Human rights observers and lawyers for the Maasai people are pressing Tanzania's government to halt plans to forcibly evict tens of thousands of the Indigenous nomads from their ancestral land at the eastern edge of the Serengeti National Park.
Last week, a violent clash broke out after government surveyors and security forces began to demarcate 1,500 square kilometers of land that Tanzania reportedly would turn over to a United Arab Emirates-based firm to manage as a game reserve for commercial hunting. The area encompasses migratory routes for wildebeest, zebra and other wildlife.
The confrontation June 10 took place in Loliondo, part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where video footage circulating on social media suggests at least scores of Maasai had clustered to protest the new boundary. Tanzanian security forces used tear gas and live bullets to disperse the Maasai, who as herders routinely carry spears, bows and arrows.
The Tanzanian government said a police officer was killed. At least 31 Maasai - 18 men and 13 women - were treated for bullet wounds at the Narok County Referral Hospital just across the border in Kenya, Dr. Catherine Nyambura told VOA.
A member of the Maa unity agenda (L) is arrested during the protest in Nairobi, condemning the forceful eviction of the Loliondo Ngorongoro Maa community by the republic of Tanzania, on June 17, 2022.
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the demarcation could bring more violence. Cordoning off the area for a game reserve "would imply evictions from Ololosokwan, Oloirien, Kirtalo and Arash villages, which could displace up to 70,000 Indigenous Maasai," it said in a press release following the clash.
It said its 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."
The U.N. account noted the government actions followed a closed-door meeting at which the Arusha Regional Commissioner announced its plan to impose the new boundary.
The confrontation also comes as the East African Court of Justice is expected to make its final ruling June 22 on the Tanzanian government's decadeslong efforts to move the Maasai. In 2018, the regional court issued an injunction against eviction.
Onesmo Olengurumwa, head of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, said the evictions are intended to make way for the Otterlo Business Corp. The UAE-based company is expected to offer trophy hunting and safari tourism.
"The government made an error in the beginning," Olengurumwa said. 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."
Government defends actions
Tanzania's government has said it believes the area 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.
Chief government spokesman Gerson Msigwa told VOA's Swahili Service he was not aware of a court order against evicting the Maasai, "but there is nothing else the government has done except conserving the environment."
"I want to make it clear that what we are doing in Loliondo is one of our responsibilities to conserve the environment," Msigwa said. "And it's not only being done in Loliondo 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, 1,500 square kilometers, is very important to the nation. It's a water catchment area. As a country, we must protect [the] interests of the nation."
Following last Friday's clash, local people and the rights group Survival International have reported police going to Maasai villages and questioning people believed to either have been involved in the demonstration or who shared images of the confrontation. Survival International said in a news release that police allegedly beat a 90-year-old man whose son recorded video.
Asked about the allegation, Msigwa said, "The government is very much annoyed with information circulating that there are people who were injured." He brushed off the notion of injuries and said the government was looking to arrest and prosecute "groups of people pushing the community to resist government plans to conserve the area and cause mayhem."
Many of the Maasai had fled on foot into nearby Kenya, where at least part of the border features a series of waist-high markers set amid the grasslands, allowing easy movement by humans and wildlife.
Patrick Ole Ntutu, a Maasai leader, said his people did not recognize boundaries in their ancestral lands. "The boundary between Kenya and Tanzania was erected by colonialists. We don't consider that a boundary," he told VOA.
Meanwhile, Martin Ole Kamwaro, lead attorney for the Maasai, said the legal team was considering filing a case against Tanzania with the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
"We will certainly move, as directed by our leader, to file and institute legal action against the Tanzanian regime for violation of human rights," Kamwaro said. "We will not tolerate that kind of abuse."
The U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, Donald J. Wright, tweeted that tensions over Loliondo were part of a discussion Thursday with Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa. "... I asked the PM to work with stakeholders to peacefully and equitably resolve the situation," Wright wrote.
Multiple rights groups, including the Indigenous Peoples Rights International and Survival International, have condemned the Tanzanian government's eviction plan and called for its immediate halt. Amnesty International issued a statement this week denouncing what it called an "unlawful, forced eviction" that is "shocking in both its scale and brutality."
This report originated in VOA's Swahili Service. Contributors include Idd Uwesu reporting from Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania, and Hubbah Abdi reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.