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US Luxury Safari Operator Tightens Stranglehold Over Maasai Land in Tanzania

April 16, 2024
Photo of the Sukenya farm


April 16, 2024; 6:00 AM PDT

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  • A new report exposes how Thomson Safaris, a US-based luxury tourism operator, has capitalized on the Tanzanian government’s violent repression of Indigenous communities to solidify its control over Maasai land adjacent to the Serengeti National Park.

  • The company is strictly enforcing the boundaries of its long-contested land claim, with its agents accused of beating children and denying communities access to critical grazing lands.

  • A new brief released alongside the report exposes the key role played by the US in both designing and financing the government’s massive eviction plans and resulting abuses to boost tourism.

Oakland, CA – Boston-based Thomson Safaris is exploiting the Tanzanian government’s brutal repression of land defenders to legitimize control over Maasai land in the Loliondo Division of the Ngorongoro District. In June 2022, the government carried out land demarcation to create a Game Reserve in Loliondo, which saw security forces fire live ammunition on the Maasai, severely wounding dozens and displacing thousands. In the immediate aftermath of these events, Thomson Safaris carried out a resurvey of a long-contested land claim they have in the same area. Communities say they were excluded from the resurvey process and alleged in a November 2023 court filing that they have since suffered abuse by the company’s agents enforcing the new boundaries.

“Over the past two years, the Tanzanian government has repeatedly shown it will aid and abet foreign corporations operating luxury safaris at the expense of the Maasai communities who have stewarded these lands for generations. While labeling itself as a sustainable tourism operator, the American firm is getting away with capitalizing on this repression,” said Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute.

Capitalizing on Chaos: Thomson Safaris Tightens Its Stranglehold Over Indigenous Lands in Tanzania exposes how in the aftermath of the resurvey, the strict enforcement of the new boundaries has aggravated daily hardships for the villagers who report incidents of violence – allegedly committed by Thomson Safaris’ guides – against pastoralists and their children. One villager cited in the report alleges, “My boy was taking care of the livestock when he was caught by a Thomson Safaris’ guide and beaten for no reason. He suffered injuries on his body…Our rights have been violated by an intruder in our ancestors’ land.”

As documented in the Oakland Institute’s 2018 report, Losing the Serengeti, since 2006, the Mondorosi, Sukenya, and Soitsambu villages have been ensnared in a prolonged struggle for the return of their lands against the company. Local communities seek to reclaim 10,000 acres of land in what is known to them as the Sukenya farm, originally transferred forty years ago without their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent and vital to their pastoral livelihoods. For over a decade, communities have pursued legal action for the full return of their land in the High Court of Tanzania and Court of Appeal, but to no avail.

On June 8, 2022, the Tanzanian government initiated the illegal demarcation of over 370,000 acres of land in Loliondo Division to create a Game Reserve. The exercise led to widespread violence by state security forces, with dozens of community leaders and villagers arbitrarily arrested while others were forced into hiding. According to local communities, Thomson Safaris took advantage of this increasing state violence against the Maasai and the ensuing chaos to consolidate its claim to the land.

The strict enforcement of the Sukenya farm’s boundaries has reportedly forced villagers to walk hours to access essential medical services and schools. Communities have also lost access to prime grazing land, which has been particularly catastrophic in the context of the drought that ravaged the Horn of Africa between 2020 and 2023. Thomson Safaris is now allegedly lobbying the Tanzanian government to change the land use in the surrounding area exclusively for tourism – a move that would further prohibit Maasai pastoralists’ livestock from accessing vital water and grazing land.

In response to an inquiry by the Oakland Institute, Thomson Safaris’ attorneys in Tanzania denied the allegations about the resurvey and its impact on villagers. While they called the claims “baseless,” the firm failed to provide any evidence that the resurvey took place with full community participation. Despite the ongoing land dispute and allegations of violence made in court by villagers, the company remains the preferred Tanzania operator for high-profile universities, museums, and conservation groups.

Alongside Capitalizing on Chaos, the Institute released Pulling Back the Curtain: How the US Drives Tanzania’s War on the Indigenous. The brief reveals how Tanzania’s largest bilateral donor has been instrumental in designing the country’s aggressive strategy to expand the tourism industry at the expense of Indigenous communities. It details how the US is behind a number of policy changes and measures that have led to the expansion of so-called protected areas and favored private operators, including fiscal measures to their benefit. USAID has for instance prepared development plans for Ruaha National Park – currently being implemented by the World Bank – that will result in the eviction of tens of thousands of people. It has also enabled the creation of new Game Reserves, which will seize over a million hectares of Maasai land and evict thousands of people.

“The fingerprints of the US government are all over the harmful policies and projects to expand protected areas, rendering it complicit in the forced evictions of the Maasai and other local communities across the country. It has turned a blind eye to the egregious human rights abuses of the government so that the rich Americans can keep going on upscale safaris and operators like Thomson Safaris keep raking in massive profits,” concluded Mittal.

Indigenous communities are not enduring hardships solely because of the wrongdoings of the Tanzanian government. The US government and private operators like Thomson Safaris all bear their share of responsibility and must be held accountable for it.