Extractivism, ecocide and the effects of the climate and ecological crisis do not affect the global population equally. As the climate crisis escalates and we move closer to COP26 this November, countries in the Global North continue to offer green washed promises and speculative solutions which allow them to continue business as usual whilst exploiting those who have contributed the least to the crisis.

It is essential we pass the mic, and offer solidarity, strength and solutions to the earth defenders on the frontline around the world. 

Over the coming weeks and months we’ll continue to cover ‘Stories from the Frontline’, aiming to focus and give voice to the Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA). Please get in touch if you have a story you’d like to share or know of areas and issues we should cover. This week, we’re covering the assault on Indigenous land rights in Tanzania and how Indigenous Peoples are mobilising in the run-up to a global conservation congress…

What’s happening?

The Maasai, one of East Africa’s long-standing Indigenous People, are facing eviction to make more space for Ecotourism and trophy hunting. In April 2021, the Tanzanian government announced plans to relocate over 80,000 residents – most of them Indigenous Maasai – from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in Tanzania, a breathtaking landscape rich in wildlife bordering Serengeti National Park. The NCA was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO thanks to its largely intact nature, but despite centuries of Maasai stewardship, they are now facing having their livelihoods destroyed under the guise of conservation.

This is happening as part of the government’s new Multiple Land Use Management (MLUM) and resettlement plan. The MLUM was designed in consultation with UNESCO World Heritage Center, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), after they urged the Tanzanian government to control population growth in the NCA – which was framed as directly responsible for the area’s environmental degradation. 

Maasai boma in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hold on, let’s debunk that first…

The overpopulation argument is as old as western conservation itself. It has been pushed by public figures such as David Attenborough, who was active in the right-wing group Population Matters which advocated for eugenics and campaigned against accepting Syrian refugees in the UK. Jane Goodall, another icon of the environmental movement, claimed publicly that the problems we are facing wouldn’t exist with a smaller population.

The overpopulation argument is a myth with no scientific footing and condemned as eco-fascist both in the environmental movement and research, as it disregards the fact that the richest 1% are responsible for the bulk of emissions and degradation of biodiversity globally. At the same time, while Indigenous Peoples only make up 5% of the global population they protect 80% of all biodiversity. According to a report by the Oakland Institute, there is a lack of scientific evidence in the NCA to back this argument.

The narrative that growing Indigenous populations are responsible for ecological decline ignores the fact that the Maasai have been living in a symbiotic relationship with nature for years. Local ecology, domesticated livestock and people have coexisted and flourished side by side in a resource-scarce environment. The Maasai’s local knowledge has been credited for allowing biodiversity to grow under their stewardship. The NCA currently contains the highest density of mammalian predators in the whole of Africa, including several endangered species.  An IUCN report from 2017 showed that pastoralism is compatible with wildlife conservation and that there is no scientific basis to suggest that Maasai land use should be restricted.

Maasai man with his cows in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Source: The Oakland Institute 

Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are an Indigenous pastoralist tribe that inhabits mostly Tanzania and Kenya and lives off animal husbandry and agriculture for self-sufficiency. In recent decades, they have faced displacement due to growing privatisation, increased droughts and growing infrastructure projects. Despite promises of Tanzania’s former president that the Maasai will never be evicted from their ancestral land, this is exactly what’s happening now.

Traditionally, the Maasai had lived in Serengeti National Park, until it was split by a British-led “community enquiry”, which created Ngorongoro Conservation Area and prohibited all human habitation in Serengeti. The Maasai were offered the newly formed NCA and promised better water resources and participation in the governing of the conservation area – which never happened. Over the years, more and more laws have stripped the Maasai of their rights to graze livestock and cultivate crops in their gardens – which often put them in difficult circumstances, as they often turned to subsistence agriculture to supplement their diet when cattle populations suffered. Despite legal requirements to prioritise employing Maasai for jobs within the park, their employment numbers remain extremely low.

Maasai pastoralists have been living as guardians of the land in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley for hundreds of years, and their culture and livelihoods are dependent on the thriving surrounding ecosystems. Instead of being rewarded and respected for their care and conservation of the land, foreign investors and tourism enterprises are constantly seeking to profit off their stewardship. Currently, the Maasai are at risk of a new period of what they call “emutai” (“wipe out”), which describes a loss of culture, knowledge, tradition, language, and lifestyle.

A Maasai boy in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Image source: Quartz Africa

How are people affected?

The new government plan will divide Ngorongoro Conservation Area into four zones, which will greatly reduce the area in which Maasai are allowed to live and use the land for livestock grazing and crop cultivation, their main forms of subsistence. This would force entire communities to relocate in areas that, according to Maasai leaders, cannot sustain their traditional livelihoods. The plan was approved without the meaningful participation and leadership of residents.

The plan further envisions that “the ‘protection’ of the NCA will boost the area’s appeal for international wildlife tourism”. In the past, UNESCO has even advocated for evicting all inhabitants of the NCA whilst preserving structures built by Indigenous Maasai for their tourism value. The MLUM acknowledges that by leaving the NCA to Indigenus pastoralists, the government would lose 50% of expected revenue by 2038 – which makes it clear that conservation is not the sole motivator.

