July 25, 2002

A delegation of six Maasai representatives was in London this past week to meet with officials from the Ministry of Defence to discuss another troubling legacy of British involvement in their region: leftover landmines buried in their grazing lands. The delegation represented hundreds of Maasai and Samburu victims of what they claim are unexploded bombs left from the British Army’s training exercises in their traditional grazing territory. After two days of meetings, the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement wherein the victims would receive over $7 million, and other cases filed by October 2002 would also receive compensation. James Legei, member of a Kenyan NGO that has pursued the case on the victims’ behalf, said, “ It is not possible to pay for a person’s life,” but the compensation is “better than nothing.”

The compensation was sought for 238 separate cases involving people injured or killed and livestock destroyed by the mines. According to Legei, each victim would receive between $25,500 and $242,000, depending on the severity of their case.

The Maasai and Samburu filed suit with the High Court in London in the spring of 2001, claiming that the Army had failed to clean up ordnance used in its exercises. One of the delegates was Beatrice Lelekong, who lost both hands and legs when she picked up one of the mines at the age of five. Martin Day, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, estimated that at least 500 people had been killed or seriously injured by the explosives since the 1950’s, most of them Maasai and Samburu and 90% of them children. The number could be higher because of the Maasai custom of not reporting the dead.

The British Army has used the site in question for the past 50 years for training exercises. With increasing development, wildlife reserves and private estates pressing on them from all sides, the Maasai’s traditional grazing lands have been shrinking steadily in recent decades. The training range is used by a number of Maasai to graze their cattle. Ministry of Defence officials have refuted the group’s claims, however, pointing out that the range has been used by other countries as well, notably the United States and Kenya, and asserting that the Army always cleans up after itself. Day counters that primary responsibility for the safety of the area, and thus for compensating victims, lies with Britain.

Army spokespersons have in the past said that the range is the responsibility of Kenyan authorities. The Army has undertaken cleanup operations in cooperation with the Kenyan government since the complaint was made, but it contends that the efforts had nothing to do with the legal action taken by the Maasai. Continuing in this position, and despite the payout, the settlement did not include acceptance of full liability by the British government. Legei said, however, that officials did promise that future cleanup operations would be more thorough.

The Maasai are the indigenous inhabitants of Maasailand, an area that traditionally encompasses the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in western Kenya and parts of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Beyond the terrible human toll of the mines, the damages would address the significant loss of livestock they have incurred. Cattle have long been the mainstay and lifeblood of the Maasai culture and economy, as sources of sustenance, wealth, and identity. Though the nomadic way of life has declined in recent years among Maasai, as many have turned to industry and tourism for their livelihoods, a significant number still maintain the traditional pastoralist lifestyle. Some have been forced by economic pressures to form communal private ranches in order to continue herding.

They are working on several fronts to preserve their traditional lifeways while securing better economic and educational opportunities for their people. Groups such as the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition and the Maasai Education Discovery Centre seek to give members of the community access to greater opportunities, return control of traditional natural resources and wildlife protection to the Maasai, and promote greater understanding of the richness of the Maasai culture.

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