Maasai are being evicted from a Tanzanian wildlife paradise to make way for neocolonial land grabs by the Dubai royal family. The reason? The right to hunt unhindered for the next 30 years.
Indigenous Maasai, widely acknowledged as exceptional wildlife conservationists, are being dispossessed of the lands of their birth in order to hand some of the finest wildlife territories of Tanzania to wealthy foreign hunters. And the government is bending over backwards to make sure it happens.
The area under dispute is Loliondo, a vast wild paradise on the northeastern boundary of the Serengeti plains. The area is rich in plants and endangered animal species such as the black rhino. It’s connected to one of the world’s most desirable wildlife tourist attractions: the breathtaking dry-season migration of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles into the northern plains.
In terms of the country’s 1999 legislation that governs land management, Loliondo is classified as “village land”. But according to The Citizen newspaper in Tanzania, in 1992 the country issued a hunting licence for 1,500km2 of the area to Lieutenant-General Mohammed Abdul Rahim Al Ali, assistant under secretary at the Ministry of Defence, who procured the land for the exclusive use of the Dubai royal family.
Operating under the name of Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), the Emiratis built a campsite, a substantial airstrip and mobile telecom infrastructure. During the hunting season, the campsite is said to host hundreds of people at a time.
Otterlo clearly see it as their territory and are upping the pressure to get rid of people in red blankets herding cattle. The Maasai are not welcome. Nor are they welcome at two other Maasai strongholds – Ngorongoro (a World Heritage Site) and Lake Natron. Otterlo is now calling for the “clearance” of 70,000 Maasai and about 200,000 livestock from Loliondo.
This pressure is being responded to by top politicians in favour of evictions. On 3 June, in her budget speech for 2022-23, Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism Pindi Chana said her ministry expected to upgrade the Loliondo Game Controlled Area to a game reserve and to do the same with other huge areas over most of northern Tanzania, and beyond. Local people and livestock are not allowed to live in game reserves.
A few months ago the government began erecting concrete boundary posts to delineate the perimeter of the designated area in Loliondo earmarked for Otterlo. Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa claimed the boundary posts were being placed to protect the environment and that the local Maasai would “not be affected”.
What followed was quite the opposite: a flurry of activity and violence in the area by police, the army and ministers in Loliondo making statements and delivering threats while standing beside beacons. The Commissioner General of Immigration, Anna Makakala, arrived in Loliondo to announce that there would be 10 days of flushing out “illegal immigrants”.
Large groups of Maasai held protests and local leaders issued statements to stop the demarcation process. In response, a number of local leaders were arrested and charged with murder that occurred while they were in detention. Others went into hiding.
On 24 June, village and ward executive officers were reportedly instructed to tell people to leave the illegally demarcated area within 24 hours, or their livestock would be confiscated. That evening, there were reports from Sanjan in Malambo ward of how the Maasai, under fear and panic, were loading their belongings onto donkeys.
A Swedish blogger with considerable networks among the Maasai, Susanna Nordlund, writes that although the government claimed the evictions were “participatory”, it was arresting everyone speaking against it – “which means basically every single Maasai in Loliondo”.
Clashing ownership views
What’s taking place is essentially a collision between three notions of land ownership. All are problematic, with an impact on the legendary wildlife of Tanzania.
The human footprint on these plains, which includes the Maasai, stretches back millions of years as palaeontology in the Olduvai Gorge has shown. In terms of traditional ownership, they stand first in line.
Famous wildlife sanctuaries such as the Serengeti, Manyara, Tarangire, Arusha, Mkomazi and Ngorongoro were carved out of Maasailand and the reason wildlife has survived so well in these areas is a tribute to them. They are excellent conservationists and hunting wildlife is taboo. Most other community-owned land in the country is being steadily depleted.
A British zoologist, Marcus Colchester, noted that “it is exactly because the areas that indigenous people inhabit have not been degraded by their traditional resource practices that they are now coveted by conservationists who seek to limit their activities or expel them altogether from their customary land”.
History of dispossession
It’s been a long history of creeping dispossession. In 1959, the Maasai were evicted from the vast Serengeti plains by the British and resettled in Loliondo and Ngorongoro, promised to them in perpetuity as compensation.
That year the National Parks Act was passed, giving the governor the authority to declare any land in Tanzania a national park. At that point, according to the act, “all rights, titles, interests, franchises, claims, privileges, exemptions or immunities of any person other than the Governor in, over, under, or in respect of any land within such area shall, from the date upon which such proclamation comes into operation, cease, determine, and be forever extinguished”.
However, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Ordinance specifically named the Maasai as having settlement rights in the region. But in 1975 an ordinance limited those rights, banning all forms of cultivation within a National Conservation Area.
It was a massive body blow. While the Maasai are generally seen as nomadic pastoralists, for centuries they have relied on the cultivation of subsistence plots when livestock health or access to grassland are compromised. The ban put the survival of the Maasai in jeopardy.
According to the law – as explained by Tanzanian law professor Issa Shivji – the Serengeti system belongs to the local Maasai and cannot be acquired by the government without adhering to legal procedures and without their consent.
It was given to them, the Maasai believe, by Ngai, the androgynous Supreme Creator whose name also means rain. Ngai’s home is Ol Doinyo Lengai – The Mountain of God – a volcano in Northern Tanzania.
But since the 1990s they are estimated to have lost more than 70% of their ancestral land to “conservation”. These moves use practices that are recognisably colonial, imposing on them conditions of life that tend towards their eradication.
In a letter to Hassan, Shivji wrote: “We the people as well as the government, should ask ourselves: is eviction of the people from their land, which is their life, livelihood and heritage, simply to protect wildlife, so that game hunting companies may operate there without obstruction and harassment by the people, in the larger public interest? I must admit, I don’t have an answer except that this question gives me sleepless nights.”
Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania have written to the British and US governments and the EU appealing for help to stop the evictions: “We are asking for your help to let our government know that our land is not for sale and that we will continue to resist this long-standing assault on our rights and the ecological integrity of our land. We are therefore calling on your organisation to speak out against these abuses and help us prevent the extinction of our people.” (see also an urgent appeal here)
According to politicians, however, all land in Tanzania belongs to the government to do with it what it pleases. In response to accusations that the government is dispossessing the Maasai, Damas Ndumbaro – when he was minister of natural resources and tourism (he was later removed) – told parliament: “Nobody owns land in Tanzania. All the land belongs to the state and the president is the sole custodian on behalf of the people.” When called for an explanation, he said it wasn’t his portfolio anymore and demanded to know how this reporter got his phone number.
Concessions, collusion and corruption
In 2021, foreigners wanting a piece of Tanzania hit pay-dirt. Under the new Special Wildlife Investment Concession Areas (SWICA) law, areas of land within game reserves and game-controlled areas can now be declared special wildlife investment concession areas. The minister is empowered to award 30-year concessions to these areas, including Loliondo. As wildlife concessions in Africa go, that’s extraordinarily long.
In the award of Tanzanian hunting concessions to foreigners, collusion between government and concessionaires has been standard practice, a process traditionally fraught with allegations of corruption.
A billionaire linked to exclusive use of Loliondo is Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. He generates most of his income from real estate and is described as one of the world’s most prominent real estate developers.
The Otterlo Business Corporation, with strong links to his family, organises hunts for Maktoum. For years it has restricted the pastoralists’ access to lands and water. In 2009, according to The Citizen newspaper, OBC set 200 Maasai bomas alight. At least 20,000 people were affected and more than 50,000 cattle were cut off from pastures.
According to the newspaper, OBC’s airstrip is big enough for an Airbus A380 to land on. Why such a large plane? Since 1993 there have been unconfirmed reports of the transportation of live game, but nobody’s there to check.
“However, when videos of the Emiratis marketing their game parks to the world start to circulate in social media,” writes Citizen journalist Charles Makakala, “it takes little imagination to deduce where those animals most probably came from.”
Complaints against the company include corralling animals by helicopter, trapping live animals and leaving behind wounded animals to suffer.
Bullied and beaten
The terms of the 30-year concessions offer no apparent benefit to the Tanzanian people, let alone the Maasai. The Arabs see them and their cattle as a problem, the solution to which would be a local ethnic cleansing operation that threatens to push the pastoralists out of the area.
They are being bullied, beaten, teargassed, shot at, arrested, their cattle confiscated by the Wildlife Authority, police and the army. In the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area they are being restricted, funds for social services are being blocked or diverted to other areas, and they are being trucked out to areas where their culture is no longer viable.
In 2017, a press release by the Ministry of Natural Resources noted that bomas in Loliondo were being burnt under government orders, in order to preserve the ecosystems in the region and attract more tourists.