“UNESCO and the government of Tanzania’s plan is detrimental not only to the Maasai but also for the conservation of wildlife. Dividing the ecosystem doesn’t provide a long-term solution. It is a repeat of the myopic actions of the British colonial government, and our challenges have continued.” – Maasai elder.

The Maasai have suffered a history of displacement from their ancestral lands due to Conservation schemes, game parks, and development strategies aimed at attracting foreign investors. Over the past century, a number of land laws passed by the British colonial government and subsequently the Tanzanian government – often backed by international conservation groups – have forced the Maasai onto smaller and smaller plots of land, threatening their existence. Meanwhile, tourism has exploded in the area and existing facilities cannot hold the amount of visitors anymore. Because tourism makes up 10.3% of GDP in Tanzania, the government is now under pressure to expand tourism facilities – despite the number of people and vehicles affecting the natural environment.

In recent years, the Tanzanian government has carried out violent evictions of the Maasai by burning houses, destroying food, seizing cattle and forcibly displacing tens of thousands of people – all in the name of preserving ecosystems for tourism. In 1992, Ortello Business Corporation – a luxury hunting company based in the United Arab Emirates – occupied Maasai land and has since built a private airport and exclusive hunting retreats in the area. Another eviction in 2009 left 3,000 people homeless after being threatened at gunpoint. In 2015, Serengeti park rangers burned 114 bomas (traditional homes), and another 185 in August 2017, leaving 20,000 Maasai homeless. One of the main hunting operators in the area, Thomson Safari, is blocking access to water holes and fertile soils.

As a result, the Maasai are now heavily affected by food insecurity, malnutrition and dependence on inadequate food, threatening their very survival. Together with the effects of climate change, the impacts on Indigenous communities are devastating. Samwel Nangiria, a Maasai representative, explains:

“The government intends to divide up Ngorongoro and create a no- go- zone and deprive Maasai of their customary rights to access important grazing, natural salt leaks and sacred sites. The task force that produced the report involved only one Maasai representative, and they say the Maasai community was involved. At the same time, the government is allowing trophy hunting in conservation areas. If this eviction happens to go through,  then it will cause irreparable socio-economic and environmental damages to the Maasai community, including losing their homeland.”

A Maasai boma (traditional home) burnt down by Serenget park rangers. Credit: Mulemwa Ochilo

A burnt Maasai village in 2015. Credit: InsightShare.org

This Maasai man was arrested, beaten, tortured and forced to leave his ancestral land by police. Credit: Mulemwa Ochilo

Devastating evictions such as that of the Maasai could become commonplace under the proposed 30×30 initiative, which would turn 30% of the Earth into so-called “Protected Areas” by 2030. While this sounds great on paper, Indigenous groups have warned that under the current colonial model of ‘fortress conservation’, the initiative could constitute ‘the biggest land grab in history’. It will be discussed by governments and the conservation sector at the next IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille from September 3-11th. The implications of the proposed Ngorongoro eviction could produce a cascade of similar cases which would threaten the survival of Indigenous peoples across the world.

How are Indigenous Peoples resisting?

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has been signed by the Tanzanian government, states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources, with due respect to customs, traditions and lena tenure sytes of the indigenous peoples concerned”. Indigenous Peoples are now drawing on this declaration to hold the Tanzanian government accountable to their actions.

In an open letter to Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan, Indigenous Peoples Rights International – together with 124 organisations from 51 countries – criticised the unscientific, colonialist approach of her government as human rights violations. The letter demands to revoke the eviction orders, fully recognise the Indigenus pastoralist communities’ sustainable practices and to set up a committee investigating historical injustices.

Maasai leaders have also set up the Pan Afrikan Living Cultures Alliance (PALCA), an Indigenous-led NGO led by and for Indigenous Peoples of Africa. PALCA’s mission is to safeguard communities’ biocultural rights, support intergenerational transmission, preserve indigenous languages and promote traditional governance of natural resources. They do so by taking an innovative approach in addressing issues like decolonisation of public spaces, climate change and strategic engagement with national and regional bodies. PALCA is also working with the University of Oxford Museum and Pitts River Museum to decolonise Museums and cultural spaces. You can support this project by donating here.

In response to the IUCN Congress in September, groups and organisations supporting the Decolonise Conservation movement will gather online and in Marseille to support Survival International’s Our Land Our Nature Congress from the 2-3rd September, which calls for the conservation movement to be led by Indigenous knowledge and local communities.

A Maasai woman holding a placard that reads “We will fight for our land until the end”. Credit: Jason Patinkin

Why is this important?

One million species globally are at risk of extinction, and we must acknowledge the fact that nature is declining a lot less rapidly in areas managed by Indigenous Peoples. They protect 80% of global biodiversity, demonstrating that Indigenous communities provide the most effective and sustainable form of conservation.

While the MLUM report cites land degradation as a reason to restrict Maasai settlements, it disregards the fact that those conditions are caused by restrictions on traditional Maasai practices such as periodic burning, which restrict wildfires and protect wildlife and biodiversity. When poverty and dispossession rise in Indigenous populations, so do the negative effects on the wider environment.

The most recent Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystems echoes this: “Recognising the knowledge, innovations, practices, institutions and values of indigenous peoples and local communities, and insuring their inclusion and participation in environmental governance, often enhances their quality of life and the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of nature.”