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Grabbing Land for Conservation in Loliondo, Tanzania.

A short explanation of what the Avaaz petition against land grabbing hunters in Serengeti really was about, and a reminder that there are other land threats in Loliondo.

An article with a brief overview of the land grabbing in Loliondo should have been published in August when Avaaz launched a campaign called “Stop the Serengeti Sell-Off”, but better late than never …

The Avaaz petition was launched in protest against an unnamed big-game hunting corporation allegedly forcing 48,000 Maasai from their lands to make way for “Middle Eastern kings and princes” to hunt “lions and leopards”. This sadly far too vague a petition was signed by almost a million people and unfortunately allowed the Ministry for Natural Resources and Tourism to issue a press release ridiculing Avaaz since, obviously, no one was living in Serengeti National Park; the Maasai were evicted in 1959 and not many of them even live in Serengeti District west of the park. The petition was actually talking about the Maasai of Loliondo in Ngorongoro District just east of the Park - where the state and some of its allied “investors” are a constant threat to land rights but somehow Avaaz got its geography slightly wrong. 

Over the years I’ve become familiar with what’s happening in Loliondo, but pastoralists are equally under attack all over Tanzania, and so it is not only the Maasai who are affected. The situation is also serious in other parts of Ngorongoro District. When the Maasai were moved from Serengeti National Park an agreement was made that they would have secure access to Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but they were later evicted from the world famous crater, cultivation was prohibited and people began to suffer many hardships – and right now there’s an especially serious food crisis that merits its own in depth article. 

Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC) – Discreet Hunting and Abuse at the Highest Level

The truth behind the Avaaz campaign is that two decades ago, allegedly through corrupt practises and above the heads of the Maasai customary landowners, Otterlo Business Corporation owned by the businessman and member of the Dubai royal family Mohammed Abdulrahim Al-Ali got a hunting concession in Loliondo Division of Ngorongoro District. OBC, less a corporation more a set-up for the hunting enjoyment of such celebrities as the ruler of Dubai Sheik Mohammed and his crown prince, has through the years had a more or less uneasy co-existence with the Maasai landowners. OBC have often acted as if they were the owners of the land expecting grazing of livestock to give way to their hunting practises. OBC did in the 90s engage in hunting excesses, including flying out live animals and there are rumours that this is still going on, though unfortunately nobody has in the last decade made an effort to properly investigate or document it.

OBC is an unusual company in that doesn’t have a website and shows no interest in international media, but statements are made to often uncritical Tanzanian media and in 2010 state-owned television (TBC1) ran an OBC propaganda documentary.

In 2009 there was a serious drought and more people and cattle than usual had gathered in the dry season grazing area next to the National Park that was also OBC’s core hunting area. Affected villages received letters from government authorities ordering them to vacate the area They chose to ignore these since they believed it was an issue between them and OBC and not the government. In July 2009Tanzania’s special police force - the Field Force Unit – in an operation managed by Regional and District authorities and using OBC vehicles, began evicting people and livestock from the area belonging to seven villages. At least 150 homesteads were burnt to the ground, including grain stores and even some young livestock were burnt to death. Some 60,000 heads of cattle were pushed into an extreme drought area and calves were left behind in the stampede. This significantly worsened the alarming rates of cattle deaths caused by the drought. Many cases of beatings, humiliations and sexual assault were reported. Several children were lost in the chaos and terror and one of them – 7-year-old Nashipai Gume from Arash – has still not been found. Many strange explanations about what happened have come from government quarters. Most of them are arguing that the operation was necessary to save the environment and that no human rights abuses were committed.

