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Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is Tanzania’s primary tourism destination as it attracts many foreign visitors, investors, hunting groups, and hoteliers, all bringing in millions of dollars through fees. It is located in the north between the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro.
Researchers say the Maasai people have been living in the area for generations, even before the establishment of the reserve. In 1958, those who had been relocated from the Serengeti signed an agreement that guaranteed them the rights to occupy and use the land. Despite this, the Maasai have in recent years faced mounting restrictions that have affected their livelihoods, leading to poverty.
They are currently banned from engaging in small scale agriculture, building new houses or accessing rivers, craters and other areas in their proximity, which are vital for the well-being of their cattle. They argue that the government’s intention is to create unfavourable conditions so they can leave on their own volition.
Recently, the government cut off all Covid-19-related funding for schools in the area. The Maasai community protested, appealing for a halt to the evictions and reinstatement of their basic rights.
In their quest to have the Maasai relocated, politicians from the governing party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) have raised doubts on the indigeneity of the community, going as far as criticising their culture as ‘backward’ and one that needs to be ‘forcefully alleviated from poverty’.
Some pro-government media have also amplified similar sentiments, in what looks like a campaign to have the Maasai evicted from Ngorongoro.
The Maasai have responded by holding conferences to raise awareness of their plight and rejecting further meetings with government officials.
Since taking office last year, Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan has maintained the need for conservation of the area, hinting at changing the multiple-land-use status of the area. She has also toured different countries, inviting them to invest in the region. These include the United Arab Emirates, whose royalty has held hunting rights in Ngorongoro, and the US, which comprises the lion’s share of visitors.
“The question of human presence and impact has been an ongoing debate since the creation of the NCA,” says Benjamin Gardner, author of Selling the Serengeti. He points to the fact that “many protected areas throughout Africa were modelled after a US idea of wilderness that is free of people” yet in the African context, this perception has frequently caused harm to people through evictions and dispossession.
He says the government’s claim that Ngorongoro is vanishing due to human presence has not been substantiated by any independent research. According to him, there is a lack of data on the exact number of the people and cattle in the area following the disastrous 2017 drought that resulted in deaths.
Since then, Tanzania’s government has only increased its restrictions, providing very limited aid to the community.
Gardner says “pastoralism is highly compatible with grassland wildlife populations” adding that “both Serengeti and Ngorongoro [have] been sustained largely thanks to the Maasai land management and grazing helps the wildlife”.
He says the evictions are also likely to cause more environmental destruction, hunger and conflict. “The amount of social, political, economic and ecological upheaval would create a much bigger crisis for the country.”
UNESCO, which inscribed the NCA on the World Heritage List, recently declared that it “did not ask for the displacement of the Maasai” despite originally recommending voluntary relocation.
Post-colonial politics of oppression
In the history of Tanzania’s struggle for freedom, research shows that British colonialists sought to annex and force the Maasai out of their remaining territory, but were legally challenged. They eventually abandoned the plan in order to discourage the Maasai from rebelling against them.
Today, worsening living conditions and the looming threat of evictions have seen the Maasai in Ngorongoro join hands with political figures and activists who are sympathetic to their cause. The Maasai protests seem to have paved the way for some of them to stand up to the government.
They have been calling for government officials to be held accountable for the community’s deteriorating situation, even though many Tanzanians still fear engaging in activism and protests.
After decades of centralised governing, the effects of political control “are visible everywhere in the absence of independent social movements and politics outside state structures”, says Tundu Lissu, one of the opposition leaders and an ally of the Maasai activists.
He says: “The society versus nature philosophy and nature conservation that has been practised for decades in Tanzania must change.” In his view, “the forced removal of tens of thousands of the Maasai people from their ancestral lands will fail because of the political [challenges]”.
Lissu’s party, Chadema, advocates for the decentralisation of politics from Dar Es Salaam or Dodoma. “Democratic control by the Maasai people and their human rights must be the basis for decision-making in the NCA,” Lissu says.
Teklehaymanot G. Weldemichel, an expert in conservation and development politics, cites the colonial background of existing policies that continue to shape Tanzania’s protected areas.
In 2017, he says he witnessed violence inflicted on the Maasai in Loliondo: Maasai houses in the area were allegedly burned down by the authorities to create space for the hunting company, Ortello Business Corporation from United Arab Emirates.
“There is no justification for the Tanzanian state to monopolise the collection and spending of all the resources generated from these protected areas,” he says. “Benefits should be streamed to the people, the same way that people whose land is used to produce crops and other products in which the state doesn’t take all the produce.”
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