Words by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky
Photos and video by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
This article appeared in the May Issue of VICE Magazine.
Before he was shot, on July 9, 2014, Olunjai Timan slaughtered a cow and his wife made stew. Not wanting to miss the fresh meal, the wiry Maasai herder sent two of his sons to graze the family's cattle on their own. But before Timan could finish eating, the boys came racing back. They had mistakenly wandered onto the adjacent property, a 12,000-acre tract operated by the Boston-based ecotourism outfitter Thomson Safaris.
This, the boys knew, was a no-no, because the company prohibits grazing on the property during the tourist high season. Thomson's guards had descended on them, the boys said, and scattered the herd. Unable to round up the cows themselves, the boys returned for help.
Timan, annoyed, put down his food. The father of seven grabbed his spear and went out in search of his herd. It took him an hour to find his cattle, which were still on the wrong side of the invisible line dividing his village in Tanzania's northwestern Loliondo District from the company's land. He said that he was steering them home when a vehicle appeared with two Thomson guards and two local policemen inside. This did not surprise him—Thomson guards are unarmed, and locals say they are quick to call in police backup when trespassers are found. According to Timan, the men got out of the SUV. Then he heard a voice say, "Shoot! Shoot!" One of the men fired a gun, sending a bullet through the herder's right thigh.
He tried to run but could only walk. Residents in the local bomas (homesteads) later reported hearing his screams. On cell phones, one of the few modern inventions Maasai in this area have embraced, neighbors alerted one another. Soon other policemen showed up and escorted him to an ambulance.
While Timan was being treated, crowds amassed. Several hundred young Maasai men with drooping earlobes assembled, armed with spears and gasoline. "They wanted to burn Thomson's campsite to the ground," recalled Joshua Makko, the chairman of Timan's village, Mondorosi, referring to the property's luxury tent complex, where tourists pay $535 a night for an all-inclusive safari package. The incident was only the second alleged shooting of a villager to have been carried out by police called in by Thomson, but residents of Mondorosi and neighboring villages say that, for the past nine years, Thomson guards and police acting on their behalf have regularly harassed and assaulted Maasai who graze cattle on the property—accusations that Thomson Safaris denies. In Maasai culture, land is king and cows are wealth, power, and respect. For a few hours, it looked like this incident would set the region aflame.
Move over the black and white image to play the video. Move the cursor away to pause:
Maanda Ngoitiko speaks with a local woman in a typical Maasai home in the Loliondo region.
The contested land is a tan and green plateau in a valley surrounded on all sides by Maasai villages where men have more than one wife and homes are held together by cow dung. The disputed property's open pasture, seasonal rivers, and high water table had made it prized grazing and watering space for the region's pastoralists for decades. But in 2006, the owners of Thomson Safaris, an American couple named Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland, paid $1.2 million for the property's lease under the name of their Tanzanian-registered company, Tanzania Conservation Ltd.—leasing it because Tanzania, a nominally socialist state, does not allow foreigners to own property, only extended land titles. It turned out that what made the area great for grazing also meant it had potential as a tourist hot spot. It was set on the doorstep of Serengeti National Park, and human encroachment had driven away what had once been a rich wildlife population, including giraffe, wildebeest, and big cats. Thomson and Wineland were enticed by the challenge of bringing the animals back.
Their first step was to put "limits on grazing for the health of the environment, to control overgrazing," Daniel Yamat, a Maasai man who is the outfitter's project manager of the disputed territory, told me. The tract is Thomson Safaris' Eastern Serengeti Reserve site, which the company nicknamed "Enashiva," a Maasai word for "happiness." Thomson Safaris let it be known that grazing was prohibited during much of the year, particularly during tourist high seasons—which happened to be when most grazing there occurred.
Some residents in the area obeyed. Many did not. "This is a matter of survival," Makko said. His ancestors once roamed what's now the Serengeti, but his parents' generation was forced to move to Loliondo when the National Park was established in the 1950s, prohibiting anyone from living inside its perimeter. According to Makko, tourist development and droughts, made more intense by the effects of climate change, have left his village and their neighbors with few viable options for their herds. The Thomson land was the best, and only, reasonable option.
Villagers' willful trespass drew consequences: frequent dispersal or temporary confiscation of herds by Thomson guards, beatings and arrests, prolonged detention in the local jail, and two shootings to date, according to locals' testimony. Residents speaking out against Thomson Safaris were routinely called in for police questioning. Journalists and aid workers who went to Loliondo to investigate started getting kicked out by local authorities. In 2009 and again in 2011, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ordered the Tanzanian government to look into human-rights-abuse allegations on the property, but the requests went nowhere. Rumors of a conspiracy between Thomson Safaris and the Tanzanian government began to circulate. In 2008, a New Zealand reporter was murdered under suspicious circumstances, shortly after investigating the company's operations in Loliondo.
Over this same period of time, the international reputation of Thomson Safaris, a sister company of the couple's long-established Thomson Family Adventures, soared. The outfitter and its trips have won almost a dozen recent awards and accolades, including a citation in the National Geographic Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth list, Condé Nast Traveler's World Savers Award, Outside magazine's Active Travel Award, and for Wineland, Thomson Safaris' director, a lifetime-achievement award from the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
The company's website includes a promotional video for Enashiva that's difficult to reconcile with the stories coming from the ground. Smiling Maasai dance and sing; they give thanks for the community projects—including building classrooms and a medical dispensary—that the company has enabled. Rare public statements by Wineland and other company officials regarding the abuse allegations present a counternarrative: The so-called conflict is entirely fabricated. A small group of Maasai are the aggressors. The company, they say, is the victim.