No further evictions have taken place and people have moved back to the area, but a land use plan is being proposed by the government to take away a 1,500 square kilometre corridor from the Maasai to turn it into a protected area - where hunting would be permitted -  the effect of which would in some ways be quite similar to “selling” the land to OBC. The whole of Loliondo Division is also a “Game Controlled Area” which is an archaic definition of land where hunting used to be restricted while no other land uses were affected – and Game Controlled Areas overlap village land. The proposed land use plan presents the possibility of turning the 1,500 square kilometre corridor into a new kind of Game Controlled Area that would share nothing but its name with the old kind. It would be more like a Game Reserve where hunting is permitted and other land uses restricted and which would not be allowed to overlap with village land. All ward councillors rejected it but the Government has still not issued a statement with regard to the status of this plan, while letters from authorities demanding that the villages of Ololosokwan and Engaresero hand in their land certificates have further added to local fears and for this year’s (2012) hunting season cattle were chased away from the area around the OBC camp.

A constitutional case has been filed against OBC's manager and several authorities responsible for the 2009 evictions. Since three judges are needed at the same time, things have been slow. Now it looks like the case is moving forward and the petition has been amended to include developments such as the proposed land use plan and the revocation of village certificates. A reply has been filed to the preliminary objections and the court will set a date for the ruling.

Quite recently there were big protests in Ololosokwan when it was found that Tanzania National Parks had border beacons lying about waiting at Klein’s Gate. The gate itself is on village land and in 2008 there was an intent by TANAPA to put up beacons extending the SerengetiNational Parkonto land belonging to Ololosokwan village. On 23rd November, 2012 villagers protesting at the gate the Chief Park Warden argued that the Prime Minister was to make a decision on the boundary while the District Administrative Secretary in the next meeting with angry villagers said the beacons were for the border between Arusha and Mara regions and only kept at the gate because of the rainy weather. On 26th November a large turnout of villagers transported the beacons out of village land and dumped them in the National Park. Then at a meeting on the 30th the District Commissioner announced that the beacons would be put up at the border recognised by the villagers and not inside village land where TANAPA placed them in 2008. Though on 1st December irregularities were found in the numbering of the beacons and the outcome again became uncertain. Boundary surveyors have also visited the villages of Arash and Piyaya. Hopefully the example set by Ololosokwan will help them resist intimidation and manipulation.

Thomson Safaris – “Empowerment” through Dispossession

Not only hunters from the Gulf, but also the Boston-based “philanthropic”, “ecotourism” company Thomson Safaris are a serious threat to Loliondo people. This company is claiming 12,617 acres of Maasai grazing land as their private “Enashiva Nature Refuge”.

Thomson could grab the land because of the Tanzanian government’s love for “investors” and lack of respect for pastoralists’ rights, and because in 1984 the parastatal Tanzania Breweries, in an irregular fashion according to the regulations of the time, were given 10,000 acres between several sub-villages of Soitsambu village (some of the sub-villages have lately been upgraded to villages) referred to as Sukenya Farm to be used for barley cultivation. Tanzania Breweries cultivated 100 acres of this land in 1985/1986 and 700 acres in 1986/1987 while the rest of it continued to be used by the Maasai. The brewery left the land, partly because of opposition and partly due to the climate, which is too dry for barley cultivation and the whole of the land reverted to pastoralist use. Many years later, in 2003, using allegedly forged documents, the brewery acquired a 99-year “right of occupancy” to the land to which were added another 2,617 acres to the original 10,000 acres. Then in 2006 TBL put it up for sale - and Tanzania Conservation Limited – a division of Wineland-Thomson Adventures Inc. - expressed interest with their plans to create a private nature refuge.

Thomson are not the first investors “saving” Maasai land from the Maasai while presenting this as “community empowerment”, which in Thomson’s case is aggressively done both internationally and in the Tanzanian press. Within their use of land they have restricted grazing and access to key watering points. This combined with beatings, arrests, “fines” and confiscation of cattle, in collaboration with local police and authorities. In 2008 there was a clash between herders and Thomson together with the police. A herder from Enadooshoke, Lesinko Nanyoi, was shot in the jaw as a result of the clash.

