“The water that quenches our thirst, the air that we breathe, the trees that provide shade and the animals that give us company, all make life real and creation complete.”
So begins a prayer by an elder of the Maasai people of Tanzania whose traditional knowledge encompasses herbal medicine, grazing practices, landscape ecology, the behavior of animals, livestock management and the gathering of wild plant foods.
For centuries, Maasai communities lived in harmony within the rich ecosystems of East Africa. But in recent decades, evictions under the banner of “conservation” and “tourism” have been carving out huge chunks of Maasai lands.
The Maasai lost 60 percent of their lands at the turn of the 20th century in Kenya, when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches. More land was taken to enable the creation of game parks in Amboseli, Nairobi and Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti/Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania.
In the face of these questionable evictions, the Maasai are fighting back and their efforts were highlighted this week as the United Nations marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a watershed document that enshrines a host of basic human rights for all people.
“Too many around the world are denied their rights,” declared the California-based Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, which has launched a campaign called “Stand Up for Human Rights in Tanzania.”
For the indigenous Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania, the situation is critical, the Oakland group warns.
Last May, Maasai from four villages in Loliondo, on the outskirts of the Serengeti—famous for its annual wildebeest migration—sued Tanzania for the right to return to their villages which have become part of a park.
“The government is trying to intimidate the villagers to withdraw the case,” said Donald Deya of the Pan-African Lawyers Union, representing the Maasai after a hearing in the East African Court of Justice.
“For the last three weeks, the police are summoning leaders and arresting them,” he said. Some seven men were charged with attending an unlawful meeting.
The Maasai represent one of the largest pastoral groups worldwide, with approximately 1 million across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, according to rights activists.
A revealing new report on the plight of the Maasai, “Losing the Serengeti: The Maasai Land that Was to Run Forever,” is available from the Oakland Institute by download from www.oaklandinstitute.org.