A Maasai man walks out of his home. The Maasai have a few modern conveniences such as cell phones, but for the most part they live as they have for centuries.
The conflict, a five-month VICE investigation shows, continues to rage and is emblematic of a much larger problem faced by indigenous groups around the world: For more than a century, the Maasai have been corralled into smaller and smaller pieces of land in order to conserve the environment and precious animals—and to make room for deluxe suites and armies of tourists. The developed world has largely cheered these efforts. Ecotourism has offered a new vision of how Westerners could interact with land and people.
But the Maasai of Loliondo are not alone in disputing these supposed benefits. Worldwide, 8 million square miles—a landmass almost as large as the entire African continent—have been classified as protected areas by governments and conservation groups. In turn, the locals have mostly been pushed off their lands. Though no one formally counts people displaced for the sake of environmental preservation, data from the UN and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature on park footprints and population density estimate that the total number of removed people could be near 20 million.
These are our world's conservation refugees—from the Dominican Republic to Kenya, Bolivia to Brazil. They are the Batwa of Uganda, who were forced out of their native forests when they were falsely accused of killing silverback gorillas. Many are now squatters without access to water or sanitation, living on the edge of parks that protect the great apes. They are the Hmong of northern Thailand, who were plunged into food shortage when the government, under pressure from the UN's Global Environment Facility, created a national park system. This presaged the arrival of men with guns, giving them no option but to give up their way of life.
The forces arrayed against conservation refugees are the ostensible good guys: environmental NGOs and eco-businesses wishing to build a friendlier, greener world. But the dangers of this advance have, for indigenous groups, even begun to rival those posed by the operations of big agriculture and mining and oil exploration. In a 2004 meeting of the United Nations' International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all 200 delegates signed a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands."
Loliondo elder Tulito Olemguriem Lemgume, who has gray hair and milky eyes, remembers the day he realized his people's place among elite conservationists' priorities. In 2006, his boma was just inside the property newly titled to Thomson Safaris. According to Lemgume, local authorities told him and a handful of neighbors that "the land now belonged to an investor and we could no longer live there. We told them we have nowhere to go. We said, 'This is our place. This is our home.'" So the police arrived with gasoline, he said. The bomas went up in flames. Then "[the police] shot at us," Lemgume recalled. "It's like we were the animals and they were chasing us away."
An interview with Tulito Oleguriem Legume.
The roots of the current conflict date back to when the Maasai themselves were the displacers. The tribe emigrated from the Nile Valley in the 15th century and trampled or pushed aside the indigenous groups in their path. By the end of the 1700s they were dominating large swaths of present-day Kenya and Tanzania. They rarely hunted, and while they have farmed for centuries, their agricultural footprint has always been minimal. The grazing of their herds of cattle followed a rhythm, never diminishing any pasture to the point of ruin, and leaving enough for the native wildlife that shared the plains. Their disinterest in most material goods and permanent structures kept the natural spaces they inhabited intact. The Maasai's presence in the heart of East Africa was, for centuries, part of a stable relationship with the surrounding environment.
A Maasai boy separates younger goats from their mothers in a traditional corral.
But they took up a lot of space. For pastoralists, there is no need more fundamental than sufficient land to feed their animals—cows and, recently, sheep and goats—which function both as an economic foundation and as a social system (in crude terms, the Maasai with more cows have more power). But by the beginning of the 20th century, British colonial leaders in Kenya and Tanzania wanted to make their dominions more productive, so they started giving away their land to settlers and farmers. Midcentury, under pressure from international conservationists, the British saw the potential economic benefit of making Tanzania's stunning landscape a set of official protected areas, the majority of which fell under the feet of the Maasai. Later, after independence in 1964, Tanzanian leaders set aside one third of the country's land for conservation (a goal achieved recently) and embarked on decades of deregulation to facilitate private investment in the tourism industry.
The Maasai were given a choice: relocate to government-supported reserves within a distant region called Ngorongoro Crater or settle wherever else they wanted—as long as it was outside the parks. What was then the sparsely populated area of Loliondo, which borders Kenya, was the easiest option. Quickly, Loliondo became a sea of red shukas, or traditional Maasai garments, and today it has more than 60,000 Maasai inhabitants, 90 percent of whom rely on pastoralism for their survival.
As the Maasai were forced onto ever-shrinking territories, their new closeness to the modern world of hospitals and schools, and their entrance into the cash economy, transformed the living conditions of the group. Over just a few decades, the average Maasai life-span increased several years while maternal and infant mortality plunged. Their population went from 40,000 in Kenya and Tanzania at the turn of the 20th century to close to 700,000 in Tanzania alone today.
All of those people needed ample land for their cows to survive—the one thing the Maasai, and the country, no longer had. And so a solution was found: The Maasai had to change. The group's old practices, once heralded as environmentally symbiotic, were now deemed "overgrazing." By maintaining large herds of cattle, they were putting themselves, the wildlife, and their country in danger, officials said. Schools in Maasai areas started developing environmental-sustainability curricula. Public education campaigns underlined the need for smaller herds. NGOs introduced new breeds that give more cuts of beef per head.
