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People Live Here

April 5, 2022
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Africa Is a Country

By Jevgeniy Bluwstein

Since last year, as thousands of Maasai are at risk of being evicted from their homes, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has been in the news. For decades now, the residence of Maasai in Ngorongoro has been a concern for conservation authorities and NGOs, tourism companies, and the Tanzanian state—all of whom worry that they may be spoiling the natural beauty of Ngorongoro. Although the threat of dispossession has loomed large over Ngorongoro residents in the past, this time the Tanzanian government seems to be particularly serious about resettling thousands of Maasai pastoralists in the name of conservation.

To better understand why the Maasai are perceived as a threat to Ngorongoro, we need to take a look at the colonial beginnings and the postcolonial history of the conservation industry in Tanzania. By resettling the Maasai from the Serengeti to Ngorongoro in the 1950s (where other Maasai had already lived prior to the establishment of Serengeti National Park), the British colonial administration and international conservation interest groups had sought to protect the Serengeti from the pastoralists. In doing so, they promised the Maasai that they would never be evicted from the Ngorongoro highlands. At the time, the irony of protecting the Serengeti from the people whose land use and environmental conservation practices had led to the very creation of the famous Serengeti plains was apparently lost on the colonial administration and Western conservationists such as Bernhard Grzimek.

To European colonizers, resettling the Maasai was not only good for nature conservation, but for evicted populations themselves. To this day, people living around protected areas in Tanzania continue to experience a deeply paternalistic treatment by the state, which perceives them as backward and in need of modernization and development. The state has mobilized the colonial discourse of a civilizing mission whenever Maasai or other pastoralists are resettled in the name of “conservation” and “development” in Tanzania. While this colonial legacy persists today, what has changed since the end of colonial rule is the paramount role of the tourism industry in present-day Tanzania.

When Tanzania’s world-famous protected areas were initially created, tourism was hardly developed as an economic sector and poorly integrated into the global tourism industry. What is more, in socialist Tanzania under Nyerere, the role of tourism was hotly debated and deeply contested, as Issa Shivji’s 1973 edited volume Tourism and Socialist Development demonstrates (it is unfortunately out of print today). Should Africans endure the “extremely humiliating subservient ‘memsahib’ and ‘sir’ attitudes” in order to “create a hospitable climate for tourists” in return for foreign exchange? Can, in other words, the economic promise of tourism outweigh the price of “cultural imperialism”? These were central questions 50 years ago—questions that seem almost entirely out of place today.