Intimidation and harassment does not stop with the local Maasai population. In May 2008 New Zealand born photographer, Trent Keegan, was killed in Nairobi, after having investigated the conflict and sent emails to his friends about being approached by Thomson’s guards and the police. A possible connection between the murder andTrent’s work has not been investigated by the police. After a meeting between Trent’s friend Brian MacCormaic and the owners of Thomson Safaris, Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland who were on a fact finding mission with their local manager plus some people handpicked by the District Commissioner (the highest representative for the central government in the district) Brian was surrounded and held up by about ten armed men arriving in a Thomson vehicle. In a later meeting the District Commissioner was seen with files that could only have come from Brian’s and Trent’s laptops and Thomson’s manager boasted to Brian about having such files.

Furthermore, in 2009 British journalist Alex Renton and photographer Caroline Irby who were invited to Thomson’s nature refuge, “Enashiva”, were not well received upon arrival and ten minutes after leaving they were stopped by the police and sent to the District Commissioner’s office which, acting on a complaint by Thomson, had them escorted out of the district. Then, in early 2010 I, a Swedish tourist, was expelled fromTanzaniafor asking questions about the situation to the wrong person – the Soitsambu Ward Executive Officer - who contacted the District Commissioner. Since that time I have spent considerable time and efforts getting in contact with people with experiences and information about the history of this land conflict.

In early 2010 a land case – supported by Minority Rights Group International - was initiated against Tanzania Conservation Ltd (Thomson) andTanzaniaBreweries Ltd. Over a year later the case was dismissed on preliminary objections, which left people with questions about the integrity of the judge. An appeal was sought and granted, and the court case is ongoing. Efforts have been made to raise awareness among tourists about the un-ethical nature of Thomson Safaris but there has been little impact to date. Tourists continue to go on expensive safaris provided by Thomson Safaris and some even fundraise for the company’s charitable branch ‘Focus on Tanzanian Communities’ thus further strengthening Thomson’s financial muscle and international image.

Minority Rights Group have also assisted in finding a negotiated solution through community meetings where they found that local people could accept that Thomson keep 2000 acres of the land if they recognise the community’s rights of ownership of the remaining 10,617 acres that could be used by the safari company on a contractual basis as long as unrestricted access to watering points, footways and specific grazing areas is respected. Thomson totally rejected this and responded with allegations of fraud and misrepresentation.

A court case is going on against five young herders – two from Mondorosi and three from Sukenya – that were found on the disputed land on 27th July, beaten by the police who also cut their traditional braids and brought to Loliondo police station. They were given bail next day and then they were called to the District Commissioner’s Office where the DC ordered the police to arrest them again and warned them to stop grazing on “Thomson’s land”. The herders were jailed for four more days and then again granted bail and a court hearing was scheduled for 15th August and then adjourned until 5th September so that Thomson could “gather more evidence”. Thomson did not show up on 5th September and the hearing was again adjourned. On 9th November there was a preliminary hearing and Thomson Safaris said that their manager and a policeman would be their witnesses. A case against three young boys that were beaten at Thomson’s camp and arrested for trespassing was recently dismissed since the prosecution did not show up and there was no supporting evidence, and there was hope the same will happen with the five herders’ case, but what kind of hope is this? What kind of justice? These people should be taking Thomson to court for harassment on their own land.

A new organisation called Responsible TourismTanzaniathat seems to come from inside the tourism industry and be geared towards providing auditing consultancy services has announced that Thomson Safaris are providing office space for their auditors and researchers – so not much help can be expected from that side …

Samwel Nangiria of NGONET in Loliondo says, "Pastoralist land conflicts in Loliondo have caused irreparable impact in communities' livelihood, it’s timely now for the government to guarantee and protect Maasai land rights"

Susanna Nordlund.

Further reading: 

Blog post with the history of OBC.

The Avaaz campaign.

Tanzanian CSO’s press release about the Avaaz campaign.

The recently launched Stop Thomson Safaris website.

Blog by Swedish tourist who was declared a prohibited immigrant for asking questions. (there will soon be a blog update)

2008 appeal by Trent Keegan’s friend Brian MacCormaic.

MRG's Head of Law visits Maasai communities pitted against safari company over land dispute