Maasai Rebellion?!

Maasai Rebellion?!

A continuing struggle in the private game reserves of the Mara/Serengeti border area has been exacerbated by the drought and economic downturn and may turn violent.

A number of private reserves in the Loliondo area, which lies on the eastern border of the Serengeti and southern border of the Mara, risk growing civil disruption by the local Maasai as well as rapidly increased poaching.

This is a beautiful area that is normally big game rich, although it is quite seasonal. It includes &Beyond’s prestigious Klein’s Camp, as well as a number of less upmarket camps. Until recently it was a model for Community Based Tourism (CBT) projects.

But the Tanzanian government’s decision to forcibly evict thousands of Maasai from the area has provoked several violent encounters between rangers and Maasai. Moreover, the drought which is worse just over the border in Kenya, has motivated thousands more Kenyan Maasai to migrate into the Tanzanian area with their herds. And finally, the economic downturn has led to a serious increase in poaching in the area.

The area is a tinderbox. Maasai are legendary for their personal bravery, but as communities they are not wont to organize. But this time it might be different.

A coalition of 25 prestigious local Tanzanian organizations, including the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team delivered a letter on August 27 to the Tanzanian government, demanding that the forced evictions stop. Then on September 10 the coalition demanded a number of legislative and policy changes that would begin to remove some of the foreign businesses from the area.

The government’s response was brutal.

The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ms Shamsa Mwangunga, released a statement on September 14 slamming the coalition, threatening harsh sanctions against them, and almost as an aside, promising that the government would keep the area safe for tourists.

My take is that this is not going to get better, soon.

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A decade ago Tanzania was in the forefront of CBT development and it was here in Loliondo that the model was working best. There were some truly outstanding individuals, such as Hoopoe Safaris’ Peter Lindstrom, who worked tirelessly not only to protect these wilderness areas from rampant development, but to fashion them into productive businesses for the Maasai who owned the land.

The idea was pretty simple and has been successful all over the world. Rather than farm wheat or grow cattle, camps and lodges would be built that would attract tourists who wanted to experience the natural, wild area.

The benefits to the Maasai ten years ago were substantial. Hoopoe’s small 8-tent camp at Olipiri generated as much as $35,000 annually for the otherwise impoverished local community. In the successful decade that followed a number of village Maasai became Hoopoe employees, were educated in the cities by Hoopoe, then started their own businesses.

In 2004 Conde Nast awarded Hoopoe the prestigious “Best EcoTourism Company in the World” award, in part for their efforts here.

Several other companies also became involved. &Beyond (formerly CCAfrica), and Dorobo Safaris all undertook similar arrangements to Hoopoe’s. Klein’s Camp (&Beyond) became one of the most prestigious camps in Tanzania.

But as I think back to those days, I suppose we should have known things would go awry. To begin with, there was an odd apple in the box: the OBC corporation. This United Emirates’ company was squeezed between the Klein’s and Hoopoe concessions. And guess what, they were hunters.

And not just your ordinary everyday quarter-million dollar tourist hunter. This is a corporation of the royal family of the Emirates. They don’t like commercial flights, so they built an airstrip on the concession that could take jumbo jets. And when they arrived each July and August to decimate the area game, they erected little cities. I remember when I would drive into Hoopoe’s camp, my cell phone would welcome me to “United Arab Emirates CellTel Company.”

Clearly most everything that OBC did was beyond the rules the government had set for CBT programs. Start with air waves and then add air routes. Everyone at the time knew that there was more involved than relationships with the Maasai. Royal money was exchanging hands.

From time to time guests at Klein’s would complain they would see zebra shot. But it was very infrequent and in the main the Arabs did their best to stay under the cover of their air waves. They were also there only two months every year.

But they were also weird bed fellows to the good souls like Hoopoe and Dorobo who were truly trying to build a sustainable Maasai project.

Enter drought and world economic decline.

Poaching has increased everywhere, of course, and serious local battles such as the one that left 30 people dead not far from the tourist camps in Kenya’s Samburu two weeks ago are much more serious right this moment than what is happening in Loliondo. But Loliondo’s history is more convoluted and may take much more than just the predicted rains to recover.