Maasai face eviction from ancestral lands to make way for Dubai hunting firm

Tanzania plans to reduce Maasai areas by 40 percent, citing 'overgrazing.' A mass protest fell apart this week, but Maasai women took up the cause and organized their own sit-in.

Karel Prinsloo/Reuters
Maasai herd their cattle across a tarmac road near the Rift Valley town of Suswa, about 43 miles west of the capital Nairobi, in March.

Tanzania announced last week it plans to evict 30,000 Maasai herders from a hefty swath of their ancestral lands in order to create a game reserve offering exclusive access for a Dubai-based hunting company.  

Maasai activists say the proposal, which reduces their space here by 40 percent, will destroy their traditional cattle-herding livelihood. But their attempts earlier this week to hold a mass protest fell apart -- causing Maasai women to organize their own sit-ins, with as many 1,000 camping out in one town.

The government says the corridor is a necessity for conservation in the northern Loliondo region bordering the Serengeti, and charges that Maasai cattle are overgrazing the land. 

The Maasai once ranged across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, following seasonal rains with their cattle. But over the years they have slowly been fenced into a few areas like Loliondo.

Now, they could be losing some of that land, too. According to the proposal, they would be locked out of the planned corridor, while Ortello Business Corp. (OBC), a Dubai-based hunting outfit that has operated in Loliondo since 1992, would be granted access.

Maasai tribe members resent the prospect of soldiers and foreigners roaming fenced-off pastureland. During a 2009 drought, violence broke out between Maasai and the OBC staff, who reportedly burned houses and livestock. 

An attempt this week at a mass protest rally,  where some 50 local politicians threatened to resign from office, ultimately fell apart. The local politicians reneged on their promise to resign and local police outlawed public gatherings in the district, scaring many people away. Trucks of soldiers dispersed many of the demonstrators.

“I lost my faith in my government,” said one local woman, Napano Koyan.

Maasai women, dressed in traditional red shukas with shining jewelry, are now resisting on their own. Defying both the ban on gatherings and the patriarchal Maasai culture, by midweek they began holding small sit-ins under wiry acacia trees in villages across Loliondo, where they debated whether they should go to court or march on OBC’s camp. 

Paulina Pere, a mother of four, walked two days across the savannah, wearing sandals made from rubber tires, to attend the demonstration. She was adamant she would not leave Loliondo.  “I live on this land,” she said.  “I gave birth to my children on this land, and when I die, I will go inside this land.”

Her dramatic gesture reflects the Maasai’s complete dependence on land for livestock, which they use to buy food, clothing, and school fees.  

“I would even walk with no shoes because our land has been taken,” Ms. Pere says, adding that the loss of land “means poverty and death” for her and other families.

Numbers of women at sit-ins have swelled in recent days, with protesters refusing to leave, despite a further deployment of government troops that are driving the muddy roads of Loliondo in open air trucks waving dark red warning flags. 

Tourism Minister Khamis Kagasheki said last week the government will not budge from its plans, described as a compromise that would divide current Maasai territory by giving about 40 percent for a wildlife zone and the rest to the Maasai for grazing.  

“There is no government in the world that can just let an area so important to conservation to be wasted away by overgrazing,” Mr. Kagasheki said.

Benjamin Gardner, a cultural geographer at the University of Washington who has studied the Maasai since 1992, says he doubts they are harming the environment. 

“The way the Maasai manage the range actually encourages wildlife,” Mr. Gardner says, citing their aversion to hunting, and prescribed burns that regenerate grass.

But Tanzania is also in need of foreign investment. Livestock rearing, although economically productive for people in Loliondo, is less lucrative for the government than tourism. The OBC hunting firm’s clients include the United Arab Emirates royal family, and pay so well that in the past, Tanzania’s president Jakaya Kikwete has dispatched troops to keep the hunting grounds free of  cattle and locals.

The reporter is anonymous for security reasons.

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