A hunting block in Lake Natron East, an area with many Maasai residents, was given to another Emirati from the Abu Dhabi royal family: Abdullah Bin Butti of Green Mile Safari. He had been denied the area by a previous minister and was accused of poaching, having children hunt with automatic weapons, gunning down fleeing animals from moving cars, capturing baby animals and torturing dying ones.
According to its website, however, Green Mile appears to have been granted a licence to hunt in what it describes as “Maasai land” by the present administration.
About 30-year concessions west of Serengeti, which do not contain Maasai, include those by two Americans – Dan Friedkin, one of the world’s largest independent Toyota distributors, and hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones. They were granted two each under SWICA regulations. US ambassador Donald Wright personally intervened to negotiate the American SWICA concession awards with minister Ndumbaro – highlighting how high the stakes are in the allocation of prime land.
Clamps on information
Gathering information on the evictions poses problems. The Tanzanian government is jumpy as hell about criticism, given that international tourism is a key industry. Local whistle-blowers claim they will be arrested, foreigners who blow whistles have been banned from the country.
The country’s laws regarding information under Prime Minister Majaliwa and President Samia Hassan have become increasingly repressive. Many kidnappings and forced disappearances, widely alleged to be politically motivated, have made speaking out dangerous. People on the ground are terrified of being victimised and cannot be named, making verification difficult.
The Media Services Act violates the constitutional right of journalists to execute their right to free expression and opinion. The Online Content Regulations and the Cybercrimes Act enhance censorship and threaten individuals and media companies with sanctions such as suspension and closure of outlets.
The controversial Political Parties Act gives the registrar of political parties wide and vague powers to deregister parties and hand up to a year in jail to anyone engaging in “unauthorised civic education”, such as encouraging voter registration.
According to Amnesty International, Tanzania has the highest number of cases filed against it and judgments against it by the African Court (40%). In 2019, it withdrew the rights of its citizens to file cases against it in that court.
Under this blanket of restrictions, information about violations of the rights of the Maasai in Loliondo, Ngorongoro and Lake Natron is difficult to obtain. After she began investigating evictions, blogger Nordlund was arrested and kicked out of Tanzania.
She has, however, maintained an extensive network in the country and writes a blog called The Termite Mound, and since 2010 has been blogging about depredations against the Maasai. According to her, the government’s own documents show that at least 241 bomas and homesteads were burnt during the extrajudicial evictions in 2017, but says the current land demarcation is an even worse threat to the Maasai of Loliondo.
Opposition to Maasai mounting
In its rhetoric, the government has accused the Maasai of getting in the way of animal migration routes and of breeding grounds. It claims that in the interests of conservation and ecology, wildlife corridors (open to hunters) must be created over Maasai land. They are accused of having too many children and cattle and overgrazing the Serengeti.
According to Ambreena Manji, writing in The Elephant, the Tanzanian government and private corporations are colluding in “the deliberate destruction of the Maasai way of life, ‘preserving’ only those aspects that serve the purposes of tourism through a peoples’ exoticisation… This makes it easier to pass them off as an indigenous minority.”
Shortly after taking office in March 2021, Hassan said the Maasai and their livestock of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area south of Loliondo “had become too many”, that she didn’t know how or if people should be evicted, but concluded that something had to be done, or it was “bye, bye Ngorongoro”.
In 2022, according to Nordlund, parts of the Tanzanian press have been very active in describing the Maasai as environmentally harmful, with some reporters going to Ngorongoro to add colonial fantasies about burial practices, while “feeling sorry” for the Maasai being eaten by wild animals.
It was reported that they don’t own their own livestock and that opposition to evictions was a Kenyan strategy in an economic war. Similar rhetoric has been expressed, at times almost unanimously, in the one-party parliament.
The Tanzanian government clearly sees the Serengeti system as a preserve for tourists and hunters. The Maasai and their cattle are not part of this equation. The six wildlife protected areas surrounding the Serengeti comprise 30% of the ecosystem and are being handed out to a handful of foreigners with considerable wealth and extraordinary influence who wish to hunt animals undisturbed.
If the Tanzanian government and the Otterlo corporation have their way, the Maasai will become “conservation refugees” from the lands of their birth. The question that needs to be asked is: what’s in it for the Tanzanian politicians permitting and enforcing dispossession and impoverishment of their own citizens for the benefit of wealthy foreigners? DM/OBP
The Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority was contacted on 8 August 2022 for comment on a number of issues concerning the evictions and 30-year leases, but by time of publication no reply had been forthcoming. Similar questions to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism were not possible as its website’s access facility was faulty.