Country faces balancing act as eco-policies threaten indigenous peoples & biodiversity

Indigenous communities like the Maasai & Hadzabe are locked in a perilous struggle as territories vital for their survival are encroached for tourism, marginalising and pushing them to the brink

On a quiet Saturday evening, John Kishimba was tending to his farm, burning maize stalks, when a group of rangers from Ruaha National Park (RUNAPA) approached. Clad in olive green fatigues and armed, the rangers confronted Kishimba, accusing him of encroaching the park’s borders to engage in illegal poaching.

 “They punched me in the face, dragged me me with my arms tied behind my back,” Kishimba recounted. “They wanted me to admit I’m a poacher. They beat me a lot and crushed my left leg. As you can see, I am still limping.”

Community under siege

Neema Kindole, a 37-year-old mother of four from Igurusi village in the Mbarali district of the Mbeya region, vividly recalls a similar harrowing encounter. As her family slept, rangers from RUNAPA stormed their home.

“Four men with guns barged into our house, pushed through the front door. They tied up my husband with a rope and beat him badly,” she lamented, seated on a straw mat, her face partially veiled by a black head shawl. “It hurts so much to see my husband treated like that. There’s no excuse for the brutality he suffered.”

These villagers’ ordeals underscore the escalating conflicts between conservation authorities and local communities across Tanzania as the government intensifies efforts to expand protected areas for conservation and tourism development.

Home to some of the world’s most renowned national parks and conservation areas, the east African country attracts many tourists, generating billions of dollars annually. However, government policies that prioritise conservation and tourism development have ignited outrage. Vast tracts of land deemed “village land” are being grabbed from indigenous communities, disrupting their traditional way of life while sowing seeds of hate.

Cost of conservation

In May, the World Bank Group rescinded $150 million in funding for Tanzania’s Resilient Natural Resources Management for Tourism and Growth (REGROW) project. The decision came amid allegations of human rights abuses, including killings, rape, forced evictions, and violence against women.

A US-based think tank, the Oakland Institute, has documented instances of violence by park rangers against village residents in the Mbarali district of the Mbeya region in southern Tanzania. According to their reports, rangers have seized livestock, prevented farmers from tending their crops, and sold off hundreds of cattle, actions that have devastated local livelihoods.

The human toll

For residents of Mbarali, the consequences of these policies are profound. The loss of land and livelihoods has plunged many into poverty. Kishimba, once a successful farmer, now stands on the edge of despair. His farm, once a source of sustenance for his family, has been appropriated by the government. The fertile land that used to produce maize, beans, and potatoes is now out of reach, and the livestock that grazed on the open plains has been seized. “We have lost everything—our land, our cattle, our way of life,” he lamented.

Kindole’s family faces similar struggles. With her husband still recovering from life-threatening injuries, the burden of feeding their children weighs heavily on her shoulders. The small plot of land they managed to retain is barely enough to grow food for their family, let alone generate any income. “Our children are going hungry,” Kindole says. “Food was never a problem for my family; we used to produce enough and sell the excess.”

Wider problem

Across Tanzania, ethnic groups are increasingly becoming landless as swathes of land are being taken away for investment and tourism purposes.

The Maasai, a semi-nomadic ethnic group known for their distinctive way of life, have been particularly affected by policies that prioritise conservation and tourism over the rights of local communities.

In January 2023, the Tanzanian government announced plans to forcibly remove 100,000 Maasai pastoralists from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its breath-taking landscapes and wildlife. This move has sparked widespread international criticism.

“It’s absolutely insane to remove native people from their land so that foreigners can hunt in the wilderness,” said Issa Shivji, a retired Law Professor at the University of Dar es Salaam.

In Tanzania, land is public property held by the President as a trustee on behalf of the people. However, the registration process is often cumbersome and riddled with corruption and mismanagement, according to Transparency International. While the law requires companies to obtain land through the Tanzania Investment Centre—a sole government agency responsible for overseeing foreign direct investments, some firms have attempted to bribe local leaders to lease land directly.

Indigenous communities across Tanzania, including the Maasai and Hadzabe, are locked in a perilous struggle as customary land tenure systems weaken. Government-backed investors are encroaching on territories vital for these communities’ survival, further marginalising them and pushing them to the brink of survival.

Struggle for Survival

Jesica Murani, a resident of Ngorongoro in northern Arusha, recounts the horrors she faced during a brutal campaign by Tanzanian authorities to expel the Maasai, which has drawn widespread international condemnation. “My home was completely burnt by the police. I have nowhere to live. My children disappeared into the bush, and as we speak, I don’t know where they are,” she said.

The 43-year-old cattle herder laments being estranged from her traditional beliefs and ancestors, forced into a nomadic existence to evade persecution. “I have lived all my life here. There’s no other place I can call home. I feel like a refugee in my own country,” she says.

Expert Insights

Kisiaya Sayuni, an environmental anthropologist from the University of Dar es Salaam, explained about the detrimental effects of  eviction policies.

“The forced relocation of indigenous communities without their consent and without proper environmental assessments violates their basic human rights,” he said. “The government’s prioritisation of tourism revenue over the well-being of its citizens is alarming and risks irreversible harm to these communities.”

Asha Mwakyembe, an Environmental Policy expert at Ardhi University, criticises the government’s approach, arguing it neglects the interests of the people and undermines the very ecosystems authorities seek to protect. “The focus on short-term gains from tourism grossly ignores the sustainable practices that indigenous people have upheld for many years,” she warned.

