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Tanzania: Maasai face land loss, extinction
NewsNotes, January-February 2010

The following article was written by Elaina Ramsey, who was an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in fall 2009.

According to various media reports confirmed by Maryknoll sisters in Tanzania, the nomadic people known as the Maasai face violent eviction from their homelands in the northern Loliondo district of Ngorongoro, Tanzania. Traditionally pastoralists, the Maasai (meaning “endless plain”) rely on the land to graze their cattle and to maintain their livelihoods. But the Tanzanian government continues to unlawfully sell the land of the Maasai to foreign investors.

For centuries, the Maasai have dwelled throughout Kenya and Tanzania. In 1959, the British colonial government began to remove pastoralists from the plains of East Africa. Deeming pastoralists’ land as unproductive and waiting to be settled or developed, colonial administrators acquired huge areas of land on which to establish game parks and reserves, and resettled the Maasai to the crater of Ngorongoro. But after 1961, the new Tanzanian government began to evict the Maasai. Viewed as uncivilized drifters, the government established a policy of discrimination against the Maasai. Their language was banned from schools, and their traditional garments were outlawed.

With the creation of more national parks and the parceling of land to foreign investors, grazing options for the Maasai continue to be limited and overcrowded. Without access to the land previously promised to them, the Maasai are not able to maintain their cultural identity and subsist as pastoralists. In order to promote and protect the rights of indigenous groups, the International Labour Organization adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No.169 in 1989. So far only 20 countries have ratified ILO Convention No. 169 and are required to implement policies that end discrimination against indigenous peoples and stop the exploitation of their land and resources. The Tanzanian government has yet to endorse ILO Convention 169, and consequently there are no provisions to uphold the rights of the Maasai.

As a result, eco-tourist industries and agribusinesses have developed throughout the land of the Maasai. Even the Otterlo Business Corporation linked to the Royal Dubai family claims the property of the Maasai in Loliondo as their own by citing it as hunting grounds purchased from the government of Tanzania. By claiming that the Maasai are not actually indigenous but are nomads from Kenya, the Tanzanian government refuses to recognize the land rights of the Maasai. Thus, the government and foreign investors have sought to evict the Maasai with violence and harassment. As their villages are burnt to the ground, hundreds of Maasai are displaced without food and shelter, and are hard-pressed to rebuild their lives and communities.

The United Nations has shown support by strengthening the role and rights of Maasai women, and by helping to ameliorate the effects of climate change on Maasai pastoral practices. But more needs to be done by the UN to address the territorial plight of the Maasai, and to preserve their cultural heritage. Local activists have also tried to maintain the rights of the Maasai, but are routinely arrested and threatened by government officials. Without adequate support, the Maasai face possible extinction.

The sacred land of the Maasai should not be parceled off to the highest bidder for corporate farming, tourism, or gaming. Such illicit acts not only threaten the economic security of the Maasai, but erode their cultural identity and spiritual well-being as pastoralists.

To learn more about the Maasai and to help safeguard their rights, watch videos on the Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources website of the devastation in Loliondo after eight Maasai villages are illegally burnt, and write a letter to encourage President Jakaya Kikwete to stop the eviction of the Maasai from Tanzania: H.E. the Hon. Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, President, State House, P.O. Box 9120, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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