Maasai protesters shot and beaten as Tanzania advances with wildlife sanctuary

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  • Tanzanian police and authorities shot and beat around 31 Maasai villagers, including children, during protests in early June against the demarcation of ancestral lands for a game and safari reserve. A Maasai and a policeman were killed.
  • At least 700 Maasai villagers from Tanzania’s Loliondo Division in Ngorongoro have fled across the border into Kenya in search of humanitarian and medical aid.
  • According to government spokesman Gerson Msigwa, the authorities were sent to mark off the land, not to carry out evictions. The government will take legal action against those who interfere with the demarcation process or incite hostility between pastoralists and security forces, he said.
  • Human rights groups claim that the Tanzanian government and authorities are violating a 2018 East African Court of Justice (EACJ) injunction over the land dispute by intimidating, harassing and attacking villager.

When 700 members of the Tanzanian Riot Field Unit (RFU) arrived in Loliondo Division of Ngorongoro on June 6, no one informed the local Maasai pastoralists of the purpose of their visit. However, a tense atmosphere followed. Days earlier, the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism announced in Parliament that 1,500 square kilometers (579 square miles) of village land in the country’s Northern Division was to be “upgraded”. The area in question is part of long-awaited and disputed plans to create a wildlife corridor for trophy hunting and safari tourism – which would trigger the eviction of around 70,000 Maasai from ancestral lands.

For two days the Maasai villagers waited for an explanation but received none. Then, on June 8, during a public meeting between herders in the village of Ololosokwan, the FFU police informed the villagers that they were going to start demarcating the land for a game reserve. No further information was given and police began erecting beacons.

The meeting turned into a demonstration.

Maasai herders protest the demarcation of ancestral lands in Loliondo, Tanzania. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

“It was a peaceful protest, just to try and get the attention of the police,” said a Maasai leader who spoke to Mongabay on condition of anonymity.

In response, police fired tear gas and eventually opened fire on protesters. Fifteen people were shot dead and 13 others beaten with weapons during the confrontation, according to Maasai sources and the Forest Peoples Programme.

The shootings and protests continued in the following days as community members uprooted all installed beacons and staged a sit-in. The confrontation between the police and the villagers is still ongoing.

According to sources, as of June 14, officers shot and injured 31 villagers, including 11 in serious condition and one Maasai dying from his wounds. Victims include children. A policeman was killed by an arrow.

So far around 19 people have been arrested, including a lawyer, a man who filmed the shooting and people attending a wedding. Among those detained are nine councilors and the district president of the ruling CCM party, Ndirango Senge. The location of the councilors and the president are not disclosed.

Kenyan doctors monitor Maasai villagers who fled Loliondo in Tanzania.  Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.
Kenyan doctors monitor Maasai villagers who fled Loliondo in Tanzania. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

At least 700 Maasai have fled the area and crossed into Kenya’s southern border to receive humanitarian aid or treatment. On June 12, Kenyan doctors set up a temporary medical camp in the center of Olpusimoru, in the south of the country. Two Kenyan doctors told Mongabay that there was an urgent need for medical aid and food as the number of people seeking help grew daily.

It is unclear how much land in Loliondo has been demarcated so far.

Mongabay has contacted the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism for comment but has not received a response at the time of publication.

However, in a public address on June 12, Gerson Msigwa, the government’s chief spokesman, said the government would take legal action against those trying to stop the demarcation process and incite the hostility between Maasai and security forces.

According to Msigwa, the security forces were only sent to Loliondo to begin the demarcation process – not to evict the Maasai living in the area.

Kenyan doctors monitor Maasai villagers who fled Loliondo in Tanzania.  Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.
Kenyan doctors monitor Maasai villagers who fled Loliondo in Tanzania. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

A Maasai chief told Mongabay that while it is true that they were not told to leave the land, the attacks carried out by the police say the opposite.

He fears that when the time comes for the Maasai to leave the area, the attacks will be worse as the villagers have no intention of leaving their legally registered ancestral land.

