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This Human Rights Day, Stand with the Maasai to End Fortress Conservation

December 9, 2022
Maasai herders with their cattle inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Maasai herders with their cattle inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area © The Oakland Institute

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 74 years ago, enshrines a host of fundamental rights for all people. Today, human rights remain under attack from the usual suspects — authoritarian governments and greedy corporations — but also from the Western conservation industry that garners much international respect. This industry is advancing plans that threaten to eliminate the basic rights of millions of Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Under the proposed “30x30 initiative,” member states to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) would declare at least 30 percent of the world’s land and sea masses as Protected Areas by 2030. The proposal, set to be adopted at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) of the CBD in Montreal, which began on December 7, 2022, sets the stage for massive land grabs and human rights violations. Human rights advocates warn that Protected Areas, the bedrock of a neo-colonial, Western conservation model, have led to “widespread evictions, hunger, ill-health and human rights violations, including killings, rapes and torture across Africa and Asia.” This is backed by studies showing that meeting the 30 percent target could directly displace and dispossess 300 million people.

The Devastating Impact of Fortress Conservation on the Maasai in Tanzania

While the devastating impact of fortress conservation has been felt around the globe, the Maasai in Tanzania have been subject to some of the worst brutality and cruelty. Pastoralist communities’ rights to life, security, food, housing, and freedom from arbitrary arrest are under siege from a government using the guise of conservation to justify its actions.

In Loliondo, violence erupted on June 8, 2022 after the Tanzanian government initiated the demarcation of 1,500 km2 of land it intends to turn into a game reserve for trophy hunting by the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Otterlo Business Company (OBC). When communities gathered to protest the demarcation, they were met with a barrage of open fire from security forces, wounding dozens and displacing thousands. As a result of the illegal demarcation exercise, 70,000 people have lost access to dry-season grazing land critical to the health of their livestock and their livelihoods.

Nearby in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), the government continues with harsh cuts in vital services to force Maasai to “volunteer” for resettlement away from the lands they have stewarded for generations. The only hospital for 60,000 pastoralists has had services drastically slashed by the government. Grazing areas remain constrained and home gardens are banned, resulting in an ongoing hunger crisis. The Maasai are struggling to survive.

Pastoralist communities have remained steadfast in their struggle to halt eviction plans and have their voices heard. Their resistance has come at a great cost — community leaders have been beaten and arrested by State security forces and imprisoned for months without cause. Cattle, a vital part of their pastoral livelihoods, are dying en masse without access to grazing land and water. In the face of such dire circumstances, their courageous resistance endures.

Ignoring calls to respect the rights of the Maasai, the government continues to prepare resettlement sites for so-called “volunteers.” Despite government claims of a better life waiting in the resettlement sites, the Institute has exposed critical flaws with the relocation process and viability of the sites, and sounded the alarm on the risk of escalation of conflict between NCA migrants and long-term residents who did not consent to these plans.

Tanzanian Government Violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The actions of the Tanzanian government violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other international laws and norms — including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights — along with national obligations including the right to life, as enshrined in the country’s Constitution. While the government has come under fire from several prominent international institutions, it continues to move forward with its catastrophic plans in a blatant disregard of its obligations. Tanzania’s disdain for human rights mechanisms is evident in its withdrawal from the Arusha-based African Court on Human and People’s Rights in 2019.

The Maasai communities have initiated legal action in regional courts. But they have yet to receive justice. In September 2022, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) dealt a shocking blow to the Indigenous, dismissing a case brought against the Tanzanian government by four Maasai villages who sought recourse for violent evictions and burning of homes in Loliondo by the government in 2017. The ruling, based on a questionable technicality, sent a clear signal to the government that it can trample on Indigenous rights in favor of foreign investors without consequence.

The government has failed to provide any evidence that removing the Maasai will benefit the environment. The evictions and restrictions constraining tens of thousands of livelihoods are not about ensuring conservation but about expanding tourism revenues for the country and private tourism corporations. By claiming their actions are driven by the need to conserve the environment, the government tramples on the rights of the Maasai with the support of the global conservation industry, including the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). If this model is further scaled around the world, millions will be denied their basic human rights.

Instead of pushing the 30x30 initiative forward, states must adopt a radically different mindset that recognizes the political and economic empowerment of Indigenous communities as an essential component of environmental protection. The colonization of Indigenous lands in the name of conservation has devastated far too many lives and must immediately end.