Tourism was also touted as the best way for Maasai to benefit economically from the land without "harming" it any longer. They could sell handicrafts and charge for tours through their homes or for performing traditional dances. In Loliondo, tour companies arrived in the early 1990s with their own objective of luring zebras, rhinos, and lions back to the areas where pastoralists had once lived. The region had appeal for developers because by setting up just outside the Serengeti there was access to wildlife populations—which don't respect park boundaries—but with lower fees and fewer bureaucratic hassles than operating in the park would have entailed. The Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), an ostentatious Dubai-based outfitter that flies in Arab royalty to hunt and kill rare cats for pleasure, was apportioned vast "hunting blocks," giving the company the right to conduct its expeditions throughout virtually the entire Loliondo territory.
A little while later, Wineland and Thomson read a newspaper ad for a plot of land with a title for sale. They were enticed not only by the possibility of reestablishing wildlife populations but also by the property's proximity to the Maasai themselves. Pioneers in the global-adventure-travel business, the couple had been specializing in "community-based tourism" for decades in more than a dozen countries. Rather than attracting business with exotic animals, Wineland said, they had always placed "pictures of people on the front cover of [our] brochures." They had done some charitable work in other Maasai areas of Tanzania and were excited to bring their business model to Loliondo.
For Wineland and Thomson, making their business benefit the local Maasai was a prime objective. "We believe in a symbiotic relationship," Wineland has said. "Tourism has to benefit us, our guests, the wildlife, and the communities." They hoped this land would be the newest jewel in the company's emerging ecotourism empire, "a beautiful thing for us and our mission."
In December, I went to Loliondo to try to understand what exactly had gone wrong. How had the people behind a seemingly well-meaning company found themselves entangled in a conflict that included claims of harassment of indigenous people, shootings, and whispers of government conspiracy and murder? I hoped that the investigation would reveal a broader truth about growing conflicts between indigenous groups and the conservation and experiential-tourism movements worldwide.
Before arriving, I had gotten a lot of warnings—from fellow journalists, from international activists, from researchers, all of whom had gotten kicked out of the area for poking their nose into the land issue. It wasn't just the Thomson case. OBC, the largest tour operator in the area, had been under fire for years for land grabbing and political corruption. Maasai resistance and foreign attention helped to thwart a bill that would have turned 40,000 square miles of Maasai land into a protected "wildlife migration corridor," with the company as its new lease holder. But just before my arrival, Tanzania's parliament was trying to press the legislation again, and the region was heating up. I was told to steer clear of the highest local government authority, the district commissioner, who is said to go to any length to make his area friendly to investors.
Still, on my first morning in Loliondo, ten hours from the nearest sizable city, I didn't expect to conduct my first interview in a ditch. My interviewee, an aging, panicked priest from Sukenya village named Olushipa Rogey, led our car far from the road and then walked me to where the sandy soil had caved in—so that even a herder passing by would have to fall in to see us.
Rogey wore a faded pinstripe suit that seemed older than the man himself. His watch, which didn't work, hung from his wrist by a string. He traced his finger along a deep scar that went from his nose down through his lip. "This is because of what I was saying about Thomson," he told me. Sukenya, a broad swath of arid soil and thickets of cacti, butts up against Thomson Safaris' land. Rogey was one of the first villagers to question the company's restricted-grazing policy. He started holding secret meetings to strategize a response and was publicly threatened by the company's manager, he said—a big deal in Maasai culture, where respect and politeness are of the utmost importance. Soon after, he said, he was attacked on a road walking home from church. It was the sort of violent personal assault that's rare in rural areas, so he and others are convinced it was a warning from the company. Thomson Safaris was never formally linked to the crime.
Though Rogey seemed sincere, I was skeptical. The police deemed it a robbery (his wallet had been stolen). The department is friendly with the company; according to Thomson Safaris, officers are sometimes stationed at the campsite to protect tourists against wild animals and are called in for backup for any safety issue, but I had no evidence of outright collusion. Was this what all the supposed abuse was like? I didn't understand his nerves or the hideout, and I wouldn't until days later. He only said that as Thomson has increased its charitable spending, winning over many of his neighbors, he's now treated as a local pariah and didn't want to be seen with me. Before we parted, he told me several times to be careful—that the government and the outfitter have informants everywhere.
After speaking with Rogey, I spent the afternoon at the compound of Shagwa Ndekerei, a charismatic man with, he said, 100 cows, two wives, and 11 kids, tallying the last number on his fingers.
His boma, in Sukenya, sits on a rise. His backyard has a breathtaking view of rolling pasture and forest in which he takes no delight. "That's the Thomson land," he said, sitting down next to me. (The campsite was not visible but remains standing; village elders calmed the mob in July after Timan's shooting.) Then he explained the history. The land was collectively owned by villagers until 1984, when the state brewing company, Tanzania Breweries Ltd., or TBL, was given the right to the acreage. To transfer the title, it was required to get the permission of the adjacent villages. Locals say that the government and the company lied about receiving their permission. Residents were outraged and even brought a legal challenge, but the case was thrown out on a technicality.
By all accounts, the sale was a terrible idea. The land wasn't particularly fertile, and animals, wild and domestic, snacked on the hops and barley that did manage to sprout. The company farmed about 700 acres for a few years, before abandoning the area entirely. Importantly, the company never forbade grazing. Most locals forgot the title had even been lost.
That changed in 2006, when the since-privatized TBL put their lease up for sale. Ndekerei said they heard rumors that it would be bought by a tour company and believed that, as is custom and law, villagers would be consulted on the idea. But neither of the owners of Thomson Safaris visited the area to speak with residents before the sale. The deal was sealed, the outfitter's owners acquired title to the land, and the trouble began.
