Over the past several days, people from Tanzania’s Maasai community have been targeted with live ammunition and tear gas, lawyers, activists and human rights groups say, as security forces try to evict them to make way for a luxury game reserve with alleged links to Emirati royals.
At least 30 Maasai people have been injured by security forces as they protested against government plans to demarcate 1,500 sq km of land as a game reserve, local activists say. Recategorising the area as a game reserve, rather than a game-controlled area, means a ban on grazing and human settlements in the area, experts say.
The battle is the latest in a string of conflicts over the use of land in Tanzania, home to an estimated 400,000 Maasai pastoralists. Government and big-game hunting companies have long clashed with indigenous groups, activists say, in a country that, before the Covid pandemic, used to draw more than 1mn tourists annually to attractions such as Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and the Serengeti.
In total, almost 150,000 Maasai people are facing displacement from the Loliondo and Ngorongoro areas, the UN said on Wednesday. “We are deeply alarmed at reports of use of live ammunition and tear gas by Tanzanian security forces,” added a UN panel on human rights.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights of the African Union also this week strongly condemned “forcible uprooting” of the Maasai and urged the government to “ensure” that the implementation of the conservation area was carried out “in full collaboration with and participation of the affected communities”.
Unverified images shared with the Financial Times by activists and human rights groups show Maasai people clad in red and purple shawls with wounds on their legs, backs and head. Some have fled to neighbouring Kenya, activists say.
“The government is cracking down on the people, the community, taking out the Maasai’s ancestral land, the land belonging to the villages,” said a Maasai academic in Tanzania who studies land and wildlife issues and who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
For the government, the displacement comes as it seeks to bolster revenue from tourism, its “largest foreign exchange earner, the second largest contributor to the gross domestic product and the third largest contributor to employment” in the east African country, according to a 2019 World Bank report.
“We earn revenue from the conservancy by attracting tourists. This enables us to build our roads, health system and buy medicine. Also it has helped us in our budget,” said Gerson Msigwa, a Tanzanian government spokesman. “We have not seen people who have been injured in our hospitals. No people have been killed in Loliondo. People are spreading incitements, which we won’t allow as a government.”
But human rights organisations have warned against “fortress” conservation, which shuts off land to communities rooted there. “The government is executing a plan to resettle Maasai in many areas. But all to give room for exclusive hunting business,” said Joseph Moses Oleshangay, a Maasai human rights lawyer from Loliondo.
He added that the government’s move “blatantly violates” a 2018 East African Court of Justice injunction prohibiting the Tanzanian government from evicting and the police from harassing or intimidating Maasai people in the area after previous confrontations also related to land use.
The hunting concession in Loliondo belongs to OBC, a company that Tanzanian lawyers, human right activists and environmentalists say is linked to the Emirati royal family. “It’s not a safari company for just everyone, it has operations for the royal family,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of Oakland Institute, the environmental think-tank.
“It feels like an all-open attack on the Maasai from Loliondo to Ngorongoro. It is about fortress conservation and safari tourism, in this case, for the elites, the royal family, with the cost being paid by those who have ancestral rights to that land,” she added.
A UN report from 2019, described OBC as “a luxury-game hunting company based in the United Arab Emirates”. It was granted a hunting licence in Tanzania in 1992 “allowing the UAE royal family to organise private hunting trips” and “denied Maasai peoples access to lands and water for their cattle, and have relied on Tanzanian armed forces and police to forcibly evict Maasai communities”.
The Emirati government did not reply to requests for comment. Without commenting on the alleged Emirati links, OBC said “there is no eviction in Loliondo” which is a “reserve land protected area”. It said all protected areas were government owned.
“Due to population growth in the area and the effect of climate change the government decided to de-gazette the area and gave 2,500 square kilometres to the community and the remaining 1,500 square kilometres is reserved due to the fact that the area is crucial” for wildlife and protecting the ecosystem, OBC added. “There is no land scarcity in Tanzania . . . so relocation is possible.”
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a Unesco world heritage site, but the UN body this year made clear that it had never “asked for the displacement of the Maasai people”.
Msigwa denied that officers had attacked or evicted Maasai people but said that one police officer was killed by an arrow to the head. The government had built houses for the relocated Maasai, he said.
“There are no evictions, there is nothing, everything is going on OK, the government is going on with its normal operations,” John Mongella, the commissioner for the region of Arusha told the Financial Times.
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai