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Battle over the Serengeti pits Maasai against Dubai

Maasai women in Tanzania are trying to sustain weeks of protest against a government plan  to appropriate a large swath of traditional grazing pasture to a Dubai big-game hunting firm. 

By Jason PatinkinCorrespondent / April 30, 2013

Morkelekei Gume (r.) is a Maasai woman who lost a child during the 2009 clashes between herders and OBC security.

Jason Patinkin

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Loliondo region, Tanzania

The Maasai of northern Tanzania continue to scramble to stop a government plan to turn 600 square miles of their traditional grazing pasture into a private hunting reserve for foreign tourists.

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The plan, announced in March and stoutly opposed by Maasai activists led by women, would mean the eviction of some 30,000 herders in the Loliondo area near Serengeti National Park.

The land would be appropriated for a sporting ground or “wildlife corridor” for the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a big-game hunting firm owned by Dubai’s royal family.

Tanzania authorities say a new corridor will protect the migration zones of the wildebeest; but the Maasai say their livelihood as cattle herders will be destroyed.

The plan to take land was first announced in early spring as a kind of fait accompli by Tanzania’s minister for tourism, Khamis Kagasheki.

Maasai females in particular were outraged and organized protests across the Loliondo highland savannah. Their group got support from Tanzania’s powerful ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), and a delegation of Maasai leaders, including women activists, were given a meeting to air their grievances with prime minister Mizengo Pinda.

In the meeting, Mr. Pinda assured the Maasai activists that he supported their cause and would take their concerns to the president, according to members of the delegation. But no official decisions have been made since the meeting with Pinda two weeks ago. The women fear the government is stalling.

“We are worried that this is just a smokescreen,” said Morgayamat Maanda, a grandmother of seven, speaking of the meeting with the prime minister.

Indeed, Pinda’s spokesman told the Monitor that the government’s position is still that of Mr. Kagasheki, the tourism minister. Kagasheki had earlier launched a national media campaign claiming the Maasai are squatters on government land, and that their cattle are overgrazing and threaten the local wildlife.

With no clear answer from Pinda, the women are camping in tiny Arash village in the shadow of one of the corridor’s forested mountains, debating whether to sell their husbands’ cows for funds in order to travel to Dar es Salaam to demand an audience with President Jakaya Kikwete.

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