NAIROBI, Nov 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Maasai herders used to fighting to survive on the savannah have moved to a new battleground - a Tanzanian court - in a case highlighting increasing conflict in Africa between traditional culture and foreigners investing in land.
The Maasai, a semi-nomadic people known for dressing in distinctive red blankets and colourful beads, say they are trying to reclaim 12,617 acres of grazing land in northern Tanzania from a U.S. safari company.
The row, dating back more than 30 years, is currently being fought out in the nation’s courts and centres on the Maasai claim that land where they have herded cattle for generations was illegally sold without their knowledge.
The case comes at a time when rising numbers of large-scale land deals in Africa are pitting indigenous people against investors, with resource and tourism projects bringing money and jobs but campaigners fearing loss of land for marginalised communities.
“The case is really important because the Maasai here in Tanzania who live in that particular area are being pushed off their land, slowly but surely,” Rashid Salim Rashid, a lawyer representing the Maasai, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They are being forced out of their way of life.”
The courts ruled that the sale of the land was legal, rejecting the Maasai claim that they owned the land at the time.
The row stems from 1984 when the Tanzanian government gave Tanzania Breweries Limited (TBL) 10,000 acres of ancestral Maasai land, known as Sukenya Farm, to cultivate barley.
But the brewery did not honour verbal promises to compensate Maasai clans there, according to court documents.
The barley proved unprofitable and the land lay idle from the early 1990s until TBL sold it in 2006 to Tanzania Conservation Limited (TCL), belonging to U.S.-owned safari firm Thomson Safaris.
TCL, run by husband and wife team Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland, turned the land into a luxury camp, Enashiva Nature Reserve, where foreign tourists pay thousands of dollars to see giraffe, zebras and wildebeest grazing in the Serengeti.
The Boston, Massachusetts-based company, which has been working in Tanzania for over 30 years, has won awards from the Tanzania Tourist Board and was a finalist for Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s World Savers Award for giving back to communities.
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The legal battle began when the Maasai took TCL and the government to court in 2010 claiming the land - now worth $20 million according to one court witness - was sold illegally.
The Maasai, whose herds have traditionally grazed on lands straddling Tanzania and Kenya, said they were forcibly evicted, with homes burned and people shot for trying to access the land.
The allegations spread quickly on the Internet and were taken up by rights groups.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples called on Tanzania’s government in 2010 to stop removing pastoralists from land without informed consent.
TCL denied the charges and created a website to end “baseless rumors and vicious lies”. Thomson Safaris said it “has never been involved in any human rights abuse of any kind”.
Tanzania’s High Court in Arusha last month upheld TCL’s ownership of 10,000 acres of Sukenya but ruled 20 percent should go back to the Maasai as it wasn’t part of TBL’s original lease.
The Maasai have filed a notice of appeal, aiming to repossess the remaining 10,000 acres, arguing the common law principle of adverse possession whereby someone who has lived continuously on a piece of land for 12 years can gain ownership.
In the October ruling the court said the Maasai were not entitled to this as they grazed their herds there only in the dry season and TBL was the rightful owner as it guarded and cared for the land.
Thomson Safaris referred a request for comment to its lawyer in Arusha, Sinare Zaharan.
“Cases before courts of law in Tanzania... are determined based on evidence and the laws. Anything other than these are and will remain wishes,” Zaharan said in emailed comments.
The government owns all land in Tanzania and regularly offers leases to investors, but the Maasai have repeatedly argued their customary rights to land should be recognised, even if they do not have title deeds.
“The government wouldn’t do anything to harm its people,” Adelhelm Meru, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the government respected the court’s decision.
No other government official was available to comment.
Yefred Myenzi, executive director of Tanzania’s Land Rights Research and Resources Institute, said conflict was on the rise in Africa as people and their animals were being squeezed into ever smaller tracts of land for the sake of other projects.
“I don’t see any hope for the future but rather increasing resource-based conflicts,” he said, adding that pastoralists often clash with wildlife authorities or private guards when they stray in search of pasture or water.
“Traditional ways of keeping animals are not that much respected. It’s like you are anti-development, you are backward.”