More than 2,000 delegates attended the conference, resulting in a call-to-action document that partly acknowledged “past and ongoing injustices experienced when indigenous peoples and local communities have not been accorded their rights” and vowed for “these injustices to be halted now and in the future.”
Tourism-dependent countries across Africa are unlikely to honor such commitments as states balance Indigenous rights with calls to increase conservation programs. In Tanzania, state security forces have attempted to evict people from Loliondo within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that borders the Serengeti National Park, resulting in ongoing violent clashes. In June, the Tanzanian government demarcated 580 square miles of land in Ngorongoro as a luxury game reserve allegedly for the Emirati royal family, human rights groups say.
An estimated 150,000 Maasai people are facing displacement from Loliondo and Ngorongoro, according to the United Nations. “It could jeopardize the Maasai’s physical and cultural survival in the name of ‘nature conservation,’ safari tourism and trophy hunting,” U.N. experts warned.
“No consent has been given, no consultations, no compensation—because the land compensation law of Tanzania requires for compensation whenever people are shifted,” said Paul Kisabo, a Tanzanian lawyer representing Maasai communities.
At least 27 Maasai people have been charged with conspiracy and murder of a police officer shot by an arrow during demonstrations against the government’s plans to resettle Maasai people in Msomera village, in Handeni district.
But 10 of the people charged with murder were arrested before the officer was killed, which Kisabo believed was an attempt at “intimidation.” He said many Maasai people had escaped to Kenya between June 8 and June 15, fearing for their lives, and 61 people have been charged with “illegal stay” within Tanzania.
Human rights defenders have been intimidated, and some have gone into hiding, according to locals contacted by Foreign Policy. The Tanzanian government denies evictions are taking place, claiming that locals are being voluntarily resettled to provide “better standards of social services” for communities.
But Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, told Foreign Policy that there is a shortage of water at the Msomera resettlement site. “Our field research clearly shows no hospital has been built, there is an old dispensary which has been painted over, the schools are not ready, less than 200 homes are built,” she said. “This is really about the elites who think Africa is basically still their playground.”
The hunting concession in Loliondo belongs to Otterlo Business Corp. (OBC), a company that a 2019 U.N. report says was granted a hunting licence in Tanzania in 1992 “allowing the UAE royal family to organize private hunting trips.” The report accused Tanzanian security forces and “OBC agents” of the “displacement of some 20,000 persons, the burning and demolition of their settlements and food and the loss of livestock” in an August 2017 eviction of several Maasai communities in Loliondo.
A 2018 injunction by the East African Court of Justice prohibited the Tanzanian government from evicting the Maasai until a ruling in June 2022, but that court case was postponed at the last minute until September. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has strongly condemned the evictions and urged the government to “ensure” that resettlements are carried out “in full collaboration with and participation of the affected communities.”
The Oakland Institute accuses UNESCO of being complicit because it has failed to use its leverage to ensure respect for Indigenous rights, noting that the Maasai are not allowed to graze cattle or grow food on the heritage site. (The Maasai in Ngorongoro were already moved from Serengeti, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now face eviction again.)
“For most of us when we hear UNESCO, we think of a U.N. agency which is protecting precious sites, Indigenous cultures. Little do people know that UNESCO is nothing but again a Western, top-down colonial mindset, which talks about preserving places without the people, and instead of preserving the culture, it is going to become a burial ground of culture by extinguishing the way of life and livelihoods,” Mittal said.
In an emailed statement, UNESCO told Foreign Policy that it “has never at any time asked for the displacement of the Maasai people” and proposed a negotiated solution. UNESCO has offered “to provide technical assistance to the United Republic of Tanzania in the management of the property. The Organization can help determine the way forward ensuring that any decision on this issue is based on ‘free, prior and informed consent,’” a spokesperson for the body said.
Some conservationists argue that population growth in Africa needs to be managed to curb wildlife habitat loss in many countries. But in several cases, such as in Ghana, locals continue to fight for Indigenous management and protection of national parks. In Kenya, Ogiek communities, traditional forest-dwelling people, are contesting land taken by the Mount Elgon National Park.
They argued at last week’s congress that state officials must work with Indigenous communities as custodians rather than seeing them as threats—despite extractive industries posing a significant threat to these lands. For example, while poachers are shot on sight, logging and mining projects regularly take place on protected land with no similar punishment. The trend is not limited to Africa.
In a 2018 article for Foreign Policy, Alexander Zaitchik warned that a form of conservation colonialism was taking hold in Ecuador, depriving Indigenous communities of ancestral land. In Tanzania, this is often done to benefit international tourism. By Nosmot Gbadamosi, Foreign Policy