State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: Tanzania's Maasai and their loss of land, culture and heritage

By Amina Haleem

The culture of the pastoralist Maasai community residing in Mondorosi, Soitsambu and Sukenya villages of Loliondo district in northern Tanzania is rich in inherited traditions and social practices. Indigenous to the area, they have a strong sense of identity and spiritual attachment to their ancestral land. However, the establishment of wildlife conservation areas and tourist safaris has resulted in severe disruption to their way of life. Now, the community's struggle to maintain a connection with their land continues amid legal battles, aggressive globalization and luxury tourism.

Pastoralism is part and parcel of their semi-nomadic way of life, but land alienation directly affects their ability to raise livestock and earn a precarious living. Cattle play a central role in Maasai customs as a measure of wealth and are frequently exchanged between friends, family and in marriage ceremonies. The land designated for conservation in their territory, from which they have been evicted and are no longer able to access, tends to be the most fertile areas for grazing livestock. They are also unable to access important water sources and plants to create traditional medicines and treat diseases. The fact that they cannot utilize their medicinal practices means that this aspect of their cultural knowledge may disappear.

Maasai have had ongoing land disputes with the Tanzanian government for over 30 years. In the 1980s, 10,000 acres of Maasai pastoral land was sold to Tanzania Breweries Limited (TBL) to cultivate wheat and barley. Although the Maasai villages were offered no compensation and were not consulted regarding the land transfer, they were not prohibited from accessing most of the land to graze and water their livestock as TBL only used around 700 acres for cultivation. For 19 years the arrangement continued and the Maasai community retained its customary ownership of the land. This situation ended in 2006, when TBL sold the entire acreage plus an additional 2,617 acres to Tanzania Conservation Limited (TCL), the Tanzanian subsidiary of US-based tourism company Thomson Safaris.

Since that time, the community has been denied access to over 12,000 acres of land on which they have historically grazed their cattle and sustained their traditional livelihood. With international support, the Maasai villages initiated legal proceedings in 2010 based on an adverse possession land claim in domestic courts against TBL and TCL. Not only did they seek to reclaim the land they once held, they also sought an injunction against land development for tourism pending the court's decision on the merits. Unfortunately the Maasai's application was dismissed on procedural grounds in 2013, but the community re-lodged their case the same year, requesting the court to revoke the tourism company's illegally granted land title and award damages for the suffering endured as a result of their land exclusion.

The case was pending until October 2015 when the Maasai community suffered a disappointing loss. Although the Arusha High Court acknowledged that 2,617 acres of the disputed land were indeed unlawfully acquired – it being added on to the 10,000 acres in the most recent land transaction without consent – the majority of the decision favoured the defendants. No actual damages were awarded to the Maasai, who remain prohibited from entering the land to use its resources. The villagers are appealing the decision and hope to resolve this dispute in their favour.

In the meantime, Maasai continue to suffer the effect of discriminatory state policies. Elsewhere in Loliondo, the community experienced further evictions, with dozens of homes burned to the ground and numerous Maasai injured by Tanzanian police during 2015. Alongside the loss of homes and livelihoods, the struggle to transmit the intangible aspects of cultural knowledge and sacred practices to younger generations remains a very real concern – not only in Loliondo, but right across Maasai territories in Kenya and Tanzania.

And while the Maasai people's identity is under increasing threat, companies have been profiting from Maasai imagery by associating their products with the indigenous community to promote sales. From Land Rover to Louis Vuitton, an estimated 80 companies are currently using the Maasai name and/or imagery. Maasai receive no benefit from the millions of dollars in revenue earned from this exploitation; the vast majority live below the poverty line. Furthermore, the unique visual artistry and heritage of Maasai is often misused in its commercialization: for example, Maasai are sensitive about the portrayal of their bodies and jewellery because beads and colours have distinct meanings, which, if portrayed inaccurately, can be deeply offensive. Over the last few years, Maasai activists have made efforts to form a general assembly of elders to represent them in formal negotiations with such companies in order to safeguard their culture through intellectual property protections – an important step in the community's efforts to regain control of their lives.

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