Monday, April 29, 2013

From spectacle to resistance: the displacement of Maasai in Loliondo, TZ

Chuck Wright with Corey Wright

"A Maasai is good for a tourist's photograph, useful to carry your bags to the camp, or even to guide you to see the animals. But in the end the animals are far more valuable than people."  Moringe ole Parkipuny. Maasai rights campaigner and Tanzania’s first Maasai MP (The Observer, September 6, 2009).

Respected Maasai women, like Koko,
provide leadership in the struggle
against oppression. 
On the couch of my Winnipeg home lays a blue- and red- checked cloth known in Swahili as a kikoi – a garment worn by Maasai people. Travelers encounter the East African plains dotted by these decorated people along with the herds of cattle that accompany them. Along with wildlife tours of Ngongoro Crater and the world-renowned Serengeti, travelers often pay to see and experience an “authentic” Maasai village. This cloth oft reminds me of a people I have come to respect and know through the work of my family and Sauti Moja, though they have little more status in East Africa than the spectacle of the animals that international tourists flock to observe, photograph, and hunt.

There has been an on-going tension in Tanzania between the customary land use of the Maasai people and wildlife tourism since the time of the British colonial government – a conflict of values between economic growth, expanding foreign investment, and the survival of indigenous people. Until 1960, pastoralist communities, such as the Maasai, co-existed with wildlife in the Serengeti plains; in 1959, Serengeti National Park was established by the British colonial government, forcibly relocating 1,000 Maasai residents and excluding them from their traditional grazing grounds. Some residents were moved to the region of Loliondo, where they are again facing conflict between land and tourism – specifically recreational hunting.

More recently in 2009, during one of the harshest droughts the region had ever seen, the Tanzanian government evicted Maasai residents from eight villages in Loliondo, purportedly for conservation purposes, though at the request of an international hunting company. In the face of resistance from residents, homes were razed by government troops and livestock was lost.   Continuing this colonial legacy of land dispossession, the Tanzanian government officially announced in March 2013, its plan to establish a wildlife corridor between Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya; this corridor runs through the village land of Loliondo. Subsequently, thousands of families face further dispossession of the land they've relied on for over 200 years as many residents spurn the ruling party and pledge their commitment to defending their inherent and legal rights to the land. 

A large part of Tanzania’s “development strategy” is based on boosting tourism, often at the expense of peoples inhabiting prime areas for tourism. Critics point to the fact that the purported wildlife conservation areas of Loliondo have been leased, since 1992, to Otterlo Business Corporation – a safari hunting company owned by the defence minister of the United Arab Emirates. Many advocates believe that economic opportunism is actually at the root of the proposed evictions. While close observers can point to eco-tourist models that benefit local communities as well as to the importance of the local pastoralist economy, the government is choosing instead to grant exclusive hunting rights to a foreign company for the recreation of millionaires and Gulf sheikhs.
At the same time, the government has launched a propaganda campaign claiming that the area has been invaded by illegal immigrants from Kenya and degraded by an increasing human and livestock population. However, the region’s history points to the co-existence of pastoralism and wildlife for centuries. In fact, research indicates that the land management practices of Maasai, who move seasonally between grazing areas as well as hold cultural beliefs that prohibit the killing and eating of wildlife, is ecologically sustainable. Rather than degrading the environment, and contrary to popular opinion, there is strong evidence that the Maasai people have contributed to the abundance of wildlife in northern Tanzania.    
Above the couch in my Winnipeg home, hangs a print of a strong, proud Maasai woman wearing traditional dress. The women have been the most outspoken about the evictions as they will bear the brunt of the impacts of these evictions; similarly, women are the leaders of the Idle No More movement in Canada – a mounting resistance to the exploitation of indigenous lands and resources. As I reflect on these common struggles, I wonder how long it will take before the governments of Tanzania and Canada alike will recognize the devastating effects of unfettered economic opportunism and foreign resource exploitation has for people and the environment.  When will our elected leaders begin to respect the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples and recognize our shared responsibility to the land?

Join the international campaign of Avaaz in demanding that the Tanzanian government respect the land rights of the Maasai people.

Read more about the current land conflict at:

Chuck Wright is an educator and activist living in Winnipeg, MB.  Corey Wright is a Sauti Moja's Africa Program Advisor and a researcher studying the politics and impacts of land policy in northern Tanzania.

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