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Is Tourism Displacing Tanzania’s Maasai?

Thanks in large part to their residences near many famed game parks, the Maasai are among the best known local populations in central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

By some accounts, the tribe has inhabited the region since about the 15th century.

But now, according to a report from the Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, tens of thousands of Tanzania’s ethnic Maasai are homeless because the government has burned their houses in order to keep the savannah open for tourism.

What’s more, villagers in northern Tanzania’s Loliondo area, near the Ngorongoro Crater, have been evicted during the past year and denied access to key grazing and watering holes.

The report, “Losing the Serengeti: The Maasai Land that was to Run Forever” is based on field research, never publicly-seen-before documents and an in-depth investigation into Tanzania’s land laws.

All of the research revealed complicity between Tanzanian government officials and foreign companies that are using conservation laws to dispossess the Maasai, driving them into smaller and smaller areas and creating a stifling map of confinement.

The report specifically exposes what it describes as the devastating impact of two foreign companies on the lives and livelihoods of the Maasai villagers in the Loliondo area of the Ngorongoro District—Tanzania Conservation Ltd (TCL), a safari business operated by the owners of Boston-based high-end safari outfitter Thomson Safaris; and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), which runs hunting excursions for the country’s royal family and their guests.

“According to local villagers, TCL has made their lives impossible by denying them access to water and land and cooperating with local police who have beaten and arrested the Maasai,” states the report. “Meanwhile, for 25 years, the OBC had an exclusive hunting license, during which time there were several violent evictions of the Maasai, many homes were burnt, and thousands of rare animals were killed.”

Young Maasai herders have become so afraid of authorities that they “flee when they see a vehicle approach,” thinking it might carry representatives of foreign safari companies, the report said.

According to the Associated Press, concern for the Maasai is being raised at home and abroad by such organizations as Minority Rights Group International and Survival International, which has warned that the alleged land grabs “could spell the end of the Maasai.”

“As tourism becomes one of the fastest-growing sectors within the Tanzanian economy, safari and game park schemes are wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of the Maasai,” Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal told Associated Press. “But this is not just about a specific company – it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities around the world.”

Although Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources canceled OBC’s license last year, the OBC remains active in the area, and the local villagers continue to live in fear.

The Maasai are cattle herders who need land to graze their animals and maintain their pastoralist lifestyle. They often do so on land bordering Tanzania’s famous Serengeti National Park, an area that is a wildlife corridor popular with tourists.

Because the east African nation’s government relies so heavily on tourism to fund its budget, it has prioritized safari group needs over those of indigenous communities.

“The government has been reviewing boundaries and subsequently evicting communities in the name of conservation,” Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, head of the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre told The Associated Press. “In my understanding, the conservation should have been made to benefit people, and if people are affected then it calls for worries. The Maasai community (is) indeed suffering.”

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