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Maasai and Barabaig Herders Struggle for Land Rights in Kenya and Tanzania

East African pastoralist societies face greater threats to their way of life now, than at any other time in the recent past. With the creation of game parks, private ranches, and commercial wheat estates, Maasai herders, in particular, are fenced off and evicted from lands that were traditionally and legally theirs. Increasingly, Maasai and other pastoral group are creating their own NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and going to court against national governments to defend their land rights.

The Maasai are a population of 375,000 people who subsist mainly off their cattle, goats, and sheep in the savannas of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Never a single political entity, the Maasai are composed of 14 independent tribal groups including the Kisongo of Tanzania, and Purko, Loita, and Matapato of Kenya. Maasai share the savanna with other pastoralists including Maa-speaking Paraguyu, Samburu, and LChamus, as well as densely populated agricultural neighbors including Kikuyu, Kamba, and Luhyia in Kenya, and Pare, Samba, Chagga, and Meru in Tanzania.

In the 19th century, Maasailand stretched from northern Kenya, to the central lakes (Baringo, Naivasha, Nakuru, Natron), to the rich savanna grasslands of the Serengeti plains in northern Tanzania. Colonial intrusion divided the Maasai between British Kenya and German Tanganiyka in 1885; and by 1913 the British in Kenya evicted Maasai from their lands north of Nairobi to make room for European settlers. Confined to 35,000 km2 in Kenya (in Narok and Kajiado Districts in the south) and 60,000 km2 in Tanzania (less than 60% of their pre-colonial range), the Maasai were further restricted by the creation of wildlife parks and reserves in the 1940s and 1950s. These parks were originally designed for settler recreation, but by the 1980s, they had become the leading source of income for Kenyan and Tanzanian governments. Tourism had replaced coffee, tea, and sisal as the chief foreign revenue earner.

In recent years, Maasai have been further squeezed off their grazing lands by small farmers and large commercial estates. In Narok District Kenya, 320,000 hectares of land have been sold to land speculators and farmers since 1980. In addition, Kikuyu farmers, responding their own displacement under British rule, as well as increasing population growth, have steadily moved onto Maasai lands. This created new tensions as President Moi has rallied Magi to "ethnically cleanse" the Kikuyu from the Rift Valley, particularly during election years of 1992 and 1997.

A similar process of commercial farms and game park expansion has occurred in post-socialist Tanzania. In the Maasai area of Simanjiro, the government has alienated 50,000 hectares of land (one hectare=2.47 acres) for 80 large-scale farms producing seed bean for export to Holland. These farms are built near permanent water sources and prevent access for Maasai cattle. Furthermore, large game areas including Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Mkomazi Game Reserve, which initially included pastoral and cultivating populations, are clearing the game parks of people, supposedly to protect wildlife populations.

Privatization and Land Constriction

The appropriation of Maasai lands is in violation of communal property rights of the pastoralists, rights which are legally protected in Tanzania and are given some protection in Kenya. However, privatization of land is touted by the World Bank and major funders from United States, Japan, and the European Community as more efficient in generating cash crops and beef than communal grazing or cultivation.

There has been a virtual stampede for land claims in Kenya, especially in the Maasai areas of Kajiado and Narok Districts. Anthropologist John Galaty described an incident at Mosiro, Kajiado District in 1991 when, in one day, the Ilkeekonyokie Maasai almost lost over 500 km2 of their land. Secretly, and without most Maasai's knowledge, hundreds of non-Maasai Kikuyu crowded at the door of the local Ministry of Lands Office to claim title deeds to land, many with bribes in hand. Most of the people seeking land titles had never seen the land in question, and barely knew where it was.

In another situation in Kenya, the District Council of Narok District declared its intention to appropriate the Naimina-Enkiyo Forest, a sacred location for Loita Maasai, one of the most cohesive and conservative of the Maasai. The local council wants to open up the reserve as a tourist attraction, and although claiming the reserve is for conservation, members of the council plan to lease the Naimina Enkiyo forest to a consortium (including council members) which will construct a major tourist hotel and roads to view wildlife. Loita Maasai eiders have formed the Loita Naimina Enkiyio Conservation Trust to secure legal guardianship to their lands and are litigating against the Narok County Council to press for their land rights.

