Violence broke out between protesters and security forces in Tanzania in recent weeks as the government moved in to implement a controversial plan for a game reserve.
Ephaim has lived under the threat of eviction for years. A Maasai tribesman, his village of Ololosokwan, on the eastern edge of the world-renowned Serengeti National Park, was one of four villages to take the government to court in 2017 over its attempt to evict communities living in the Loliondo division in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro district – to make space for a game reserve.
But the 70-year-old retired teacher never thought he’d be eventually violently expelled to Kenya, after police and security forces raided the village in Tanzania’s Arusha, one of the country’s 31 administrative regions, in mid-June, storming a community meeting where locals had gathered to discuss the government’s most recent move to evict them from their land.
“I was near my home. Police got out of the car and told us to lay on the ground,” Ephaim recounts, speaking to TRT World from a hospital ward across the border in Naikarra, Kenya, where he was taken after sustaining injuries.
“We didn’t have any weapons,” he says, adding that the police started beating him and a friend he was talking to.
“I told them ‘are you killing us like wild animals? What did we do wrong?’ but they continued beating me,” he adds.
Local activists say anywhere between 700 and 2,000 people—including women and children— fled the government crackdown in the Loliondo region of northern Tanzania in June, with at least 28 people reported to have sustained serious injuries during a demonstration against the demarcation of 1,500 sq km of land where 70,000 Maasai pastoralists live.
With limited help available for the refugees, it is unclear how many are still in Kenya. But some, like Stephen Parmuat, fear persecution should they return.
“I ran to Kenya after realising government officials were looking for me, after I posted about the incidents on social media,” the 30-year-old tells TRT World. He says he helped dozens of his fellow Maasais cross the border to be treated in Kenyan hospitals.
“Some of the patients feared being handed over to the police in Tanzania,” Stephen, whose family, including three young children, has sought shelter with an acquaintance, recounts. “And those who were rescuing them also feared arrest in Tanzania.”
One policeman was killed in the June clashes, which were condemned by human rights groups. In response, the police took a dozen people into custody and charged them with murder, activists say.
The UN has called on the government to stop the planned evictions, given that it appears “impossible to guarantee that the relocation of the Maasai from the area will not amount to forced evictions and arbitrary displacement under international law”.
The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) issued an injunction against the evictions as a result of the lawsuit by the four Loliondo villages, but postponed a final decision due in mid-June, a few days after protests erupted.
An additional 80,000 people are at risk of displacement in the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area, home to a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In an address to the Tanzanian parliament after the violence, prime minister Kassim Majaliwa dismissed reports of a crisis in the region.
“I know there are people who do not like the ongoing government’s exercise which is intended to find an amicable solution in Ngorongoro District.” Majaliwa told MPs. “These are the ones who fuel misunderstandings between the government and the citizens,” he stated.
On June 17, the government declared 1,500 sq kilometres in Loliondo a new game reserve.
“The exercise of placing beacons for this reserve has been completed,” the minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Dr Pindi Chana, said at a recent meeting of stakeholders, noting the government’s concerns for population growth in the area.
“The reality is that the population is growing, livestock is increasing,” Chana added. “Our government is now giving its people a good location at Msomera village in the Tanga Region. Therefore, those who relocate voluntarily will have the right to be provided with housing, agricultural land, livestock areas and also the infrastructure continues to be improved,” she added.
TRT World reached out to the natural resources ministry for comment on the relocations, but had not received a response at the time of publication. Additional land has been set aside in Handeni for residents of Ngorongoro, where 21 households have already relocated, according to local media reports.
“Colonial legacy” of displacement
The Maasai pastoralists have shared land and resources of the savannah with its famed wildlife—zebras, elephants and wildebeests—and living for generations in areas which are now tourism hotspots. Loliondo is one of the homes of the Maasai community, which is spread across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.
The Maasais of Loliondo were first relocated from the newly-established Serengeti National Park by British colonial authorities in 1959. At the time, the government promised that the well-being of the people living in the area would take precedence over the preservation of wildlife in the savannah.
Then in the 1970s, the Arusha Manifesto assigned international conservation organisations a leading role in the planning and management of conservation areas in Africa. A series of laws passed in subsequent years, including the 1974 Wildlife Act, changed the status of the land – creating an uncertain future for the Maasai.
Wildlife conservation groups lobbied for increasing restrictions on the movement of people, cultivation and grazing in wildlife protected areas.
“Since the beginning, the idea of protected areas comes from a colonial and racist model,” Fiore Longo, a campaigner at Survival International, an organisation working for the rights of indigenous people, tells TRT World.
“There was this idea that Europeans [not only] have the right to conquer and colonise Africa, but they also have the science to understand the natural world,” she adds, “and created national parks and game reserves to protect the flora and fauna they were encountering.”
When African countries gained independence, she argues, international conservation NGOs were created with the same aim — protecting nature from local people.
Yet according to the World Bank, indigenous people are responsible for safeguarding 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
Loliondo was designated as a so-called “game-controlled” area in 1951 – set aside for the purpose of wildlife hunting. The Maasai retained the right to live and graze livestock in the area.
In 2009, thousands of Maasais were evicted from eight villages in Loliondo to make way for a private company to organise hunting expeditions. The land had been granted to the company in 1993, denying the Maasai grazing and water use in their own land.
That agreement was cancelled in 2017 following corruption allegations involving former tourism ministers. But locals claim the private company has never left Loliondo.
“Our homeland has been turned into a hunting park, with wealthy people coming in to hunt the wildlife. We have witnessed this killing of wildlife for fun since 1992,” the Loliondo community recently said in a statement presented at the UN biodiversity negotiations this month.
“We are not against conservation, but we see and conceptualise it from a different perspective,” the statement added. Many conservation organisations, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature point to the “benefits” of well-managed trophy hunting as an effective conservation tool. The IUCN condemned the recent violence in Loliondo, but did not respond to a request for further comments.
“There is this ambiguity,” says Longo, “they say trophy hunting is good, but sustainable hunting from indigenous people should be banned.”
Poverty as a weapon
In March 2019, a joint monitoring mission by the IUCN, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) called for action to control population growth in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The argument that drives such campaigns against indigenous people is similar globally: growing human population leading to increasing human-wildlife conflict over access to food and water. In the case of Loliondo, foreign conservationists even claimed that the growing livestock population—with their cowbells and similar accessories creating too much noise—was driving away wildlife from the area.
This was bad news for a government heavily dependent on the revenue from tourism—more than 18 percent of Tanzania’s GDP.
This resulted in the government’s plan to redraw the map of the area, evict residents in Loliondo, and further restrict development in Ngorongoro, where several schools and government buildings received demolition orders last year.
Joseph Oleshangay, a resident of Ngorongoro and a lawyer with the Legal and Human Rights Centre, says that development in the area has been held back for many years in order to make the relocations possible.
“Building good houses in Ngorongoro has been rejected for many years because the government has been thinking that the moment it relocates these people, it would be too costly to compensate them,” Oleshangay tells TRT World.
“The government has been containing them to ensure they will not develop anything meaningful. Poverty has been used as a weapon to ensure that relocation becomes possible,” he says.