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Tanzania's Maasai fight government, game hunters for ancestral lands

By Nima Elbagir, CNN
May 1, 2013 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tanzanian leaders threaten to evict Maasai community to create conservation corridor
  • More than 60,000 Tanzanian Maasai live in the 4000 sq. km. that make up Loliondo region
  • Maasai have been repeatedly evicted from their lands since colonial era
  • Maasai say they will refuse to be relocated this time

Loliondo, Tanzania (CNN) -- Traditional Maasai living in one of the world's most famous wildlife centers are pitting themselves against the government in a fight for land.

The Loliondo region in northern Tanzania lies along the famed southern migratory route, where herds of wildebeest and zebra graze at roadsides and antelope dart around the trees.

In colonial times it was a hunting ground for European royalty. Today, it is Emirati royals and other wealthy visitors being granted the right to hunt, fanning a controversy that has simmered for two decades.

The Tanzanian government is threatening to evict the local Maasai community from the area in a bid to create a 4000 square kilometer "conservation corridor."

They say it is to protect the wildlife -- which is also a major source of income from hunting and safaris -- from Maasai cattle overgrazing the land.

Under the plan, most of the conservation corridor will still be accessible for grazing but no one will be allowed to live there. The other 1500 sq. km. will be a "game controlled area", where hunting is permitted and access controlled.

Maasai leaders say it means they will be evicted from their own land and will lose about 40 percent of their grazing land.

Loliondo's lush hills are where the Maasai take their cattle to graze during the dry season. To restrict their access, the Maasai say, is "a death sentence."

For rural Maasai cattle provide milk, meat, blood -- and can even be used as currency. Their survival is the community's survival.

Read more: Maasai boy scares off lions with flashy invention

Maasai activists date their land conflicts with the current government to 1992, when they were first accused of illegal settling and ordered to move.

The same year the government granted a hunting concession to the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC). Owned by royals from the United Arab Emirates, the terms of OBC's concession grant it hunting rights in Loliondo.

OBC spokesman Isaak Mollel told CNN the land issue has nothing to do with his corporation, as they do not actually own land in Loliondo. He says, in fact, that the new conservation corridor will reduce their areas, with the government set to deduct 2,500 sq. km. from their hunting concession.

"Our hunting operations are guided by Tanzania wildlife acts and regulations," he said. "Everything is done according to procedures."

In one Loliondo village, Maasai gathered from all over the district to discuss the issue. Many walked for miles to get there -- eager to hear what their leaders would propose.

Elias Ngorisa is head of the Ngorongoro District Council, under which Loliondo falls. He has a government notice which he says details the intended eviction.

In his hands he holds a thick dossier. In it, he says, are their land title deeds. Ngorisa says: "I can show you all the title deeds of the village land. How can they say that the land does not belong to the community?"

"This is because the government wants to give the OBC, the hunting company, the Arab hunting company land for hunting without being disturbed by the local communities."

The Tanzanian government maintains it owns the land.

In response to the Maasai allegations, the Tanzanian government referred CNN to an earlier statement in which the minister for natural resources denied OBC were a factor in the decision to evict.

The statement read: "It took this decision with the understanding that environment conservation is as important for eco-system protection as it is for community livelihood and community development ... Surely no government in the world can be blamed for meeting its responsibilities to such high levels."

More than 60,000 Tanzanian Maasai live in the 4000 sq. km. that make up Loliondo.

Human rights groups say every one of them will be affected if the eviction goes through.

Ngorisa told CNN they were pleading for a government rethink. He said: "If [they] do this, the livelihoods of these people, the citizens of this country, will be lost and we are saying we will not move from here."

"This is our last weapon," he said. "It is better to die rather than to just leave this land."

This is not the first time the Maasai have been forcibly moved from their land. They were evicted repeatedly in colonial times and then again to make way for East Africa's famed wildlife reserves.

The Maasai say each move eroded their livelihoods and way of life. This time they say they will not be moved, whatever the consequences.

The Tanzanian parliament has announced plans to convene a two-day debate to discuss options.

READ MORE: Trekking savannah to deliver Maasai nomads' vaccines

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