(GIN)—Indigenous Maasai people of Tanzania are fighting a government plan to convert ancestral lands into a luxury game park at the eastern edge of the Serengeti National Park that would be run by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.
Dozens of protestors have been injured, dozens of arrests have taken place, and a police officer has been killed amidst the forcible eviction efforts by security forces, according to the Oakland Institute, a leading policy think tank based in Oakland, California.
Cordoning off the area for a game reserve could displace up to 70,000 Indigenous Maasai, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in a press release following the clash.
Government officials claim the Maasai homeland is overpopulated with humans and livestock, creating stress on the wildlife that serves as a tourism magnet. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was the country’s largest source of foreign exchange, the second-largest contributor to the gross domestic product and a major source of jobs, according to the World Bank.
Speaking to the Voice of America’s Swahili Service, Chief government spokesman Gerson Msigwa defended the government’s actions as protecting the environment. “I want to make it clear that one of our responsibilities is to conserve the environment,” Msigwa said. “And it’s not only being done in the world-famous Ngorongoro Conservation Area but all over the country, to show people where to stop in their human activities and where it’s designated for wild animals.
“The area under contention is very important to the nation. It’s a water catchment area. As a country, we must protect [the] interests of the nation.”
More than a quarter-century ago, hunting blocks had been allocated to some Arab potentates who had apparently secured the right to hunt and indiscriminately kill animals that were supposed to be protected.
Last week, a violent clash broke out after government surveyors and security forces began to demarcate 1,500 square kilometers of land for the park—an area which encompasses migratory routes for wildebeest, zebra and other
Rights experts were “deeply alarmed” by the reported use of live ammunition and have “grave concerns about continuous encroachment on traditional Maasai lands and housing, accompanied by a lack of transparency in, and consultation with the Maasai Indigenous Peoples, during decision making and planning.”
Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, condemned the government for using violence to displace the Maasai, grab their land and hand it over to the UAE royal family for their hunting pleasures.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has condemned the violence and urged the government to halt the eviction. The U.N.’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues called on Tanzania to comply with the provisions in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ensure the right of the Maasai to participate in decision-making.
Onesmo Olengurumwa, head of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, said, “The government made an error in the beginning. It should have reached an agreement with locals and in writing that ‘we carry out demarcation, but we are not taking your land, only setting boundaries.’ If that had happened, the community would not have worried and demonstrated.”