The Serengeti Sell-Off

 /  June 22, 2013, 8:20 p.m.


International relations scholars like to argue that all politics are global. Evidence for this claim is emerging from Tanzania. In what has been dubbed “the great Serengeti sell-off,” the Tanzanian government and the Maasai people are battling over a strip of land about fifteen hundred square kilometers, bet the controversy is not limited to the immediate region. Ostensibly internal politics are drawing in powerbrokers from the United Arab Emirates and could reshape African government policy towards indigenous peoples across the continent.

The contested land is part of the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, home to over thirty thousand Maasai, on the edge of the Serengeti National Park. The wildlife ministry of Tanzania announced at the end of March that it plans to reclaim this land for a “wildlife corridor” to “save the [area’s] ecology.” This corridor is a priority for the government, which wants to protect the wildlife that provides a major source of national income through safari-based tourism. However, in a contentious move, access to this corridor will be granted exclusively to Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), a group that manages hunting trips for royalty from the UAE. As a result of this land seizure, the Maasai people will lose access to crucial grazing land, effectively destroying their nomadic lifestyle.

The Maasai people rely on these lands for their economic activity and as the source of their livelihood. The Maasai tribes indigenous to the region need access to good land to ensure the health of their cattle. The land now being offered to the Maasai is too dry to support livestock or grow food. Robert Kamika, a Maasai community member, reported to the Huffington Post that, “the government is organizing to set up the place so that livestock and human activity will be prohibited, and it will be the end of the community here because actually 90 percent of the community are depending on pastoral activity.”

The government claims that the Maasai’s “wilderness corridor” must be developed to offset the effects of “overgrazing,” a claim that infuriates tribal leaders. Benjamin Gardener of the University of Washington shares the Maasai’s confusion, “question[ing] those who say that the Maasai create more of a threat to wildlife than the hunting OBC is doing.” Additionally, the international NGO Oxfam released a study saying that the pastoral practices of the Maasai “can fight climate change.”

Maasai political leaders are speaking out against the government’s plan. Daniel Ngoitiko, a Maasai politician, believes that without the corridor’s land, his people will be unable to survive. “My people's livelihood depends on livestock totally,” he said. “We will die if we don't have land to graze.” In addition, fifty-five Maasai leaders have threatened to resign their posts as local administrators if the government will not back down.

The government response to the Maasai leaders’ pleas is well summed up in the reaction of Khamis Kagasheki, the minister for natural resources and tourism: “If the civic leaders want to resign, they can go ahead. There is no government in the world that can just let an area so important to conservation be wasted away by overgrazing.”

This is not the first time such a conflict has erupted. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has attempted to give this land to OBC for over a decade. The largest of these previous campaigns was in 2008, when the resistance of the Maasai people found an effective voice through the international advocacy group Avvaz. The Maasai drew attention to the issue through strategic political campaigning and asked the international community to prevent the Tanzanian government from removing the Maasai from their land allowing big-game hunters unimpeded access. Ultimately the government ceded to the international community’s outcry and did not follow through with its plan to remove the Maasai from the Loliondo area.

Recently the Avaaz website published a letter from Maasai elders that claims that although the petition in 2008 pressured the government to stop its land grab, “the President has waited for international attention to die down, and now he's revived his plan to take our land.”

As of April 24, the Maasai’s petition has drawn over 1.75 million signatures and captured international attention. Many reputable news outlets have reported on the issue, most focusing on the injustice done to the Maasai people, such as the Guardian, the BBC, and the Huffington Post.

Yet the Tanzanian government’s stance is more nuanced than it first seems. Tanzania faces pressure from its people to raise the average standard of living, combat HIV/AIDS, repair aging infrastructure, and improve education while working with one of the world’s lowest per capita GDPs. The main income of the country comes from gold and tourism, and the opportunity to increase this through a special contract with OBC is an reasonably tempting offer. President Kikwete runs for reelection in 2015 after two terms, and some believe he is risking the bad press of removing the Maasai from their land because of desperately needed funds that the OBC would provide. According to Colonel A.G.N. Msangi, district commissioner for Ngorongoro District, “OBC has invested more money [in Loliando] than any other company in the district.”

The presence of OBC in the Loliondo Game District creates a confusing dynamic in the area. Each year, hundreds of wealthy Arab businessmen and royalty hunt and kill big game that migrates through the area, particularly leopards and zebras. This not only directly contradicts the message of wildlife protection circulated by the Tanzanian government, but places a striking visual of excess and privilege in stark contrast to the increasing struggles of the Maasai. OBC’s lease to access the Loliondo is renewed each year by the Tanzanian government because, like most safari organizations, it gives charity to schools across the area and provides desperately needed jobs. A country in distress like Tanzania faces the choice of whether or not to connect with organizations like OBC that provide funding or to protect the “unproductive” way of life of the Maasai.

Many argue that the human cost of the eviction of the Maasai would be huge and the implications of destroying a traditional way of life immoral. In 2009, when the Maasai were removed from their land to allow the OBC to hunt, instances of violence, the burning of houses, and the death of cattle from lack of water proved to the Maasai that any sort of eviction would be brutal. The Maasai Association, an organization that works to preserve Maasai culture, believes that the government-instituted loss of land and access to water sources, grazing pastures, and salt lick has created poverty “beyond conceivable height.” The association believes that the pattern of abuse of the rights of the Maasai will not change and that “the future of the Maasai is uncertain at this point.”

The rights to the Loliondo Game District Area will determine the destiny of the Maasai people. They will set the precedent for how African governments and the international community will act in the coming century to balance the rights of different indigenous people across the continent with the serious imperative for development.

The image featured was taken by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. The original image can be found here.

Jane Huber


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