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Tanzanian Maasai live in fear after native lands reclassified for safari tourism and trophy hunting

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Thousands of members of the indigenous Maasai community in northern Tanzania fled their homes after clashing with police on June 10 as police evicted them from their land in Loliondo. The land is being reclaimed by the Tanzanian government for conservation and a luxury game reserve. This is just the latest example of friction between the Maasai and the government over the region, which Maasai people see as their ancestral lands.

Videos shared online show dozens of Maasai people fleeing across a field as gunshots ring out in the background. The scene took place on June 10 in Loliondo, a town in northern Tanzania near Serengeti National Park.

On June 3, Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism announced its intention to classify a 1,500-square-kilometre parcel of land in the area as a game reserve, a move they said would help conserve the area. The game reserve classification precludes humans from living on these lands. 

Maasai leaders say this would displace 70,000 people from the land. The move is part of a larger project to reclassify lands in the area for tourism and conservation, which would displace an additional 80,000 Maasai. 


The day prior, dozens of Maasai people came together to protest the demarcation of the plot of land in Loliondo that would be classified as a game reserve and leased to a Dubai-based company marketing luxury tourism and trophy hunting packages to wealthy tourists from the UAE

Police had been present in the area since June 7, installing beacons to mark out the boundaries of the land. 

‘People are staying in the bush at night for fear of harassment and threats’

Lemaiyan (not his real name) is a Maasai activist and human rights defender from Loliondo who has fled the region and is now seeking refuge in Kenya. While he did not witness the eviction on June 10, he has experienced the police presence in his region. He spoke to us on condition of anonymity, for his own safety. 

A large number of troops came to our village – normal policemen, soldiers, the Tanzanian Defence Forces. They are threatening everybody, shooting into the forest and threatening even children. Those who are still there can’t stay in their homes. People would spend the day in the bush and then come to their homes at night. Now, they are staying in the bush at night for fear of harassment and threats. 

We have tried to protest, tried to stop the soldiers from putting beacons on the land [to demarcate the zone that is to be emptied of people], we’ve even tried big community meetings with local leaders. We wrote a report to the government about a land use model that would help us maintain conservation and our livestock keeping. But there was no success.

Members of the Maasai community in Loliondo hold signs saying “Stop Loliondo land grabbing”, “Maasai lives matter” and “We have nowhere to go”. © Forest Peoples Programme

Maasai protesters removed these beacons and slept nearby the night of June 9. As day broke, police returned and shot teargas and live bullets at them, according to a statement using eyewitness accounts published by the Forest Peoples Programme

 


A video posted on Twitter on June 9 shows Maasai community members who came together to protest the demarcation of their land for classification as a game reserve.

Rights groups say that at least 31 people were injured in the clashes on June 10. Photos shared on social networks [Warning: graphic content] and provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers team showed people injured and bleeding.

A witness told the Guardian that police fired on protesters, destroyed their property and took their cattle. Ten Maasai leaders were arrested for protesting the eviction and one police officer was reportedly killed. 

The Maasai are an indigenous population of nomadic herders native to southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The group has previously clashed with the Tanzanian government over evictions and land rights concerns. The particular parcel of land in Loliondo was also the subject of an eviction attempt in 2017, rendering 6,800 people homeless before they sought legal recourse and returned to the land.

The government has repeatedly rejected claims that they are forcing the Maasai from their lands. 

‘The consequence is extinction’

Lemaiyan told us that the government has not provided any alternatives or relocation plans to people living within this 1,500-square-kilometre parcel of land. But he said that the issue is larger than land – it’s about the Maasai’s continued existence.

The people in my village are small-scale pastoralists. If we are no longer allowed to pasture our livestock on this land, we will end up with no more cows and we will live in poverty. We won’t be able to take our children to school or feed them. 

We secured this place specifically for the purpose of grazing land. There hasn’t been a single word on how we can be assisted after our land is taken. We are being evicted without any compensation. We are like orphans. The consequence is extinction.

The majority of the community has fled to the other side of the country or to Kenya. But our land is where people know how to live their lives. When you take someone who has been raised in the village and they come to town, it’s a shock – they will get lost. Here in Kenya, I am just trying to find peace, I’m a refugee now. I can try to get employment or just be accommodated here, but I’m not sure if I can recreate my life the way it was here. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team has not found any concrete relocation plans proposed by the Tanzanian government for the population of Loliondo. We were unable to reach the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism for comment. 

Authorities have however proposed several sites for possible relocation for Maasai living in the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area – also being reclassified – on a “voluntary” basis. 

Researchers at the Oakland Insitute say that the proposed relocation sites don’t have adequate resources, such as water and grazing land, for the Maasai. Despite government claims that thousands of Maasai have volunteered for resettlement, 11,000 Maasai community members signed a letter saying that they wish to stay on “the lands we have protected for centuries and which [they] dearly regard as [their] only home”.

‘This is where we have lived for decades, it’s where we graze our cattle and coexist with nature’

The government has argued that the growth of the Maasai population, as well as their primary activity of livestock grazing, causes environmental degradation in the protected areas. 

Maasai people take issue with this claim. Lemaiyan explained:

When you are in our region, you see the wildlife are here moving around freely. We are coexisting with wildlife. On the other side of the Serengeti [Editor’s note: in areas that are already classified as game reserves], people hunt the wildlife. But the Maasai do not hunt, so we do not threaten a single animal. We are harmless to the ecosystem. Instead of congratulating us for doing this kind of conservation, they are threatening us. 

This is where we have lived for decades, it’s where we graze our cattle and coexist with nature. How can they evict people and become an enemy of nature and enemy of the livestock and still expect to have tourism? 

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