According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), the successful resolution of the Naimina-Enkiyo Forest dilemma and the future for indigenous peoples in Kenya depends heavily on whether the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) government can be forced to tolerate the rule of law and an informed opposition. Of particular concern to international human rights groups is Kenya's record of political manipulation of the judiciary to serve the government's interest and the victimization of groups who oppose government.

The Barabaig Land Case

In Tanzania, the recent democratization of politics is reflected in the increasing number of successful, private land rights cases brought against the government. The government proposed a National Land Policy in June 1995. Such proposals have fueled a public debate that is covered by a growing free press. However, the new policy has yet to be ratified by parliament and many such land cases are associated with violations of human rights. As of 1996, the National Land Policy had not yet been ratified.

One of the strongest cases against loss of lands to private companies is the struggle of Barabaig herders against the Tanzanian and Canadian governments. The Barabaig are Nilotic-speaking cattle pastoralists of about 30,000 living in north-central Tanzania. In 1968, the Barabaig saw 70,000 hectares of their land (later expanded to 100,000 hectares) taken over by a government-owned enterprise, the National Agriculture and Food Corporation (NAFCO), to grow commercial wheat on seven state farms. The wheat project was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), who provided US$60 million in assistance, used largely to pay for Canadian expertise and mechanized equipment including Massey Ferguson tractors. In 1994, Charles Lane described how Barabaig herders were forcibly evicted from these lands and forbidden from crossing farm boundaries to reach grazing and water resources, as well as the sacred burial sites of their ancestors.

The Barabaig challenged the legality of their land alienation in Tanzanian courts in 1981, claiming that Tanzanian law recognizes customary rights to land. Furthermore, they argued in court that neither local Barabaig nor the village council were consulted when NAFCO acquired land for the wheat farms. They demanded restoration of their grave sites, action to arrest soil erosion, restoration of their traditional access across the farms, and damages of Tanzanian shillings 100 million (US$125,000 in 1994).

The Tanzanian High Court ruled in favor of the Barabaig by declaring that their customary claims were valid under the Tanzanian constitution, and that NAFCO did not follow proper legal procedures for acquiring land. However, the victory was limited by a technical flaw as the court ruled that all 788 plaintiffs were not properly notified and awarded only the six plaintiffs who appeared in court. The six plaintiffs were compensated for 300 hectares of land (but not the actual land) totaling US$1,200. This judgment, paltry as it was, was overturned on appeal by NAFCO in 1986 (because not all the plaintiffs were considered "natives" within definition of the 1923 Land Ordinance, as several were Somali descendants). This defeat was a major setback for Barabaig, and led to an increase in NAFCO aggression towards the Barabaig and expansion of the wheat scheme in the 1980s. Frustrated by the slow pace of the courts, the Barabaig began an international campaign.

A similar land case in Tanzania is being waged by the Sangu (Bantu cultivators) and Maasai pastoralists of the Usangu Plains in southwest Tanzania. Over the last 30 years, some 55,000 hectares of land in Usangu have been alienated as State property, including areas that were important grazing lands. The Tanzanian state has established three large mechanized irrigated rice farms and one ranch that produces commercial beef cattle. An additional 7,000 hectares have been earmarked by the state for future irrigation schemes.

Susan Charnley writes "The Usangu Plains are a microcosm of what is occurring in many parts of pastoral Africa, where the demise of communal property systems and the loss of pastoral land are causing rangeland degradation, pastoral impoverishment, and dramatic changes in the pastoral way of life."

