Ngorongoro district in Tanzania, home to the famous Ngorongoro crater and bordering the Serengeti national park, must surely be one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Maybe this explains its hotly contested land disputes. Everyone seems to want a piece of it, but those in danger of being left without are the indigenous Maasai tribe, often used as a lucrative Tanzanian tourism symbol. For now, they are just about hanging onto their land amidst numerous attempted land grabs. The question is, are they ready and able to defend it?
In the midst of current global debates on land grabs by biofuels and agribusiness corporations, driven by record food and fuel prices, it’s easy to overlook the more run of the mill land grabs by hunting companies and mining corporations. In the name of investment, these can leave thousands without homes and livelihoods, and with no alternative on offer. In this one district, home to about 170,000 people, there are currently no less than six natural resource conflicts and three ongoing court cases.
During a peak in the land crises, an eviction took place in July 2009 leaving nearly 2000 people homeless. Two of the most infamous land conflicts are with Emirates hunting company Ortello Business Corporation and American-owned Thomson Safaris Ltd. Ngorongoro resources are further complicated by the needs of the natural wildlife and ecosystems, including the iconic annual wildebeest migration, with which the Maasai have been co-existing for centuries in the often harsh and drought-prone lands.
Aside from the land grabs by companies, proposed legislation to introduce a wildlife corridor in Ngorongoro district could result in around 20,000 people being evicted from eight villages and massive cuts to the prime cattle grazing lands, together with reduced access to water resources. If the plans go ahead, only one sixth of the district’s land will remain for the pastoralists, who make up 80% of the Ngorongoro population, and this land would be in the particularly drought-prone plains, where the wildebeest deliver and raise their young from December to March, thus preventing pastoralists’ access for this period and leaving behind bare pastures for the livestock.
Excellent briefs by local NGO Tanzania Natural Resource Forum provide the full low-down on the recent history, current situation and possible policy options.
You might think that in the face of such seemingly insurmountable pressures from so many directions, the people would just give up and accept eviction. Instead, the Maasai are beginning to stand up for their rights and seek the support of their fellow (non-pastoralist) Tanzanians. Women are at the forefront, even though they are traditionally marginalised and silent in pastoralist cultures.
Following the evictions in July 2009, 600 Maasai women marched to the local government offices to hand in over 1800 political party membership cards – theirs and their neighbours’ – in protest. Communities recently came out in their thousands to attend village assembly meetings where they voiced their views in no uncertain terms – check out this powerful 7 minute clip of the pastoralists in action:
The clearest sign that things are changing is the behaviour of the local councillors. Previously acting against the wishes of the communities they were elected to serve, they are now supporting communities, speaking out in favour of protecting the rights of the residents, and acting as a united body, together with local civil society organisations, to withstand significant pressure from above.
This hasn’t been easy; the people have had to fight hard for the opportunity to hold village meetings and express their views. Local civil society organisations have been harassed and arrested for their role in helping residents raise their voices. When the councillors first attempted to give their views in public through a press conference, they received so much pressure and intimidation to keep the issues quiet that they abandoned the idea. Yet with the support and backing of their communities the councillors tried again a couple of months later and succeeded.
The people remain in limbo over their future; according to one elder from Ololosokwan village, known as Yohana: “How can we think of bettering ourselves when we are too worried about the proposed wildlife corridor, if we lose our land we will give up on life”.
Activism has triggered wider change. The plea by local civil society for support has led to regional and national CSOs starting to work together. The communities are now actively seeking knowledge and information on the laws and policies affecting them in an effort to take control of their situation. And the Ngorongoro women, encouraged by their actions to speak out, have started to stand for leadership positions, with the first woman councillor elected in her own right in 2010.
These actions may not seem particularly remarkable to those used to the levels of active citizenship to be found in regions such as Latin America. But in Tanzania, coming from a recent history of state socialism and a culture of deference to authority, these small acts of courage represent one example of people beginning to realise their rights and standing firm to defend them. Time will tell whether the people can protect their land and continue to earn their livelihoods on their own terms.
This was originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog