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Masai herders appear victims of land deal with Dubai hunting firm

Tanzania plans to move Maasai families off ancestral land, claiming environmental necessity to protect wildebeest.

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Masai Singa Sandeya (c.) protested in Arash, Tanzania, in April against a proposed wildlife corridor. 'Women are hurting for this land,' she said, 'and are going to die for it.'

Jason Patinkin

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Tens of thousands of Masai herders in northern Tanzania this spring are protesting a government plan to remove them from their grazing lands to make way for a private hunting firm from the Persian Gulf.

Tanzania plans a new "wildlife corridor" on 600 square miles of Masai village land in the Loliondo Region, which borders the Serengeti National Park. The move, which the government reaffirmed May 23, will evict 30,000 Masai – and allow exclusive access to the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a big-game hunting firm owned by the royal family of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Tanzania's tourism minister, Khamis Kagasheki, this March announced the creation and sale of the wildlife corridor as a kind of fait accompli.

That brought immediate fury among the Masai. It set off sit-ins largely led by women, along with dramatic marches across a highland savanna, with demands to drop a plan they say will impoverish and ruin their communities.

The move by Tanzania is part of a much larger appropriation – some say seizure – of land across Africa in which territory is sold or used in large development projects, often with locals being resettled or pushed out. Resettlement in the Gambella district of Ethiopia is just the latest example. 

About 90 percent of Loliondo Masai raise animals for sale in neighboring Kenya to pay for food, clothes, and school fees. At one sit-in this spring, Singa Sandeya, a Masai grandmother who owns about 40 cattle, said, "It's the only livelihood we have. Everything we get from cattle."

Tanzanian officials claim the Masai are squatters on government land and that their cattle overgraze and threaten the health and migration of herds of wildebeest.

Many biologists argue that the Masai, who do not hunt, pose little threat to the ecology and have lived alongside wildlife, including the wildebeest, for centuries. Nomadic cattle rearing is a highly productive use of arid lands, well adapted to the inconsistent local weather patterns, they argue.

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"The way the Masai manage the range actually encourages wildlife," says University of Washington expert Benjamin Gardner.

In recent years, the government of Tanzania has earned far more hard cash from tourism than from cattle, and the Masai argue that officials are taking their land under the rubric of environmentalism to line their pockets.

The OBC has operated in Loliondo since 1992 and pays so well that Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete sent in national police during a 2009 drought to keep cattle and locals away from water resources near the hunting camp.

This March federal troops were sent to break up the sit-ins; local nongovernmental organization leaders and Masai-language journalists have been detained and harassed.

Later this spring it briefly appeared the government might rethink its decision. After an online petition received 2 million signatures and as Masai threatened to leave the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, they formed a delegation of 15 leaders to meet with Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda a month ago.

Another 100 Masai left for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on May 20, and the previous week a different group tried to meet Mr. Kikwete, at great expense to themselves.

Kikwete would not meet the elders. Mr. Pinda has made no official statement supporting the Masai despite promises reportedly made behind closed doors.

Then, on May 23, Tanzania's mission to the United Nations issued a statement upholding Mr. Kagasheki's decision that evicting the Masai was an ecological necessity. It said the 600 square miles are a "crucial breeding area for ... millions of wildebeests...."

The government of Tanzania "took this decision with the understanding that environment conservation is as important for ecosystem protection as it is for community livelihood and community development," the statement said.

Ced Hesse, principal researcher on dry lands and pastures for the Britain-based International Institute for Environment and Development, says Tanzania's position is "not founded in any scientific evidence, in fact the evidence shows the contrary.... [T]hese longstanding arguments put forward by governments ... saying too many animals, too many people [are] excuses used to evict people for other purposes."

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