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The Tanzanian Government Is About to Kill Off the Maasai

They're kicking them off their land and all their cows are going to die.

by Claire Simpson, Photos by Lottie Gross
22 May 2013, 7:00am

In Loliondo, northern Tanzania, thousands of Maasai tribespeople are digging their heels deep into their ancestral land. Again. This time it's because the Tanzanian government claim they want to turn that ancestral land into a wildlife reserve – a move that could potentially wipe out every member of the tribe living in the area.

I say "claim" because rumour has it that the government are evicting the Maasai in order to give Dubai-based hunting company Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) exclusive access to the area for commercial hunting. Yannick Ndoinyo, a Loliondo Maasai community leader, claimed the speculation is true, telling me that a minister visited his tribe and directly laid out their plans.

"It's true that they want to take our land for OBC to hunt. I can confirm that," he told me, before explaining the government's pretence of turning the land into a wildlife reserve: “The minister said, ‘We are taking the land in the name of conservation so that you'll have nowhere to take your cries, because the international community supports conservation.'"

And it looks like the conservation thing is the last in a long line of government excuses for trying to snatch the 1,500 square km of Maasai land. They first tried to claim that the Maasai must be removed because their cattle are over-grazing the land, but researchers maintain that the cattle have been there for so long that without them the ecosystem could be tipped out of balance.

Another failed justification is that they’re taking control of the land to protect water sources in the area. But that seems pretty dubious considering they conveniently looked the other way when OBC built their base camp within metres of the main water source for local wildlife and several surrounding villages. 

And although the plans to create a wildlife reserve seem plausible – there are multiple herds of African game flourishing in the area – the government ousting the Maasai is completely unnecessary. The tribe have lived on the land, surrounded by the animals, for hundreds of years and, even after having half of their land taken to make way for the Serengeti National Park, continue to make plenty of sacrifices in the name of conservation.    

Yannick explained: “We have trouble with the animals. They come and kill people, they come and eat farms, they come and eat cows, yet we are still happy. We don’t have a problem with that. We complain a bit, but still the animals come and eat our grass, eat our animals, destroy our farms and kill our people. And still they flourish.

“We cannot take any more. We are ready to do whatever we can to conserve the rare species, the wildlife, the forests, but we cannot just watch as our land is being taken for unreasonable interest. It’s not justifiable in our eyes. Conservation is no longer justifiable. Because we have given land and we cannot give any more. It’s so small already, and our population is growing. We need to support our children in every way we can – we need to support our families. So what we are asking is for the international community to understand and to support us in our cause, because it is a noble one. We are fighting a noble cause.”

Jo Woodman of Survival International – the only existing organisation working for African tribespeople’s rights – explained, “This is a case where you could have very good synergy between the interests of the Maasai and the interests of conservation and tourism. What the majority of tourists want to go to that area to see is the wildlife, and to get a chance to interact with the Maasai. So they’re three perfectly harmonious aims that could be achieved together. But as long as the government makes out that the Maasai are the problem and that they need to be removed from the area, it’s all going to collapse.”


Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. (Image via)

The majority of Tanzanians, including the Prime Minister, are backing the Masaai, but President Kikwete and Khamis Kagasheki, the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, are refusing to budge. Yannick’s explanation is simple: “OBC is a high priority company. Their only clients are the royal family of Dubai, so they’re getting some kind of preferential treatment from the government because of the reputation they have in their country. That’s why they are being better protected by our government than the local people.”

Yannick and his community understand that the government is under pressure, but as one of Africa’s oldest tribes and as actual Tanzanian citizens, they believe they should have the final say. “I hope the government, in the end, gives in to our demands. We are not trespassers here, we are the original owners,” Yannick asserted.

The Maasai have called the government’s plan “a death sentence” and have been left with no choice but to fight for survival. It’s not a matter of the land, but rather the existence of their pastoralist way of life. “If the land is going to be taken, it means about 85 percent of our land will be reduced. It will be gone," Yannick explained. "That means 7,000 people will not be able to carry on their livelihood. They will either become refugees or become displaced, and that is going to be the end for us. And we are not prepared to welcome that. The community from Loliondo will be extinct, so we are saying that we would rather unite and protect our land.”

Their cattle are the Maasai’s livelihood, providing them with meat, milk, blood and acting as a form of currency to barter for other goods. So if the tribe are forced into an area that cannot sustain their herds, they'll be forced to watch as their livestock die, before their families then begin to perish.

A representative of the African Initiatives charity who's been working in Loliondo explained how the pressure is mounting: “There could easily be conflict in the area if the Maasai refuse to leave the land. A lot of people talk about the army and trucks being used, and if that happens there would be violence. The Maasai are arguably a lot more aware of their rights now than they were in the past, so they’ve had a lot of community mobilisation and better communications between the different tribes, which means the risk of conflict increases because they would take a collective stand.”

Yannick confirmed this, telling me, “There’s going to be some violence. If people are going to be evicted forcefully, then we will probably also undertake some violent action to prevent that from happening. We have made it clear to everybody that we're going to do whatever we can to protect our land.”

Unfortunately, looking at every possible outcome, if the Maasai get violent they're simply signing their own inevitable death warrant. They’ll either die fighting for their land or fighting with the people whose land they get dumped on. Or starving to death after their cattle are all wiped out. Whatever way it goes, things aren't looking good for Yannick and his people.

Regardless, the Maasai have reached a breaking point and are determined to keep fighting by whatever means necessary. As Yannick told me, “This land gives life to us every day, and to take it away from us means that we must perish or become refugees forever. There is no single project that benefits the nation but deprives its citizens of life or dignity. We need to be heard because this is not some temporary noise from remote pastoralists, it is about giving life or death.”

Follow Claire on Twitter: @ClaireSimpzim

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