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Tanzania’s Maasai Losing Ground to Tourism in the Name of Conservation, Investigation Finds

May 11, 2018

John C. Cannon

  • An investigation by the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, has turned up allegations that the government of Tanzania is sidelining the country’s Maasai population in favor of tourism.

  • The government and some foreign investors worry that the Maasai, semi-nomadic herders who have lived in the Rift Valley for centuries, are degrading parts of the Serengeti ecosystem.

  • The authors of the Oakland Institute’s report argue that approaches aimed at conservation should focus on the participation and engagement of Maasai communities rather than their removal from lands to be set aside for high-end tourism.

The government of Tanzania is casting aside Maasai communities to make way for lucrative high-end safari tourism and hunting, says the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, in a report published May 10.

The four-year investigation revealed that groups of the Maasai in the Loliondo division of northern Tanzania have been kept off lands vital to their survival so that wealthy safari-goers and foreign royalty can have unfettered access to East Africa’s iconic wildlife.

The policy has led to widespread hunger and fear among the population, said Anuradha Mittal, director of the California-based Oakland Institute.

After thousands of Maasai have been threatened or displaced, “Their sentiment is that the next person to be evicted and displaced will be me,” Mittal said in an interview with Mongabay. “This is a fear that the villagers live with.”

The report cites firsthand accounts, communications with and within a safari company, and government and legal documents. It argues that authorities, eager to keep the deep-pocketed tour companies that operate in Tanzania happy, are driving the Maasai into poverty and dependence on aid to maintain the country’s tourism sector. The reason they often give is the protection of the environment.

But this issue isn’t confined to Loliondo or Tanzania, Mittal said.

“This is not just about a specific company. This is not just about a specific government,” she said. “This is happening across the world in the name of conservation, in the name of economic opportunity for governments.”

Conservation and the Maasai

It’s difficult to pin down an exact figure, but perhaps a million or more Maasai live in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, stretching across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. For centuries, large numbers have grazed their livestock in the area around the Serengeti plain. The name Serengeti translates to “the place where the land runs forever” in Maa, the group’s language.

In the 1950s, the colonial government in charge of what is today Tanzania asked the Maasai to leave Serengeti National Park, which was created in 1951, so the area could be devoted entirely to conservation. The Maasai living in the region agreed and moved into the vicinity of the nearby Ngorongoro Crater. But when concerns arose that too many people living there would impact the wildlife, they were again asked to move, with many ending up in Loliondo division.

This pattern, the Oakland Institute contends, has continued, justified as efforts to keep ecosystems intact, but also as a way to maintain the flow of tourism dollars, mostly from high-end safaris, into the country. Restrictions by the government on where the Maasai could and could not go, as well as their ability to cultivate small farm plots and gardens, had by the 1990s led to widespread malnutrition, one study found. The authors, who published their research in the journal Human Organization, concluded that the government’s success in protecting the region’s wildlife was coming at the cost of the health of the semi-nomadic Maasai.

In 1992, Tanzania’s prime minister, John William Malecela, lifted the ban on gardens in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to ease the pressure on the Maasai, and laws passed in 1999 were aimed at codifying customary claims to land in Tanzania. But that wasn’t the end of the setbacks to the Maasai’s way of life, according to the Oakland Institute’s investigation.