Ndekerei's sons were arrested a few years ago, while grazing on Thomson Safaris' land. Police records and villager testimony reveal more than 60 alleged incidents like this, and there are rumors that on several occasions people have been held for days without food. I discovered after my trip that the company has a ten-page "Grazing Policy" that explains when and where grazing may or may not be allowed, depending on a bewildering array of factors, but it is an internal document, not distributed to local residents. Many times, Ndekerei told me, he'd had his herd scattered or had his cows "arrested," which, he said, means the guards drove the herd into their own corral to hold them for a while. Over the course of the next few days, I'd hear dozens of similar stories. Later, I would meet lawyers for the Maasai who have a list of more than 80 incidents of arrests or physical assault by the guards or police, many of which have some sort of corroborating document, such as a hospital report. Lawyers said that since victims didn't know to ask for paperwork and because, when it was given, keeping official documents for posterity is not a Maasai custom, the real numbers are likely much higher.
Ndekerei was at pains to tell me that he wasn't opposed to change. The key to the Maasai's survival, he said, is to take what they want from their new proximity to the modern world and leave aside what is not needed. All his kids, for example, at the age of four, had one incisor tooth removed to enable feeding through a straw if he or she ever passes out from hunger. But his sons also attend school, and Ndekerei takes them to the hospital when they are sick.
"The problem is not tourism," Ndekerei said to me. "That can be OK. Sure, let women sell jewelry to foreigners. Build a school. The problem is when others make decisions without including us. If someone comes to your land and there is no conversation and they didn't get the land in the right way, that man cannot fit into your society. It's not right that they decide what is right for everyone."
Later, I met a teenage boy named Tajewu Nayoi as his family led their sheep and goats out of their corral. Dressed in a yellow fleece against the highland chill, he told me about what happened to him one morning in May 2011. He and his cousin Tobiko, 11 and 13 at the time, knew they weren't supposed to go onto Thomson Safaris' land. But, he said, "the cows led us there. They are used to it and like grazing there." It was easier to let the herd lead than fight them on it, so they entered the prohibited territory.
After they had been grazing for a while, he said, a Thomson Safaris security vehicle approached. They tried to run, but the car caught them. One man came toward Nayoi, he said, and began hitting him with a blunt object. The other men scattered the cows. He said he remembered hearing the guard saying something like: "You are not allowed to drive your cows and graze here! It is an investor's land, and we are protecting it!"
After a few blows, the boys said, they managed to run and hide in the forest. Nayoi's arm was swollen and throbbing. Tobiko's head was bleeding. They stayed in the forest until they felt certain the guards were gone and then ran back to their homestead.
Nayoi's sentences were barely more than a few words each. He had frozen entirely in front of our video camera, so we quickly put it aside. Even still, he fidgeted and looked down, occasionally touching his arm, which, he said, still hurts when he lifts anything heavy. His older brother, Robert, explained to me that ever since the accident, the boy has talked less in general and is constantly nervous. He'd been spooked by our arrival too. From a distance, we were white faces in a white SUV. He thought we were "Thomson people" coming to get him.
"We are victims of our own conservation," Maanda Ngoitiko told me on a different day. Ngoitiko is the founder of Pastoral Women's Council (PWC), a Maasai women's organization that provides scholarships for girls and organizes women's rights groups nationwide. But the arrival of tourist operators in Loliondo has pulled her into the land struggle. PWC was the main force behind last year's victory against OBC's expansion, and Ngoitiko plays a key role in organizing efforts against Thomson Safaris. In turn, company representatives blame her for the conflict in the area—claiming she cries "land grab!" only to raise PWC's profile and secure funding from liberal white donors.
"I have been accused repeatedly and very strongly by Thomson Safaris and the government of fueling the conflict," she told me. "Sincerely, this is my home. This is where my father is buried. This is my life. I also have an obligation to fight for this land and see justice. Whether Thomson Safaris gives billions and billions [of dollars] to this area, we want the land back. They have been told that many times, and they never want to understand."
An interview with Maanda Ngoitiko.
As Maasai herders continued to complain about harassment, Ngoitiko teamed up with her fellow villagers to strategize a response: a new lawsuit challenging Thomson Safaris' title purchase. In 2010, three villages adjacent to the Enashiva property filed a case arguing that the land's former titleholder, TBL, the state brewing company, abandoned the property so long ago that it legally reverted to village land long before the sale to the safari outfitter. Since Maasai villagers had not been consulted regarding the sale, this would make the 2006 transaction invalid under Tanzanian law. The trial began in Tanzania's High Court at the end of last year and will resume on May 11.
For days I'd been circling Enashiva from afar. The open pasture and forest was visible from the houses of almost everyone I'd met. (I'd visited during the off-season, so there were no guests at the property.) From certain angles, the sun reflected off the campsite's roofs.
I had no idea whether I'd be let onto Thomson Safaris' property, given their reported hostility toward journalists. But the company's general manager in Arusha set up a visit when I requested one on short notice. So there I was, several days into my stay in Loliondo, in the lounge of Enashiva Nature Refuge, sinking into a faux-leather chair and staring at a giant black-and-white close-up photo of a lion couple snuggling, gazing softly into the distance. A yoga mat stuck out from below a sofa.
