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Maasai Villages Lose Important Court Case as Wildlife Game Reserve Trudges On

October 1, 2022

by Laurel Sutherland

  • The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) has ruled in favor of the Tanzanian government after a five-year legal battle between Maasai communities and the state over evictions that took place in 2017.
  • The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) says Maasai communities did not provide sufficient evidence that evictions were done violently and that they occurred on legally registered land.
  • The court case is part of a larger battle between Maasai communities and the state over the creation of a wildlife reserve on disputed lands near Serengeti National Park.
  • According to Maasai villagers and their attorneys, the court omitted important evidence and they plan to appeal the EACJ’s decision.

The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) has ruled in favor of the Tanzanian government after a five-year legal battle between evicted Maasai communities and the state. According to the court, evidence to plead the communities’ case was insufficient and contradictory. The ruling comes as a blow to Indigenous, environmental and human rights organizations who have advocated for the return of evicted farmers to their land and the withdrawal of the planned wildlife game reserve.

“Again, it seems the government is happy with injustices done to our people. We are very much disappointed,” said a Maasai leader in a press release by the Oakland Institute.

In 2017, the Tanzanian government told Maasai villagers from the country’s Loliondo division of Ngorongoro that they must leave “the confines of the Serengeti National Park.” When they refused, some Maasai villagers say a series of violent evictions commenced — resulting in the five-year legal battle that ended yesterday.

Maasai communities — Ololosokwan, Oloirien, Kirtalo and Arash — have land ownership titles to land adjoining the Serengeti National Park (SNP) but the exact location of the border between those lands and the park has always been in dispute.

Five years ago, the government gave written notice to Maasai people living in the four and surrounding villages that they would have to move from the disputed 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles). Police officers, under the instruction of government officials, subsequently began a series of evictions.

The four villages filed a case against the Tanzanian government, dubbing the evictions brutal, violent and illegal. The communities contend that they farm, graze and tend to their animals on their legally registered land — not within the SNP as is said by the government. In 2018, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) granted an injunction prohibiting the Tanzanian government from continuing to evict Maasai communities from the disputed land. However, villagers say evictions continued up until July of this year.

The Tanzanian government argued that they 2017 eviction exercises were done in accordance with the applicable laws of Tanzania, no properties were destroyed and Maasais were always treated with respect.

A Maasai settlement in Tanzania. Earlier this year in northern Tanzania, more than 70,000 Indigenous Maasai residents were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for trophy hunting and elite tourism. Image by David Denicolò via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Disputes over truth, omission and hearsay

In its final judgement, the EACJ said that Maasai villages have failed to provide sufficient evidence that evictions were brutal and that communities were evicted from village lands, rather than from the SNP.

“In no case did any witness give any evidence that proved either injury or actual loss during the exercise,” stated court documents seen by Mongabay. The witnesses’ testimony contradicted each other and was generally insufficient, said the court.

Crucially for Maasai communities pleading their case, the court disregarded a detailed report of an expert witness — a Kenyan national — who testified on behalf of the villages. According to the court, the witness did not have the right permit to work in Tanzania.

“In cross-examination, the witness was not able to demonstrate that he carried out his work within the specific requirements of the laws of Tanzania,” stated court documents.

Maasai leaders say, omitting the testimony of their expert witness was unjustly done, and they will appeal EACJ’s decision.

The court has also omitted a report of satellite imagery showing the burned bomas (traditional Maasai houses) that were located outside the park’s borders.

“That the ruling focuses on this technicality instead of the findings of the survey, indicates that the court failed in its duties and succumbed to pressure from the Tanzanian government,” Anuradha Mittal, Oakland Institute’s executive director, told Mongabay.