In Tanzania, the indigenous Maasai face an ongoing violent campaign to evict them from their lands and make way for protected conservation areas and game reserves. This week, the Maasai are in New York calling on the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, or UNPFII, to tell Tanzania to stop taking their cattle, withdraw its security forces, create a commission responsible for investigating disputed lands and displaced persons, and allowing international human rights monitors to visit without restriction.
“We, the Maasai of Loliondo and Ngorongoro in Tanzania, are fighting against the Tanzanian government and wild animal trophy hunters who threaten our livelihoods, our culture, our ancestral wisdom, our heritage and our basic human rights,” said said Edward Porokwa, executive director of Pastoralists. Forum of Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations, said. “Nothing justifies this crisis created by the government.”
The Maasai land dispute in Tanzania centers on two main areas: the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which attracts over half a million visitors each year for game drives to see the park’s ‘Big 5’ game – elephants, lions, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos. About 80,000 indigenous Maasai live in the park, but have faced decades of government efforts to evict them from their land.
In a statement delivered at the Permanent Forum, Porokwa said that since June 2022, the government has closed four kindergartens, nine water sources and six mobile health clinics. THE government says Maasai are voluntarily leaving the area for resettlement sites, but the Maasai say they are basically being evicted. “This is forced resettlement making sure people don’t get the essentials,” Porokwa said. “They are here to die.”
And in Loliondo, which is legally bounded on Maasai village land, state security forces fired on Maasai during a violent campaign to drive them off their land last June. In the attack, dozens of Maasai were injured and many crossed the neighboring border into Kenya for treatment. At least two dozen other people have been arrested, while some have not been allowed to leave their homes.
last June, nine United Nations experts has expressed concern about forced evictions and resettlement plans, but Maasai representatives at the United Nations say the government has not changed its approach.
The Maasai say that since June 2022, Tanzania has taken or killed more than 600,000 of their cows and demanded more than $2.5 million in fines for grazing. It’s all part of what the Maasai say is a massive campaign to destroy their pastoral way of life.
At the Permanent Forum, a Tanzanian government official pushed back against Maasai claims, pointing to the East African Court of Justice’s 2022 dismissal of an eviction case brought by the Maasai, saying that the Maasai could not prove their claims of violent evictions. The Oakland Institute, a US-based nonprofit that advocates for Indigenous rights, called the decision “blow to indigenous land rights.” Tanzanian representatives to the UNPFII declined to comment on the matter.
In January, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights made a follow-up visit to investigate the situation. But Maasai community organizations say that at every stage the visit was controlled by the government. Commission officials were guided by state security forces who intimidated the Maasai and excluded them from certain meetings. Some Maasai waited hours to speak with the Commission, but never showed up. Although the Commission’s final report on the visit expressed concern about the situation, it also commended Tanzania’s commitment to protecting human rights. The Commission also recommended starting further consultations with the Maasai, as well as addressing their concerns regarding the resettlement programme.
In December, José Francisco Calí Tzay, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, was due to make a week-long visit to Tanzania, but the visit was postponed indefinitely. Maasai leaders believe the visit was canceled over fears the Special Rapporteur would not have full access to investigate. At the Permanent Forum, Calí Tzay called for the evictions to stop and for the government to consult with the Maasai, but did not mention postponing the visit.
With few options left, the Maasai turned to the Permanent Forum to voice their concerns. Briane Keane is the director of Land is Life, an international organization that works with indigenous peoples, including providing travel funding, medical assistance and security assessments to the Maasai. Keane says the United Nations is an important platform for the Maasai. “It’s a place where they can be heard. The Tanzanian government is not listening,” he said.
The Maasai hope that international pressure can convince the government to finally listen to their concerns. But speaking out internationally also carries risks for the Maasai. Several leaders who spoke out against government abuses were forced to flee the country for their safety.
“Indigenous peoples are among the most criminalized peoples in the world,” Keane said. “There are people who are thrown in prison. There are threats. It is therefore a very dangerous job to defend your rights when you are as marginalized as the Maasai in Tanzania.