Trophy hunting and safari

In January, John Mongella, the regional commissioner for the Arusha region, which administers Loliondo, informed Maasai leaders of the government’s decision to lease a 1,500 km2 plot of land legally registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Otterlo Business Company (OBC).

The Loliondo Game Controlled Area covers a total of 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles). The Tanzanian government intends to move forward with plans to demarcate part of this land for trophy hunting and a safari conservation area despite recurring Maasai protests since rumors began to circulate in 2017.

The OBC has been implicated in a few other eviction cases and faces charges of killing endangered species, such as lions and leopards, during trophy hunts. The OBC did not respond to multiple requests for comment via social media, and the phone number listed for its office in Tanzania is no longer in service.

A Maasai herder moves cattle on rangelands shared with zebras.  Image by Guy Western.
A Maasai herder moves cattle on rangelands shared with zebras. Image by Guy Western.

Around 15 villages in the proposed area will be affected by the decision and 70,000 people are at risk of eviction. The strip of land that is legally registered in the Loliondo Division of Ngorongoro District is vital to Maasai herders, who have sustainably managed the area for generations, according to the Oakland Institute.

“While tourism and trophy hunting are promoted as ways to grow national economies, these safari and game park programs are wreaking havoc on Maasai lives and livelihoods,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.

A Maasai chief who spoke to Mongabay said Mongella continually insisted that land leasing was of “national interest” and should therefore also be a priority for the Maasai people. Tanzania’s economic development is highly dependent on tourism which contributes 17.2% of the country’s gross domestic product and 25% of all foreign exchange earnings.

Ngorongoro District
A map showing the location of the Loliondo Game Control Area in northern Tanzania. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

Government officials are keen to follow through on the plan, despite the prime minister’s promise in early June to keep dialogue open over the land dispute. During the same period, the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism briefed parliament on the demarcation plan and Mongella met with the district security committee to discuss the demarcation process.

“For the sake of the citizens, [the government] decided to retain 1,500 km2 for conservation and 2,500 km2 [965 square miles of Loliondo] will be donated to the villages,” Mongella said in a public statement released after his meeting last week.

However, Maasai community leaders rebuke this statement.

“The land injustices and the massacres are due to the interest that the Tanzanian government has in collecting the money from the tourists – not otherwise,” said a Maasai leader. “We, the people of Loliondo and Ngorongoro, have already conserved the area for centuries.”

According to Mittal, while the minister for natural resources and tourism has yet to mention the eviction when she spoke to parliament about the plan, she clarified that no socio-economic activities will be allowed on the game reserve. of 1,500 km2.

Tanzania demonstrates in Ngorongoro
Maasai residents protesting after Arusha Regional Commissioner John Mongella revealed plans to lease 1,500 square kilometers of ancestral land to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Ortello Business Company. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

The Tanzanian government’s attempt to seize the land is a violation of a 2018 East African Court of Justice (EACJ) injunction, several human rights organizations claim. The court injunction prohibits the government from intimidating, harassing and evicting villagers, seizing their livestock and destroying their property in the villages of Oolosokwan, Oloirien, Kirtalo and Arash. In the 2018 court case, village councils said the government was acting in violation of their land rights, human rights and the Constitution of Tanzania.

The court’s final decision is expected on June 22.

In addition to Loliondo, the Tanzanian government plans to ban habitation and livestock grazing in areas near Lake Natron, Lokisale, Longido, Mto wa mbu and Kilombero.

* The identities of local Maasai sources contacted by Mongabay are kept anonymous for security reasons.

Banner image: Maasai walking in the rain in Kenya. Image courtesy of David via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Related listening from the Mongabay podcast: A conversation with Daisee Francour of Cultural Survival and Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights in the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen now:

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Grazing, Conflict, Conservation, Human Rights, Hunting, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Rights, Land Rights, Grazing, Private Reserves, Protected Areas, Protests, Tourism, Violence, Wildlife

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