Will Tanzania sell Masai homelands to a Dubai corporation?

The Tanzanian government seems to be moving ahead with a deal to sell 600 square miles of land to a UAE luxury safari company, but that land is currently home to thousands of Masai pastoralists.

A Masai youth pauses while walking to a meeting of his age group near Arusha January 21, 2012.

The land on which the Masai peoples' cows can graze is under threat of shrinking – again. And if the interested buyer succeeds in securing the land, there might not be an elsewhere for the well-known nomads to go.

A UAE-based luxury safari company's proposal for an extensive wildlife corridor that would border the Serengeti National Park, which was called off last year, appears to be under consideration by the Tanzanian government once more. Government officials have ordered that the pastoralists vacate the land by the end of the year.

The Tanzanian government is offering one billion shillings - a little more than half a million US dollars - to go towards socio-economic development projects as compensation, but the Masai are intent on keeping their land. Representatives from the ethnic group were scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda in Dodoma, the Tanzanian capital, on Tuesday.

The Masai, a pastoralist people that have resided for centuries in East Africa, herd cows as a central part of their existence. They rely on moving around semi-frequently to allow grazed land to regenerate during their absence. Masai herders' attachments to their land also come in the form of maintaining ancestral heritage.

"One billion is very little and you can not compare that with land," Samwel Nangiria, coordinator of a local civil society group, told The Guardian, "It's inherited."

Colonization of the region by the British in the 19th century forced the Masai into smaller parcels of land and in 1959, British colonialists persuaded the Masai to sign an agreement that evicted them from the Serengeti, but provided them living space in the Ngorongoro highlands.

The development proposal, which would allow access of the area exclusively to the Ortello Business Corporation, requested that the land be used to build a 600-square-mile corridor through the Loliondo region. In order to do so, the government would have to evict 30,000 Masai from the land before handing it over to the corporation that has close connections to the Dubai royal family. Members of the Masai tribe argue that the eviction would impact the lives of closer to 80,000 people.

In June of 2013, before the proposal was first dismissed, the Monitor reported:

About 90 percent of Loliondo Masai raise animals for sale in neighboring Kenya to pay for food, clothes, and school fees. At one sit-in this spring, Singa Sandeya, a Masai grandmother who owns about 40 cattle, said, "It's the only livelihood we have. Everything we get from cattle."

The Tanzanian government first leased land in Loliondo, which was used for commercial hunting camps, to OBC more than two decades ago. And while government officials have argued that the Masai's pastoralist behavior threatens endangered wildlife, members of the ethnic group and researchers alike claim that government interests lie elsewhere.

"[T]hese longstanding arguments put forward by governments ... saying too many animals, too many people [are] excuses used to evict people for other purposes," Ced Hesse, principal researcher on dry lands and pastures for the Britain-based International Institute for Environment and Development, told Monitor correspondent Jason Patinkin.

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