A lion prowls on a private safari near the Serengeti. The attraction of Safaris outside of national parks is that tourists can get closer to the animals by driving off roads and taking nighttime walking trips.
Across from me, Daniel Yamat, the longtime project manager at Enashiva, leaned back on the red-and-black checkered couch. "We [humans] are selfish," he began. "We think the space is for us. But what about the animals?" When Thomson Safaris first got the property, "you could barely see gazelle or zebra," he said. Within three years, a family of 36 giraffe were regulars, and now—close to a decade into the company's land tenure—visitors regularly spy wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, wild dogs, and even the occasional leopard and cheetah. Yamat said that guests are able to enjoy the animals without the crowds found inside Serengeti National Park and can even do walking tours instead of just peering from their vehicles. Enashiva, he said, is about "seeking the art of coexistence, where we conserve the animals and humans' existence doesn't jeopardize that."
Guests also come to Enashiva to enjoy a "real authentic Maasai experience," he said. In other parts of the country tourists visit bomas, but "a lot of that is staged. Here, you go and find what's happening," he said.
Yamat touted the company's charitable work in the area and told me that Thomson Safaris strives to be a good neighbor and local business. The staff is almost entirely Maasai, and the company uses its vehicles as ambulances when villagers need a ride to the hospital. He mentioned several times that were it not for Thomson Safaris offering unrestricted grazing on their land during a drought in 2009, the loss of cattle in the area would have been greater than it already was.
He also said that part of the company's vision is to "prepare them to be able to be better," continuing to refer to his own ethnic group in the third person. He explained that for a family to meet its own needs, it only needs 7.5 cows per person, down from 15 a few years ago. "The way forward is to go to school and have medical treatment," he said, and to improve their lives in other ways, like utilizing the development and infrastructure that tourism companies bring. It hasn't been an easy sell. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," he said.
When it comes to grazing, Yamat said that every day there are herders on the land, and most of the time they continue unbothered, especially since the company's eight scouts can't possibly oversee all 12,000-plus acres. When they do find herders, they are "politely asked" to move their cows off the property, and most herders, he said, readily comply. As for the "cattle arrests" I'd been hearing about, really what happens is that sometimes scouts come across a herd with no owner, he said, and so the Thomson employees hold the cows for "safekeeping" until the owner comes to pick them up.
As for arrests of herders themselves, and accusations of violence by police, he blamed Maasai herders who respond aggressively to the scouts' diplomacy. Yamat showed me a picture of a Thomson Safaris guard bloodied and bandaged from a June 2014 incident with a grazer on the property. "Whoever has been arrested by police, it is not because they were grazing," he said. "It is because they were coming to attack us."
The claim that locals are sometimes the aggressors was corroborated by others later. "They came to hurt us," said a young man I'll call Leroy, whom I met in Arusha and who worked for Thomson Safaris as ground staff at Enashiva and their other Tanzanian properties for almost a decade. (He quit several months before we met.) The only bad incidents he witnessed between grazers and the company were when the villagers came looking for a fight, like in February 2014, when a group came to the campsite "armed with bows and arrows and threatening us" (there were no guests at the time). The guards called the police, and the group dispersed after officers fired shots into the air, Leroy said.
Yamat offered two reasons for why he believed his company was being victimized by a small group of locals. The first was old clan tensions, difficult for outsiders to perceive. Because Thomson Safaris had disrupted the long-standing order of things by creating jobs and doing charitable work for all local clans, the groups that used to have more power made up stories about the company in retribution.
The second reason was Maanda Ngoitiko, the women's rights activist, who's become an object of obsession for Thomson Safaris and its backers. "Just look at this," Yamat said, handing me two pieces of paper. The pages were printouts from PWC's own website, their 2011 and 2012 funding sources. He explained that if I dug deeper I'd see that Ngoitiko was inventing a conflict with Thomson Safaris to enrich herself and build her international profile. Also, he said, she was taking money from a rival tour operator to boot Thomson Safaris from the land. He insisted that what Thomson Safaris had planned for me for the rest of the day would help me see the light about her and this entire fictitious conflict.
"Everything we do is out of very good intentions," Yamat said. "We end up with undesirable consequences."
I left Enashiva, following Yamat's vehicle in my car, feeling good. I hadn't yet been arrested like other reporters and was on my way to getting Thomson Safaris' side of the story. Then, halfway back to Sukenya, Yamat's car stopped in an open field as scores of Maasai were appearing on the horizon, closing in around us. The company had, without my knowing, organized a giant community meeting for me to hear directly from locals on the matter. Yamat didn't stay—"so that you can see this is impartial"—and instead handed us off to a village chairman named William Alias, who would make sure we had "anything we needed."
Under the sparse shade of leafless trees, I stood between a giant group of men on one side and an equally large contingent of women on the other. I introduced myself and my photographer and translator and opened the floor for people to speak their mind on Thomson Safaris, tourism, development, and Maasai life in the 21st century. I asked those speaking to alternate between men and women.
The first to rise was a man named Gabriel Olikilie. "NGOs are a cancer on our society!" he said, referring to PWC and other local NGOs that have joined the campaign against Thomson Safaris. He then launched into a ten-minute tirade in impeccable English. "Writing a lot of Facebook blah, blah, blah, terrorizing investors to stop assistance to help the poor people. We need them! America, we need investors! Europe, we need investors!" he railed. "We have to use our own land to benefit. We cannot stay forever like this—with ignorance and poverty. The NGOs are blocking us from developing." After he was done, he tried to sit down. I reminded him he ought to say it all again, in Maasai, so that everyone else could understand. He begrudgingly obliged.
