Tanzanian security forces fired gunshots at Maasai farming communities on Friday during what appears to be an eviction operation aimed at clearing land for the establishment of a game-hunting preserve, according to witnesses, photographs, videos and non-governmental organizations familiar with the situation.
In the videos, the sound of gunfire can be heard as groups of about 100 or more Maasai, dressed in traditional red cloaks, run across the green Serengeti and away from security forces. Some of the Maasai are holding spears or bows and arrows. In one of the videos, what looks like explosions are going off in the distance, and in another video a group of about 100 Maasai are holding bows and arrows at the ready, purportedly protesting and resisting the evictions.
Images show some Maasai with bloody bullet wounds. Two people were killed during the incident, according to Anuradha Mittal, founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank specializing in social and environmental issues.
The affected Maasai communities, who depend on the land for their livelihood, are “legally registered owners” of the property at issue, which is about the size of the city of Phoenix, according to a court order from the East African Court of Justice. In that 2018 order, the court issued an injunction restraining the Tanzanian government from evicting the Maasai, confiscating their livestock and destroying their property. The court is expected to issue a final ruling in the case later this month.
Mittal, who has been monitoring the alleged evictions, condemned the government’s plans to rezone Maasai land for game hunting, and the planned evictions.
“The government is willing to defy the court injunction, grab the ancestral land of the Maasai and hand it over to the royal family of the UAE for their hunting pleasures, indicating its ruthless disregard for its citizens, international law, and due process,” Mittal said in a written statement, referring to the UAE-owned Otterlo Business Company, which the Oakland Institute says has a license to run commercial hunting operations on the land at issue.
The raid is part of a wider government effort to remove about 70,000 Maasai from their ancestral territory, some of which now consists of Tanzanian wildlife conservation areas bordering Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Land in and around the parks has become an explosive issue as commercial businesses and conservationists vie for control over the “Lion King”-like landscape filled with herds of wildebeest, packs of lions, zebras and giraffes. The parks are popular with tourists from the United States, Europe and China.
The land is biologically important because it is home to threatened and endangered species, and culturally significant to the Maasai and other Indigenous peoples who have historically occupied the territory. Those groups’ way of living and long-time stewardship of the land is why iconic species have survived there, according to Fio Longo, a campaign manager at the Indigenous rights group Survival International.
Survival International, the Oakland Institute and other human rights groups and experts have pushed back against global conservation efforts that displace Indigenous and local communities, and which are sometimes linked with other human rights abuses like killing, torture and rape.
Among the most high-profile reports documenting such abuses is a 2019 Buzzfeed News investigation that exposed a series of alleged abuses carried out by park rangers against Indigenous people in conservation parks in Africa and Asia. Some of those parks were funded, in part, by the conservation giant World Wildlife Fund.
The evictions carried out against the Maasai this week happened as world leaders moved to conserve 30 percent of the world’s land by 2030 under a global plan to protect biodiversity. Human rights experts are worried that the so-called “30 by 30 plan” will result in abuses and violations of Indigenous and local communities’ rights.
“We are in front of a humanitarian catastrophe that reveals the true face of conservation,” Longo said. “The Maasai are being shot just because they want to live in their ancestral lands in peace—and all of this to make room for trophy hunting and ‘conservation.’”
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In the East African Court of Justice case, four Maasai communities asked the court to recognize their ownership of the land at issue. They argued that the attempted evictions are a violation of their property rights and alleged that the government has burned their homes, carried out arbitrary arrests, confiscated their livestock and carried out a campaign of intimidation and harassment against their people.
The Tanzanian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in the East African Court of Justice case has argued that the evictions are lawful. The government also denied responsibility for burnt homes and destroyed property. The basis for the evictions, according to the government, is to avert alleged ecological damage to the land caused in part by pressures from a growing Maasai population.
The court’s delay in making a final ruling in the case is due to pauses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Mittal.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the relationship of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature with the Tanzanian government.