Rights groups and the UN have called on the Tanzanian government to halt the seizing of Maasai land in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo.
Tanzania has begun relocating Maasai herders living in the Ngorongoro conservation area, in a move that rights groups describe as unlawful evictions.
The community, which has lived in the area for over a century, has seen growing tensions with the government since the beginning of the year, when the authorities began demarcating 1500 sq km of disputed land in Loliondo. The area in the country's north is home to a world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage site.
Around 150,000 people are believed to be at risk of eviction, the UN said in a statement, including 70,000 in Loliondo and 80,000 in Ngorongoro.
The government says the growing Maasai population constitutes a threat to local wildlife habitat, and that it is relocating residents voluntarily.
But activists point to the existence of previous plans to use the land as a game reserve for elite tourism.
Many residents have been protesting the decision, and violence broke out between protesters and security forces last week in Loliondo, when the government deployed around 700 officers to demarcate the designated area. The clashes resulted in the death of a police officer and left around 30 people injured. According to a press statement by local environmental activists, around 700 people have now crossed the border to Kenya to flee the violence.
The UN and human rights groups have condemned the violence and called on the government to halt the plans because it is “impossible to guarantee that the relocation of the Maasai from the area will not amount to forced evictions.”
“We are concerned by Tanzania’s plans,” the UN experts said in a statement, adding that displacing the community without the prior informed consent “will cause irreparable harm, and could amount to dispossession, forced eviction and arbitrary displacement prohibited under international law.”
Arusha regional commissioner John Mongella said around 296 families had registered to move to Handeni, a district 600 kilometres south of Ngorongoro.
"There is no eviction here, all people who are leaving [are] voluntarily registered and the government is facilitating them," Mongella said in a video statement, adding the government had designated 162,000 hectares of land for those who had agreed to relocate.
But not everyone has agreed to move, as the community remains divided on the issue.
Historically, Tanzania has allowed traditional pastoralist communities such as the Maasai to live in its national parks. Since 1959, the number of people living in Ngorongoro has shot up from 8,000 to more than 100,000. The livestock population has also grown.
Violent clashes and displacement
On June 9, Tanzanian police showed up at a community meeting held in the village of Ololosokwan, in Loliondo, to communicate to its leaders plans to demarcate the game reserve area. They asked community leaders to follow them to their military camp to discuss the issue, but they declined.
Clashes broke out, with many people, activists say, taken to Kenya to be treated in hospitals there.
In 2018, the East African Court of Justice issued a court injunction against evictions in the area. The court is expected to rule on the issue on June 22.