Gabriel Olikile addresses a tense community meeting organized by Thomson officials, with calls for the Maasai to modernize and to reject local NGOs.
One man rose in objection and said the meeting was a fraud. Only certain people, those who would speak highly of the company, had been told about the meeting, he claimed. Still, I listened intently to almost three hours of short personal testimony about the good Thomson Safaris has done in the community. "They use their vehicles to drive us to the hospital," one man said, after the disgruntled critic sat. "They have built us schools and are trying to improve our lives," a woman added. Several women said they were grateful for the added income they got from selling beadwork to tourists.
After the meeting, my translator and I approached several people requesting one-on-one interviews for the next day. Then exhausted—I was almost five months pregnant at the time—I needed to rest. I told Alias, the chief who'd been organizing the event, that we'd have to postpone our prearranged visits to Thomson-funded projects until the following day. He also seemed to think I had an obligation to interview him; I said I would, but that I'd do it at the end of the day, after speaking with others. He insisted we visit just one school that was on our way, and I agreed. We followed his car out, but when we discovered he was leading us in the opposite direction from the guesthouse where I was staying, we told him we were turning around. He wasn't happy.
The next morning, I did an early interview at our guesthouse. As I finished, Noah, the photographer traveling with me (who is also my brother), stepped in. "We've got trouble," he said.
He led me to a skinny man with thin lips and a stiff jaw, dressed in a fine suit, who greeted us with a glare. He told us to sit down in the dining area of the guesthouse and introduced himself as Loliondo's district commissioner, Elias Wawa Lali. He demanded our passports and visa papers. A few minutes later I sat with Loliondo's head of security. "What happens in your country when someone breaks the law?" he asked as he flipped through my passport. "Do they just get to go free?"
A three-hour interrogation began. The local officials who questioned us started with allegations that we had taken pictures of children without parental permission. This was an odd charge, given the likely number of foreigners in Tanzania who shoot pictures of Maasai kids every day. Then they said we didn't have our visa paperwork in order, though they had to back off that one when their own immigration agent arrived and told them that we did. They were also mad that we didn't follow what they said was protocol: Upon arrival we should have gone to the district commissioner to explain our reporting and get personal permission (it's true we didn't, wanting to get the story rather than being immediately kicked out, as had been the fate of previous journalists who had followed "protocol").
Quickly, however, they shifted focus from what we had done wrong to fishing for underlying motives. They wanted to know who "had sent us to Loliondo" and were not satisfied by the explanation that we had arrived on our own volition and not at the behest of someone with something to gain in the dispute. They wanted to know who had arranged for our entrance into communities, who had taken us around in previous days, and the names of people we had spoken with. They took Noah's cameras and reviewed his photos to see whether they could be grounds for arrest. Once it became clear that we weren't going to reveal our sources, they spent an hour focused on our translator, threatening to let him "rot in prison" if he didn't spill everything. (Despite his nerves, he held his ground.)
I was frantically calling lawyers off to the side as the baby kicked up a storm in my belly. Noah and I communicated via text until we were ordered not to use our phones. When I tried to insist that they give our translator a chance to tell us what they were saying to him, the district commissioner told him not to translate a word and then barked at me, "You keep your mouth shut!"
Though very shaken, I wasn't surprised. It was clear who had brought the district commissioner to us. Noah had seen him enter with Alias, Thomson Safaris' man on the ground, whom I had pissed off the day before. Noah confronted him, asking whether he was the one who had handed us over to the local authorities. "Yes," Alias said, "I did."
So we played a final card. After hours of back-and-forth and not-so-veiled threats of jail, when it seemed like our being kicked out—or worse—was imminent, we explained that we had planned to use our last day to visit Thomson Safaris projects, speak to their supporters, and interview Alias as promised—all of which was true. Suddenly, we were granted a 24-hour grace period on the condition that we'd stick to the program set out for us and must then leave at 7:30 AM the following day. Alias and his men insisted on coming in our vehicle; one later clarified that the commissioner told him not to leave us alone.
The ensuing corporate good-works tour lasted several hours. We saw an OBC-funded well, teacher housing built by Thomson Safaris, and a school they helped finance. "You see," one of the men said to me, "investors are the ones who care about the Maasai people." But a strange trend arose on our final day: Even the people Alias was leading me to didn't deny the allegations against Thomson Safaris when I spoke to them one-on-one.
During my last interview, a man from Sukenya named Olegelumo Olaise began by telling me that "Thomson are good people because they try to help us." As we talked more, though, he said that his "heart became painful" when Thomson Safaris took the land, because his family depended on that area for grazing. He said he still goes there despite the prohibition, and he's had his cattle "arrested" by the company's guards several times. He runs when a Thomson Safaris vehicle approaches, he told me, fearing that, if caught, "I will be shot or punished or arrested."
After leaving Tanzania, I knew I had to speak directly with Judi Wineland and Rick Thomson. Easier said than done. They often refuse interview requests and had even brought a lawsuit against an anonymous blogger of a website that reported on the allegations I was writing about. (The suit recently settled, and the site has been taken down.) We went back and forth over email several times before they agreed to a spoken interview. They, like the district commissioner, asked whether I had been hired by Ngoitiko's group or any other NGO with a vested interest in this fight. "I am extremely concerned about talking with you," Wineland wrote in an early exchange. "Have you considered that the story that has been perpetuated is totally fictitious? […] Something not right here, Jean."
