Dar es Salaam — Thousands of pastoralists in northern Tanzania are protesting against a government move to expand the amount of land it leases to foreign investors, because they will no longer be able to graze animals there in the dry season.
Maasai herders in Ngorongoro District, who rear cattle for a living, accuse the government of using wildlife conservation as a pretext to evict them from their ancestral land. They say the underlying aim is to further the commercial interests of companies that want to take over 1,500 square km for hunting and tourism.
Onesmo Olengurumwa, a civic leader in Loliondo ward, told AlertNet the government is using double standards to "grab" more village land and lease it to Dubai-based Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), which runs game-hunting safaris. Other investors are also said to be interested in renting land in the region.
Under legislation introduced in 1999, all land in Loliondo is classified as "village land". However a portion of the village land and a so-called Game Controlled Area have been leased to OBC since 1992.
Until the 2009 Wildlife Conservation Act, the designation of a Game Controlled Area had no bearing on how land was used or managed. But the new law prohibits farming and livestock grazing in those areas.
According to Loliondo villagers, the legislation poses a big problem for communities that need the land to survive.
"It's a pity that we are being treated as invaders when we have been living and grazing our cattle in this area for decades," Olengurumwa said.
GOVERNMENT DEFENDS PLAN
The Loliondo Game Controlled Area is bordered by the Maasai Mara National Reserve to the north, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the south, and the Serengeti National Park to the west.
The Tanzanian government has recently announced plans to set aside additional tracts of land in Loliondo to protect wildlife and water catchment areas from human activity.
In an interview with AlertNet, Tanzanian Minister for Tourism and Natural Resources Khamis Kagasheki defended the government decision to take the 1,500 square kilometres of land, arguing it was necessary for wildlife conservation.
He accused local Maasai communities of encroaching on key water resources and wildlife breeding grounds, adding that the government would not hesitate to use force to defend such an important conservation area from over-grazing.
"The area must be protected at any cost," the minister said. "There will be no compromise with regard to any attempt to infringe the newly established boundaries."
Past government failures to follow strict conservation strategies led to the disappearance of a dozen world-famous animal migratory routes three decades ago, he added.
"This area is a suitable sanctuary for wildlife ... animals gather here feeding and breeding. It is also a migration route for wildebeest from the Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya and back to Serengeti," he explained.
Minister Kagasheki warned activists and politicians in the area not to encourage villagers to protest. The government would not bow to pressure from civil society groups operating there, he said.
He emphasised that the government does not intend to disturb local herders, since they still have access to 2,500 square km of land for grazing.
And in a bid to address water shortages, the government has promised to build dams and boreholes on the dry plains so pastoralists can access water for their animals.
Last year, the government launched a cattle-replenishing initiative, costing 12.9 billion Tanzanian shillings ($8.2 million), to rebuild herds after many pastoralists - including in Loliondo - lost livestock in a major drought that lasted from 2008 to 2011.
Livestock contributes at least 30 percent of Tanzania's agricultural gross domestic product, according to government data. The country is estimated to have 21 million head of cattle, the largest number in Africa after Ethiopia and Sudan.
The Loliondo region has been embroiled in land disputes since 1992 when the Tanzanian government decided to lease the Game Controlled Area to OBC, aiming to develop its tourism potential.
The move was disputed by local people, who claimed that the licence-issuing process was not transparent and they had been excluded. Tensions over the issue have dragged on for two decades without resolution.
In 2008, the government signed a memorandum with OBC, asking Maasai dwellers to leave the area voluntarily to pave the way for hunting activities.
The herders refused, and were forcefully evicted by police in July 2009. More than 350 Maasai homes are thought to have been set ablaze, making more than 20,000 people homeless. Over 50 percent of cattle died due to lack of water and pastures.
In 2011, the government tried to use the new wildlife conservation law to expand the Loliondo Game Controlled Area but the plan was opposed by local leaders. The government then wrote to the heads of Ololosokwan village requesting them to hand over their land title, but this effort failed too.
In 2012, there was further trouble when Tanzania National Parks attempted to place border beacons there, to designate Ololosokwan as a Game Controlled Area. The villagers succeeded in thwarting the move through mass protests.
But with memories still fresh of the recent long dry spell that killed thousands of animals in Ngorongoro, more than 30,000 herders in Loliondo are now facing the renewed prospect of eviction by the government.
Civic leaders in Loliondo told AlertNet that the latest attempt to establish a bigger wildlife corridor on their grazing land is "irrational", and will deny thousands of herders access to pasture and water for their animals.
"We are very disappointed by the government, for it violates basic rights granted in the constitution which give people the freedom to choose to live anywhere within the United Republic of Tanzania, " said Laibon Ole Mideye, a civic leader in Ngorongoro District.
Ngorongoro Member of Parliament Saning'o Ole Telele said political leaders in the area had resolved to resign in protest at the government plan, and would seek a court injunction to stop it.
Even though Tanzanian law prohibits human activities in Game Controlled Areas, rights activists have urged the government to refrain from using excessive force in cases where there is a conflict of interest between local people and investors.
In a joint statement issued in Dar es Salaam on March 27, the Tanzania Land Alliance (TALA) and Feminist Activist Coalition (FEMACT) warned the government to stop "grabbing" village land.
"The government should fairly review all commercial hunting agreements for the benefit of all the people from the disputed natural resources," they said.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.