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The Struggles of the Ngorongoro Masai

February 11, 2022
Review of African Political Economy

By Ambreena Manji

Ambreena Manji writes about the Tanzanian government’s threatened eviction of more than 80,000 Masai from the Ngorongoro world heritage site in the country. The government claim that the Masai must be cleared from their land in the interests of conservation and ecology wildlife corridors. Manji writes about what is really going on.

In the past few weeks, the Tanzanian government has renewed its attempt to demarcate land in the Loliondo ward, Ngorongoro district in the north of the country as a wildlife sanctuary, effectively banning the Maasai from their indigenous land. As semi-nomadic pastoralists, Maasai livelihoods depend on cattle herding and some crop cultivation. Access to pastures and to water for their cattle is vital. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. But the Maasai have long lived with the threat of displacement to make way for tourism and for conservancies. The government has accused the Maasai of getting in the way of animal migration routes and of breeding grounds and claim that in the interests of conservation and ecology wildlife corridors must be created over Maasai land. The Maasai have organised to resist these moves, accusing the government of using wildlife conservation as a pretext for their eviction.

However, in keeping with Tanzania’s land liberalisation and promotion of foreign investment since the late 1990s, it is widely reported that the cause of this renewed interest in Ngorongoro is the government’s plans to grant exclusive hunting rights in an area of 579 square miles to foreign investors. For the Maasai, this is an intensification of a long-term trend that dates from independence. Since then, the Maasai have already lost over seventy per cent of their land to ‘conservation’. In 1992 an investor from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was granted a license to trophy hunt in the area. In 2018, a report detailed the devastating impact of private companies in the area: a company called the Ortello Business Corporation had evicted Maasai in order to run a hunting block for the private use of the UAE royal family and their guests and continued to operate in the area after their licence had been cancelled by the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources.

Governed by an overweening Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA), the Masai have little scope for participation in the running of the territory or decision making about its future. The NCAA is accused of acting with secrecy. It is providing little information about the implementation of a new land use and resettlement plan in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area which will lead to the displacement of 80,000 residents, and the demolition of their homes, schools, and medical facilities.

In an echo of the struggles over land classification and definition that are seen elsewhere in East Africa when communities seek to defend their land, the residents of Loliondo argue that the disputed land is village land under the Village Land Act 1999. This legislation sought to devolve authority over decision making on matters such as land administration, land management and dispute resolution to the community level. The Maasai are demanding that their ancestral land be recognised as legitimate village land and not designated as a conservation area.


In their powerful 2017 book, The Big Conservation Lie, John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada set out to debunk dominant conservation narratives and explore the ‘severe exploitation of the same wilderness [that] conservationists have constantly claimed they are out to preserve’. The renewed transnational land grab currently underway in Ngorongoro confirms this analysis. In 2018, an Oakland Institute report documented how conservation laws were being used to dispossess the Maasai. Before that, a report by Wilbert Kapinga and Issa Shivji (the latter had served as the chairperson of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters) examined the legal powers and administrative practices of the NCA Authority. They set out the limitations placed on the Maasai by the NCAA without prior consultation and participation of Maasai residents in the relevant decision-making processes. They recommended that in the NCAA’s management of the Conservation Area, proper representation and participation of the Maasai and other residents was vital so that they might decide how best to conserve and develop this globally important place.


The treatment of the Ngorongoro Maasai displays certain forms and practices that are recognisably colonial, imposing on them conditions of life that tend towards their eradication or emutai. In Maa — the language spoken by the Maasi people — the word emutai means destruction or eradication and was first used to describe the epidemics of the nineteenth century when contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, rinderpest, and smallpox wiped out cattle and caused widespread sickness. It is a word with continuing resonance and increasing urgency. In 2018 the Oakland Institute warned that ‘without access to grazing lands and watering holes — without the ability to grow food for their communities, the Maasai are at risk of a new period of emutai.’