But they acquiesced and we connected on Skype: me from my home in Vietnam, and them from "a windy place," they said. "We don't actually mention to anybody when we travel where we are."
We talked for more than two hours. They started at the beginning, with Wineland's lifelong love of travel and intercultural exchange, which began with "a guitar and a group of women" in the burn wards of Japan, Korea, and Guam in the late 60s. She started Overseas Adventure Travel in 1978 with $300 out of a Harvard Square apartment that was barely bigger than a bathroom. She said she'd been the only woman running an adventure outfitter in the US at the time and she got people to go to Nepal and Kenya and Peru to do backpacking and immerse themselves culturally.
The couple's connection to Tanzania began in the early 1980s, near Lake Natron, a Maasai area not far from Loliondo, where a plaque still stands commemorating Wineland and a women's group as the founders of the region's first school. She spoke of their "really good Maasai friends" and recalled having "discussions with elders lasting days," about education, patriarchy, and the future of the Maasai people. "They were so clear that tourism would be a good thing," she said.
The 2006 newspaper ad for the plot in Loliondo was therefore "just the opportunity to continue the work and passion that began in Lake Natron." They already had three other businesses in Tanzania but none in such close proximity to rural Maasai villages, where, they believed, locals could benefit greatly from the charitable work the couple planned to enable.
I asked Wineland whether she had looked into the history of the land and the region before purchasing. "Did we know there was controversy? No, we did not," she told me. They had not visited the site to consult with locals before purchasing the title. When Wineland did eventually hear that some people thought the land belonged to the community and should not have been sold to them, they didn't pay it any mind. "There are so many millions of stories out there," Wineland said. She emphasized the transparency of the sale, citing a Tanzanian government investigation that found that the company had purchased the land legally.
Wineland insisted they'd had extensive conversations with "local elders" about their plans once the title was purchased, explaining how they'd hoped their business would benefit the local communities. "There was great excitement" in those meetings, the couple recalled. "It was very encouraging for us."
When it comes to the abuse allegations, they insisted that their scouts are "really nice to the people," and that scouts know that if they lay a hand on any grazer they will be fired. The only time police get involved is if staff or guest safety is threatened, they said. Regarding the charges of abuse and shootings, they challenged me to find one instance that was indisputably "true." I explained that they were right—hospital records of injuries don't prove their guards were the attackers. Who is to say that those arrested for trespassing weren't on the verge of throwing spears at guests or staff members? There is no written record that any company official had ordered the police to burn Lemgume's boma in 2006. I had dug and dug, and there is no tangible evidence that links Timan's shooting to a policeman called in by Thomson Safaris. In every case, it's the word of the victim against that of the company. It could all be an elaborate conspiracy.
But when it comes to why someone or some group would go to such lengths to discredit Thomson Safaris, the company's founders are at a loss. They reiterated the possibilities of clan division and the role of provocateurs.
By this time it was hard for me to put much stock in either. While in Loliondo, I had been told that Thomson Safaris is using historical clan tensions to their advantage, not the other way around. As for the charges that local activists had a financial stake in resisting their title, I had already investigated Yamat's claims, and none had panned out. Nogikoto's NGO granted VICE access to all of its financial documents, and I spoke with donors. I found nothing to substantiate claims that they were using the dispute to enrich themselves. Nor had Nogikoto ever been employed by a rival safari company, as Yamat had claimed. Yamat had given me lots of other "leads" that were dead ends as well—such as the idea that Timan's wound could not have been caused by a bullet, a theory that a forensic pathologist in the US I consulted refuted. 1
Still, I wanted to hear Wineland and Thomson out. They said the proof that they weren't guilty of anything was that they were still operating and even applauded by the Tanzanian government. (Their company is a three-time honoree of the Tanzania Tourist Board: 2001's Tour Operator of the Year, 2005's Humanitarian of the Year, and 2009's Tanzania Conservation Award.) They told me about the "investigation" by the government, a several-hundred-word document, which concluded that Thomson Safaris had purchased the property legally.
I mentioned to Wineland and Thomson a conversation I'd had with an expert in Arusha on land issues who asked to remain nameless. "There is no question the government is on the side of Thomson Safaris," he told me. "[The government] gives a kind of respect to investors so long as they pay taxes and bring in tourist dollars. For the public, the government uses the reasoning of putting the environment above all else. Investors can even violate human rights and the government is not going to look into it or punish them for it."
"[If there was] anything illegal about this," Thomson told me in reply, "it would have been stopped long ago, and we would have been kicked out."
Wineland then said that it's always been the company's aim to do more than just build schools. They plan to "pass the baton" to locals in the long run, but that power transfer is a long way off. "We need to be able to teach them to do this," she said. Their first step was taking a group of local Maasai to Kenya to view some alternative community-tourism models in which villages have a say in operations. Another idea is to teach wildlife management to community members before handing over control. No one in Loliondo mentioned this long-term vision to me. Wineland said the community strife has blocked their every turn. "It's been nine years of difficulty in getting to hit the go button to make this all happen," Thomson said.
Before ending the call, I wanted to float one more theory about how, after almost a decade, there could be a situation of two such contrasting realities. In Loliondo, several people said to me that they had met Wineland or Thomson and that they seemed like genuinely good people. Maybe, Loliondo residents told me, things had gone awry because of over-enforcement on the ground. Maybe Wineland and Thomson really didn't know.
