native land.
Sadly, to gain public support and trust the government has created a narrative that this is a nature conservation project. But it has been scientifically proved that Maasai pastoralism is compatible with environmental and wildlife conservation. While the government generally accuses the Maasai of threatening tourism in Ngorongoro, 70 per cent of tourists in Tanzania in 2019 visited Ngorongoro. As well as being by far the best tourism destination in Tanzania, it has the highest wildlife population density in the world. This shows that the government’s claim that the Maasai are threatening wildlife conservation and tourism is a completely false narrative.
The authorities know that wildlife massacre, one of the key businesses planned, won’t be possible under the Maasai’s watch and their pastoralism livelihoods will not fit the overall hunting and hotel aesthetic they are trying to create.
So without consulting with the Maasai community, the government has started its eviction plan in a manner that will force their integration with the majority community in the coastal region. To facilitate relocation, on 31 March the government withdrew all funds previously allocated to health, education and other key services. In 2021 the government threatened to demolish nine government primary schools and six health centres. In April 2022 the government’s chief spokesperson recognised that life-saving services were prolonging the Maasai presence in the Ngorongoro so there was a need to dismantle them.
Never before has our country witnessed a campaign targeting a specific community as we are now seeing in Ngorongoro.
In early June, the authorities installed beacons in the place destined to become a game-controlled area, against Tanzanian law and in violation of an order issued by the East Africa Court of Justice in 2018. The demarcated area includes not only village land, which is forbidden by the law, but also people’s homesteads.
The police have used teargas and guns, wounding 31 Maasai people. Before beacons were installed, all elected political leaders were arrested and detained incommunicado for seven days before being arraigned in court on murder charges – for a murder that happened one day after they were arrested.
We are challenging the government by debunking its narrative. The government is spreading propaganda to get public support, so we inform people about the dangers of these evictions and that they are founded on false narratives.
We also have filed a court case against eviction. We can use the law to hold the government accountable and demand it halts the planned eviction. We are trying to make sure that the truth about what is happening is known not only internally but also by the international community.
But we have faced challenges, including the lack of functional legal processes in Tanzania. The 2018 court order has not been respected. Our government thinks it is above the law and this is affecting our progress in fighting the eviction. As activists our lives are in danger. The government threatens us and many activists had fled the country for safety.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Joseph. Read the full interview here.
The Maasai resistance
Rumours of government eviction plans swirled long before an official public statement was made. Maasai people voiced their grievances early on. On 13 January, thousands of Maasai people gathered in Oloirien village in Arusha Region to protest against forced evictions and communicate their rejection of the government’s appropriation project. Tanzania Wildlife Authority rangers, who were installing border beacons to mark the area for development, were forced to leave.
On 8 June, a public meeting of Ololosokwani villagers in Ngorongoro district became a protest when police officers arrived to inform villagers of plans for land demarcation and began putting up demarcation beacons. Similar scenes were seen throughout Arusha Region, where security forces were deployed to install tents and start marking out the 1,500 square kilometres of land designated for development. In some areas, locals removed beacons and people guarded the site overnight.
Maasai people have also fought back by appealing to the international community, which has provided some support. United Nations human rights experts have expressed their concern and called on the government to halt the relocation and take a consultative approach. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has urged Tanzanian authorities to do likewise.
Across the border in Kenya, Maasai people protested in Nairobi on 17 June to show solidarity with their neighbours, accusing the Tanzanian government of oppressing Maasai people in the name of tourism.
The government has persisted despite the pressure, responding to resistance with force. According to credible reports, security forces have used violence against peaceful protesters.
An aggressive state response
During the 8 June protest in Ololosokwan, the police used teargas and then opened fire on protesters. Fifteen people were reportedly shot, and several others were injured due to police beatings. On 10 June, around 30 people sustained injuries after security forces reportedly fired live bullets at them. As protests have continued, violence has escalated. One man reportedly died of his injuries after confrontations on 14 June.
Even as recordings show the evidence of human rights violations, the authorities insist no one has been injured during clashes. True injury figures are hidden because many victims are afraid to go to local hospitals, and instead cross the border for treatment
In addition to its disinformation campaign, the government has vowed to track down ‘false reports’ on social media. As part of the government’s determination to silence dissent so evictions can take place with little international scrutiny, Parliament Speaker Tulia Ackson called for the arrest of whoever recorded and circulated a social media video showing a confrontation between police and villagers.
So far, around 20 people have been arrested, including local councillors. The group was charged with murder after a police officer died during a protest on 10 June, allegedly shot by an arrow. They have been accused of inciting violence even though, according to lawyers from Tanzanian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, many of them were arrested the day before the incident took place. The government insists it will continue to arrest those who attempt to disrupt the demarcation process.
In addition to police force and intimidation, the government is using other, more indirect, methods to push through its plans. In March, it relayed an order to Ngorongoro officials to redirect COVID-19 relief funds for the area towards one of the relocation sites for Maasai people. Villagers report that the government is restricting access to basic services such as water and electricity, limiting people’s ability to grow their crops.
By making life as difficult as possible for Maasai people, Tanzanian authorities are attempting to pressure them into relocating – which still amounts to forced relocation.
What the future holds
The outlook seems bleak for Maasai people. The government seems committed to its current plans, to the extent of ignoring directions such as the 2018 East African Court order.
Pressure from the international community has had some impact in the past. For instance, in 2013 the government announced it would create a 1,500 square kilometre wildlife corridor for the Ortello Business Corporation, which would have displaced over 30,000 Maasai people. Following considerable international pressure, including an online petition that collected over two million signatures, the government walked back on its plans.
But in the main, the international community isn’t paying the same kind of attention this time. In 2010, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Its designation now poses a challenge for the organisation: how can it concern itself with the protection and preservation of the site without addressing human rights violations? Other organisations facing – and potentially ducking – the same issue include the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The lukewarm international reaction will likely be compounded by the East African Court’s upcoming final ruling, which experts expect to be in the government’s favour. The government remains highly motivated to generate greater tourism income.
However, there’s no reason why Maasai people should be left behind. They have been herding their cattle and living in harmony with nature for hundreds of years, long before parks were created. The government should view them as a resource rather than a problem, given their incomparable knowledge of the ecosystem and its management. Their cultural heritage remains a massive tourism draw, with the potential to bring in many more people than the few who are driven by the desire to slaughter wildlife.
There’s a potentially harmonious way forward here – but first, the evictions must stop and the government must acknowledge and enable the right of Maasai people to have a say in their fate and that of their long-term home.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must consult with Maasai people to find solutions that balance conservation and economic development with the needs of the community.
The government must stop using violence and intimidation to suppress peaceful protests.
International organisations must openly condemn the violence being used by the Tanzanian government and call on it to adhere to international human rights standards.
Cover photo by Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images