Thousands of Maasai people in Tanzania met brutal police repression when they demonstrated against being expelled from their land, laying bare both how ineffective and inhumane the conservationist movement can be.
LOLIONDO — "Loliondo is bleeding..."
An SMS woke me up on the morning of June 10. Scrolling through my phone were dozens of horrifying images of Maasai men and women with wounds on their legs, their backs and their heads. Lots of blood. And then, videos of Maasai running away from the Tanzanian police, who were shooting at them.
The pictures looked like war images. Like so many other people in the Global North, I was shocked. How could the idyllic images of zebras, giraffes and lions that the Serengeti ecosystem evokes in Western minds be transformed into this scene of brutal violence?
The Maasai, an ethnic group inhabiting Kenya and northern Tanzania, have always known what war is. They generally live close to the many game parks around the African Great Lakes, and as they put it to me: "Your conservation areas are a war zone for us."
They have known for a long time that this moment would come. The government has tried to confiscate 1,500 km2 of their ancestral land for years in order to use the land for trophy hunting, elite tourism and conservation. Behind these attempts has always been the Otterlo Business Company (OBC), a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that organizes hunting expeditions for the royal family and their guests and that apparently will control commercial hunting in the area.
Maasai people perform the traditional adumu or "jumping dance" in Maasai Mara, Kenya.
Myth of unspoiled nature
However, the UAE royals are not the only ones interested in the area around the famous Serengeti National Park. The Maasai were expelled from those lands before by British colonialists in 1959. Conservationists operating in Tanzania, such as the German Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), advocate for a racist and colonial conservation model.
The FZS claims that the local population and their livestock constitute one of the crucial threats to the survival of the ecosystem, thus promoting the myth of a “wild flora and fauna” without human presence, which has been the philosophy behind the evictions of Maasai since the beginning.
Just as dangerous for the Maasai are the tourists, who feed upon media images, documentaries and textbooks that sell the idea of "nature without people" and who expect to find only wild animals on their safaris. Indeed, the Maasai not only face the myth of wildlife without humans, but also a deeply entrenched racism. In April, a famous U.S. journalist, Peter Greenberg of CBS News, called the Maasai "primitive" when he was taking a walk with the Tanzanian president.
Just as dangerous for the Maasai are the tourists.
As one Maasai man said: “The Tanzanian government doesn't like the Maasai because the people who come don't want to see the Maasai. Before we didn't think much (or too badly) about tourism, but now we understand that tourism is people who come with money, which makes the government think that 'if we displace the Maasai, more people with money will come'."
Raids on villages
In early June, the Tanzanian government announced its plan to "elevate" the Loliondo Game Controlled Area in northern Tanzania to the status of a Game Reserve, which in practice means that Maasai dwellings and grazing will be prohibited. On June 8, dozens of police vehicles and some 700 agents arrived in Loliondo to demarcate this new area. On June 10 they opened fire on a group of Maasai who were protesting against this attempt to expel them.
At least 18 men and 13 women suffered gunshot wounds and many more from machetes. Two people have been confirmed dead. In the following days, police raided Maasai villages from house to house, beating and arresting those they believe have distributed images of the violence or participated in the protests. A 90-year-old man was beaten by the police because his son was accused of having filmed the attack. Thousands of Maasai, including children, are said to have fled into the forest. A dozen people are detained.
The Maasai people face confiscation of their lands for trophy hunting, elite tourism and conservation.
Brutal violence in the name of conservation
It will seem absurd to many that such a well-known indigenous community is victim of such brutal violence in the name of conservation. The Maasai are a herding society, closely linked to the land.
An old Maasai told me: “I love this place and I am not ready to leave because it is my home. I have lived here since we were expelled from the Serengeti. It is an excellent land with sufficient water. It is the only place where I can proudly say to my descendants: this will be yours."
However, for those who know the history of conservation, this will not surprise them. The brutality in Loliondo shows the true face of conservation: daily violations of the human rights of indigenous people and local communities so that wealthy tourists can hunt or go on "safari" in so-called “Protected Areas”. These abuses are systemic and are an intrinsic part of the racist and colonial conservation model that prevails in Africa and Asia.
Protecting the land
Just as the Tanzanian government pushes the Maasai out of their homes, the Indian government is illegally dispossessing the Adivasis ("indigenous peoples") of the lands they have always lived on, and always protected, to make way for tiger reserves where tourists are welcome. And this is despite the fact that Indian law specifically protects the right of Adivasis to remain on their ancestral lands. They accuse indigenous peoples such as the Jenu Kurubas or the Baiga tribe of harming wildlife.
The Loliondo events should be a lesson to everyone.
However, far from killing tigers, many tribes worship them as gods and take care of their environment better than anyone else. Where the right of indigenous people to remain within a tiger reserve has been recognized, the number of tigers has increased.
The Loliondo events should be a lesson to everyone. Indigenous peoples have inhabited the most biodiverse places on the planet for generations: these territories are now considered important nature conservation areas precisely because the original inhabitants have cared for their land and wild flora and fauna.
We cannot continue to tolerate human rights abuses committed in the name of conservation. This conservationist model is profoundly inhumane and ineffective and needs to change now. Protected Areas do not save biodiversity and alienate the local population, which is best suited to protect their land. As a Maasai leader told me: “Without us, the animals will be slaughtered. We are the real conservationists. This is our land and we will not leave.”
* Fiore Longo is a researcher for Survival International, the global movement for indigenous peoples. She is also the director of Survival International Spain. She coordinates Survival's Decolonize Conservation campaign and has visited many communities in Africa and Asia that experience brutal human rights abuses in the name of nature conservation.