The Dangerous Legacy of Fortress Conservation
“Cross-boundary human impacts compromise the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem,” a recent study penned by more than a dozen authors and published in the academic journal Science, warns of the detrimental impact of increased human activity and livestock populations along the borders of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
The study has been widely echoed in the media worldwide. Commenting on the findings, one of its authors, Colin Beale (University of York) stated: “Our research shows that encroachment by people should be considered just as serious a challenge as better-known issues such as poaching and climate change.”
Such a statement is short-sighted as it overlooks the reality of human presence in the Serengeti-Mara region. In particular, it misses both the essential role played by the Indigenous Maasai pastoralists in terms of conservation and the ongoing marginalization of these pastoralists on their ancestral land. The study paints a one-sided picture, omitting vital context of the colonization, displacement, intimidation, and violence that has beset the Maasai for decades. If the authors truly want to contribute to addressing the situation in the Serengeti, a much more comprehensive understanding of history and contemporary realities in the region is necessary.
For centuries, the Maasai called the greater Serengeti region home, grazing their cattle in the rhythm of the seasons, following the flush of grass and blending with the patterns established by the surrounding wildlife. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship with the land and natural world making them the first cattlemen, admired for the management of their herds and relationships with wildlife and the grasslands that support them. But for the past century, numerous land laws – passed first by the British colonial government and then by the Tanzanian government, frequently with support from international conservation groups – have forced the Maasai onto smaller and smaller parcels of land, stifling their livelihoods and threatening their very existence.
In more recent years, the Tanzanian government has embarked on a series of violent actions against the Maasai, burning their bomas, seizing their cattle, and forcibly displacing tens of thousands of Maasai from their village lands, all in the name of “conservation.” The latest of these violent outbursts took place in August 2017 on village land not far from the borders of the Serengeti and reportedly impacted more than 20,000 Maasai.
These evictions have happened in-step with the expansion of foreign safari companies in the region, who have likewise wreaked havoc on the lives of the Maasai and local ecosystems. For instance, since 1992 the UAE-based Ortello Business Corporation (OBC, also sometimes referred to as the Otterlo Business Corporation) has had an exclusive hunting license to hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, bordering Serengeti National Park. Since then, they have built their own private airstrip not far from the park’s border, hunted and trapped thousands of wild animals, and further restricted Maasai pastoralists from vital grazing lands and watering holes.
Together, these restrictive land laws, violent evictions, and encroaching foreign safari companies have led to widespread hunger and disease, as well as constant fear, violence, harassment, and arrest for the Maasai.
None of this history, or the details of the current reality, appear in the Science study. By omitting this crucial information, the study’s conclusions – for instance, that local communities and regional / national governments should establish mutually agreed upon land-use strategies, requiring building more trust with local groups – are not only impractical but fail to understand the graveness of the situation facing the Maasai.
Unfortunately, the study is also already having consequences. By painting this as a simple situation of overpopulation and encroachment, the authors have unleashed a torrent of xenophobic and racist comments on the internet. The study also has the potential to cause great harm for this already marginalized community on the ground.
After years of protracted struggle, in January 2019, Tanzania President John Magufuli halted the eviction of hundreds of local pastoralists villages, including many along the borders of the Serengeti, and pledged to ensure that pastoralists have access to proper grazing lands. In their response to this declaration, pastoralists rightly pointed out the role that they have played for centuries in protecting local ecosystems.
But the words of Simon Mduma – Director of the Tanzanian government’s Wildlife Research Institute – suggest that the findings of the Science study might be used to challenge the President’s recent promise: “These results come at the right time … This paper provides important scientific evidence … information that is now urgently needed by policy makers and politicians.” “We should re-think our protected area strategy, making sure that conservation efforts do not stop at protected boundaries.”
Throughout history, Indigenous Peoples have played a key role in conservation, as captured in the words of British zoologist Marcus Colchester:
“It is exactly because the areas that indigenous people inhabit have not been degraded by their traditional resource practices that they are now coveted by conservationists who seek to limit their activities or expel them altogether from their customary land.”
For far too long, fortress conservation, pushed frequently by academics and conservationists in the West, has meant marginalization and destruction for Indigenous Peoples like the Maasai. This latest article is a dangerous continuation of this legacy.