Dar es Salaam — The Tanzanian government has abandoned plans to appropriate a large tract of disputed land in northern Loliondo ward for a conservation area that would have stopped Maasai pastoralists grazing their cattle there.
Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda has decreed that the Maasai can continue living in the 1,500 square km (580 square mile) region in the far north, reversing an earlier government order that required them to keep off the land in a move aimed at protecting wildlife and water catchment areas.
"This land was meant for conservation, which is a good idea, but on the other hand, we have come to the conclusion that the Maasai pastoralists who have inhabited the area since time immemorial are good conservationists themselves, thus can still take good care of the area," said Pinda, who travelled to Loliondo to make the announcement, amid jubilation from thousands of herders who had gathered to hear him.
The government order, issued in March this year, would have seen thousands of Maasai evicted from what authorities describe as crucial breeding grounds for wildlife and a corridor for the iconic wildebeest migration.
Amid changing weather patterns and prolonged droughts, most Maasai pastoralists have found it increasingly difficult to cope with dwindling water supplies and pasture without moving onto protected sites, particularly in the dry season.
The government has accused them of encroaching on important water resources and wildlife breeding grounds.
"These people have been living in the area illegally," Tourism and Natural Resources Minister Khamis Kagasheki said in April. "This land was never allocated to them under any government arrangement. However, for very compassionate reasons, the government has allowed them to continue living there all these years."
The Loliondo region has been embroiled in land disputes since 1992, when the Tanzanian government decided to develop the tourism potential of a designated "Game Controlled Area" by leasing it to Dubai-based Ortello Business Cooperation (OBC), which runs game-hunting safaris.
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. It is home to about 70,000 people, mostly nomadic pastoralists who moved into the area in the 1950s and who rear livestock for a living.
Under legislation introduced in 1999, all land in Loliondo is classified as "village land". 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 to leave and were forcibly evicted by police in July 2009. At least 350 homes are thought to have been set ablaze, and over 20,000 Maasai people were made homeless. More than half their cattle died due to lack of water and pastures.
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 allowed the tourism and natural resources minister to prohibit farming and livestock grazing.
Thousands of pastoralists in northern Tanzania had been protesting the government's move to "grab" the area, accusing it of using wildlife conservation as a pretext to evict them from ancestral land that is an essential source of water and pasture.
The herders in Ngorongoro district maintained that the government was planning to take their village land and lease it to OBC.
'PUT IT IN WRITING'
The prime minister's order is apparently aimed at settling the two-decade-old conflict.
"I can now agree with the people that taking that land would affect their livelihoods and that is not in the best interests of the government," Pinda said on his visit to Loliondo.
Yannick Ndoinyo, a councillor for Ololosokwan village in Loliondo, said villagers will no longer spend sleepless nights in fear of being evicted.
Campaigners gave the government's announcement a mixed reaction.
"This is very good news, but I would stay vigilant. This land grab idea is much older than Kagasheki's time as a minister," said Susanna Nordlund, a blogger from Sweden who has been following the Loliondo saga on her blog View from the Termite Mound.
Others also warned the government was not unified its support of the Maasai and could change its mind.
"We would like to urge local people in Loliondo to ensure that the government decision through the prime minister is put in writing for future reference," Onesmo Olegurumwa, national coordinator of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, said in a statement.
The prime minister has instructed local people and investors to prepare a land-use plan to ensure sustainable environmental preservation, wildlife protection and conservation of important water sources.
A local newspaper, Mwananchi, quoted OBC country director Isack Mollel as saying that while the company agreed with the government's position, failure to protect unique wildlife sanctuaries from human activities was a stunning blow to the future of the tourism sector.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.