The couple, however, quickly disputed this. They said they are at Enashiva several times a year and always ask Yamat and their scouts—whom they said they trust completely—for detailed reports on everything that's gone on.
"But," I asked, in all these years, "have you ever gone and tried to have direct conversations with any of the individuals [who make the allegations]?"
"Some of them you can't even find!" Thomson interjected, mumbling about how the police say some arrest records have been falsified with fictitious names.
"But some of them you can," I said, "because I talked to them."
There was a pause, and then Wineland answered: "Personally?" she said. "No."
1 The Arusha Regional Police would not address any of the allegations in this piece, and an official stated only that he had "no time to speak with any journalist about crimes." He also said that "the only work a journalist does is to fool people." The district commissioner, Elias Wawa Lali, retired this February, and when I asked him for comment, he replied, "I am the retired DC and old in age; I do not need to be disturbed anymore."
Outside the one-story High Court building in Arusha, on a brisk December morning, Makko, the Mondorosi village chairman, stood in a huddle with Ndekerei and several other Loliondo residents. Ngoitiko was on her way. A little before 9 AM, the men, in shukas and secondhand suit jackets, filed down a narrow hallway lined with shelves of unorganized manila folders, followed by lawyers in long black robes. It was hard getting through; the door to the courtroom was partially blocked by an old lawnmower left in the way.
I sat in on the first days of the proceedings brought by three Loliondo villages against Thomson Safaris. "The case is based on a legal principle known as adverse possession," Rashid S. Rashid, a lawyer for the Maasai plaintiffs, told me. "If an owner of a land does not prohibit someone coming in, doesn't do anything to dispute them using the land for a certain period of time—in Tanzania it's twelve years—then that piece of property reverts to that person. It's like squatter's rights, but much stronger." Rashid is arguing on behalf of the Maasai that the brewery that sold the title to Thomson Safaris' owners abandoned the property 16 years before Wineland and Thomson ever saw the ad in the newspaper. The sale was therefore illegal, they argue, and the land title should be returned to its rightful owners, the villages. Wineland and Thomson refused to comment on anything related to the trial and would not give their counsel in Tanzania permission to be interviewed for this story.
Regardless of the outcome, the court battle holds significance far greater than the fate of 12,000 square acres in the geographic center of Africa. "This is not an exceptional story of evil conservation," said Ben Gardner, an anthropologist who chairs the African studies program at the University of Washington. What's unique, he said, is that the plaintiffs are arguing in favor of the most controversial idea in conservation politics: giving the land back to its original owners. "If something is for sale and you buy it, how could you possibly be culpable of wrongdoing? Investors get a veil of moral cleanliness. You don't have to account for any history of dispossession or colonialism or the consequences of conservation work."
With much of the natural world in the Global North already past the point of no return, and with the effects of climate change multiplying yearly, more and more of the Global South is being cordoned off in service of a global patrimony that has little relevance to the lives of the people closest to the land. The collateral social damage of these conservationist policies presents a conundrum, a Sophie's Choice. Whose rights are preeminent—those of nature or those of the people who have always lived closest to it?
Often, native groups are kicked off and then, like the Maasai, told to adapt. "We have a tendency to blame the victim, and we don't even realize we are doing it," said Charles Geisler, a professor of development sociology at Cornell University and an expert on conservation refugees. "The onus is always on the conservation refugee to change. We impose lower grazing ratios or reduced water rights… Very slowly, they have no choice but to overutilize the ecosystem. Or they exit, and in the course of losing their homeland, they lose their identity."
Young boys may not shake hands with elders until they are circumcised as teenagers. Instead, they greet their fathers by bowing their heads.
The Maasai are attempting to maintain a delicate balance between choices they've been given, and they don't all have the same answers. After my trip, I kept thinking about the community meeting Thomson Safaris had arranged for us. Despite their fame as warriors, the group was extremely civil when dealing with one another. It was their facial expressions, subtle noises, and silent protests (one contingent of women walked away during one man's speech, for example) during the meeting that made me realize why the Sukenya priest I interviewed on the first day wanted to sit in a ditch. This was a community being torn apart at its seams.
It's not always so hard. There are community-based tourism models in Tanzania and elsewhere in the world in which locals retain land rights so that they can negotiate whatever matters most to them, be it grazing rights or farming acreage or fishing access. For instance, just a short drive from Sukenya, the company &Beyond leases acreage from a local community on which they operate tours. Members of the community limit their herding and police themselves. It's not a perfect arrangement, the company and villagers told us, but both sides benefit from a peaceful coexistence. There are also conservation models in which native groups administer their own business projects—touristic or otherwise—on protected land. Success of these projects will be essential for the health both of natural environments and indigenous communities in an era of climate change and growing populations.
But Loliondo may be well beyond such compromise. At this point, there are two likely ways out. The courts could offer a tidy resolution starting this May. If the villages win, Wineland and Thomson said, they will appeal, but if that fails, they will respect the ruling and leave. If the villages lose the court case, neat closure is probably impossible. Several Loliondo residents told me that while they are proud to have brought the suit, they don't trust Tanzania's notorious judicial system, which is more corrupt than even the country's politicians. If the side with more power and money comes out on top, it's doubtful anyone could calm the Maasai. "We are no longer being hunted," the local elder Lemgume said to me the day we met. "Now we are hunting. That's our ground, and we will get it back."
See more images below.
Driving through Maasai land in Loliondo, near the Kenyan border.