A ray of hope

Across Tanzania, grassroots movements are emerging as villagers stand up against powerful adversaries—government institutions and corporate giants—accused of exploiting legal loopholes to seize ancestral lands. Communities, including indigenous groups like the Maasai and Hadzabe, are employing a blend of legal tactics, political pressure, and innovative strategies to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

In northern Tanzania, Maasai pastoralists are fighting back against the illegal seizure of their ancestral lands for tourism projects aimed at foreigners. One notable battle began in 2015, when the Maasai launched a legal challenge against the creation of a game park exclusively catering to a royal family from Dubai. Edward Loure, a prominent Maasai pastoralist, made significant strides in 2013 by securing communal land use rights spanning 200,000 hectares. Loure’s efforts have shifted the focus from individual land use rights, which left indigenous groups vulnerable, to communal ownership that empowers communities against external pressures.

Further south, in Kapunga village in Tanzania’s southern highlands, villagers confronted the visiting land minister directly, demanding the implementation of a presidential promise to reclaim seized village land. This bold move resulted in the successful return of 1,875 hectares to the community, marking a symbolic victory against corporate encroachment.

Justice and restoration

Efforts to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts and promote alternative livelihoods, such as tourism, can transform local communities into powerful allies in conservation. One conservation model in Tanzania, which allows local communities to utilise wildlife resources in the Rungwa Game Reserve, has shown mixed results. While it has helped reduce poaching, it has largely failed to protect fragile ecosystems and endangered biodiversity around protected areas. Globally recognised as biodiversity hotspots, protected areas in Africa cover only 12 per cent of the land. In Tanzania, despite 40 per cent of the land being designated for conservation, illegal activities continue to threaten biodiversity and ecosystems.

Conservation & community engagement

In the remote Sikonge district of Tanzania’s Tabora region, a pioneering initiative allows local residents to harvest wildlife resources through fishing and beekeeping, providing sustainable livelihoods and alleviating pressures from poaching. This approach has been studied extensively, particularly in the Ugalla and Rungwa Game Reserves, situated 300 km apart. These reserves, characterised by savannas and miombo trees, are home to a diverse array of species, including elephants, lions, antelope, and African wild dogs.

Research examining the impact of community involvement in reserve management reveals that such initiatives generally increase local awareness of biodiversity benefits, despite ongoing challenges in monitoring ecosystem health. Specifically, the study highlighted fewer instances of illegal harvesting in the Ugalla Game Reserve, where community-based initiatives are permitted, compared to the Rungwa Game Reserve, where such activities are restricted.

Michael Muganda, an ecology professor at Sokoine University of Agriculture, underscores the importance of integrating local community interests and livelihoods into protected area management strategies. “Effectively regulating access to resources in protected areas should prioritize biodiversity conservation alongside the needs of local communities, who historically relied on these lands for wildlife resources, forest products, and cultural practices,” he said.

Muganda’s research on benefit-sharing initiatives in protected areas has fostered constructive relationships between authorities and communities surrounding Saadani National Park, significantly reducing conflicts between humans and wildlife.

However, amid Tanzania’s efforts to enhance tourism and hunting revenues through initiatives like the REGROW program, criticisms abound. Such initiatives have been accused of exacerbating local exclusion and land disputes. International backers, long supporters of Tanzania’s conservation endeavours, now face scrutiny for funding projects associated with alleged human rights violations. The recent suspension of funding signals a pressing call for accountability and a reevaluation of conservation strategies that may overlook indigenous rights.

The early months of 2024 have witnessed a troubling escalation in Tanzania’s crackdown on indigenous and local communities residing near protected areas. Motivated by economic ambitions linked to tourism and hunting, the Tanzanian government has intensified enforcement efforts, leading to disturbing incidents. In Simanjiro District, paramilitary rangers clashed with Maasai herders in Kimotorok village near Tarangire National Park, resulting in injuries, arrests, and the confiscation of livestock. This incident follows a similar confrontation the previous year, during which thousands of cattle were seized and subsequently auctioned off.

The struggle continues

In Msomera village, in Tanzania’s eastern Tanga region, hundreds of Maasai herders confront a dire shortage of water and pastures for their livestock. Originally from Ngorongoro, these Maasai pastoralists were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands in July 2022 and relocated to this drought-stricken landscape. The government’s decision, purportedly aimed at conservation and mitigating human-wildlife conflicts, is viewed locally as a strategy to pave the way for trophy hunting and tourism development.

The Maasai, a traditionally nomadic community deeply intertwined with the region’s ecology, now grapple with socio-environmental upheaval. Many in Msomera have found the reality starkly different from promises of abundant pastures and ample water. Prolonged drought has exacerbated their plight, with saltwater contaminating ground aquifers and compounding the challenges faced by local residents.

Recent field research conducted by the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) underscores the significant obstacles Maasai herders encounter in adapting to harsh ecological conditions. The study reveals widespread water scarcity, health issues, and a struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. Critics argue that the government’s decision to relocate the Maasai without proper ecological assessments was fundamentally flawed.

As pastoralism struggles to take root in this unforgiving terrain, some Maasai have diversified their livelihoods, turning to small-scale farming and entrepreneurial ventures. However, the forced relocation has disrupted their economic stability and fractured social bonds, leading to feelings of alienation and a loss of cultural practices. For the Maasai, this displacement marks a severance from their sacred landscapes, eroding their cultural identity.

Tanzania faces a critical decision in balancing tourism development and conservation with the rights and well-being of its indigenous populations. Failing to achieve this balance risks international criticism and jeopardises both cultural heritage and biodiversity in the region.

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