`Money Has Spoiled the World:' Maasai Restrictions in Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Pastoralists have shared the savanna plains of East Africa with large herds of wildebeest, elephants, and lions for several millennia, often in beneficial symbiosis. Nevertheless, many wildlife conservation organizations, mainly from Europe and the United States, have encouraged the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to evict or severely restrict human occupation within park boundaries. The enormous Serengeti National Park was created as a protected Game Reserve in 1929 and gazetted as a National Park in 1951. In 1954, addressing conservationist concern that farming was incompatible with wildlife habitat, the government prohibited all cultivation from the park, evicting WaArusha and WaMeru farmers. Faced with protests by both farmers and Maasai herders that they need the cultivation to survive, the British redrew the boundaries in 1959 creating the Serengeti National Park (14,760 km2) and Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA, 8,292 km2), guaranteeing the Maasai rights to live and graze their animals in the NCA in exchange for losing grazing rights in the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater. By 1975, however, all cultivation was prohibited in the NCA, despite the fact that 80% of Maasai were growing maize in small plots to supplement their low supplies of milk.

By 1990, Serengeti was home to over 1.4 million migrating wildebeest (an increase from 240,000 in 1960) as well as 42,000 Maasai and their 240,000 cattle. As anthropologist J. Terence McCabe argues, while the Maasai were restricted from grazing their cattle in the Serengeti Park, the wildebeest and other wild animals could leave the Serengeti reserve and move freely among Maasai herds, thus transmitting deadly diseases to cattle.

Today, the Maasai pastoral economy is on the verge of collapse in the NCA. Ecological anthropologist Kathleen Homewood has shown that the nutritional state of local Maasai is declining to the point of malnutrition, particularly in children, and she argues that without cultivating, the Maasai in the NCA will not be able to survive.

The situation has become more complicated as conservation groups, particularly the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and Frankfurt Zoological Society, have instituted new wildlife programs including the reintroduction of black rhinos from South Africa into the Serengeti. Although the IUCN maintain they consulted Maasai elders, their plan holds Maasai cultivation as the principle culprit preventing the reintroduction of the black rhinoceros. However, according to Maasai elders organized into the Ngorongoro Pastoralist Survival Trust, the plan was done without their consultation. A transcript of conversations among Maasai elders by the Pastoralist Trust entitled Enkigwana-Ee-Ramat ('Gathering for Care-Taker-for-all') depicts their mistrust and anger.

Evictions from the Mkomazi Game Reserve

Another area experiencing conflict between residential groups and wildlife conservationists is the Mkomazi Game Reserve (MGR), which lies in northern Tanzania contiguous with Kenya's Tsavo West Game Park. Anthropologist Daniel Brockington and others have reported on the complicated history of Mkomazi. When the Reserve was set up in 1951, a small number of Parakuyo (Maa speaking) pastoralists were exclusively allowed to use the eastern half of the Reserve, but residence was forbidden to Pare, Samba, and Kamba agriculturalists who had been residing in the area for many years. Maasai pastoralists who had been excluded from grazing and watering in Kenya's Tsavo Park, took their cattle inside the newly created MGR and were only able to stay later after forming new alliances with the Parakuyo, and using local Parakuyo names. Pare, Samba, and Kamba people protested their exclusion from MGR and lobbied for greater access to Reserve resources. In the MGR case, Pare and Samba (Bantu speaking) felt excluded by the Maasai and Paraguyu because of ethnic and language differences. Tribal politics are often played out when groups compete for scarcer resources, falling back to ethnic divisions formed in the past but recreated by today's African governments.

In the late 1980s, the Tanzanian government resolved to clear the Reserve of pastoralists and their animals. Not only those without permits were compelled to leave, but by late 1988, original permit holders who had been registered since 1952 were forcibly evicted. The consequences of this mass exodus on the local society and economy has been severe. The livestock trading economy collapsed and many families have been forced to leave the area and have move into places already suffering from loss of land to private farmers or other conservation interests. Once the pastoralists were evicted, the Reserve boundaries were clearly marked and many villagers complain that the new boundaries have deprived them of yet more land.

The evictions have given rise to a number of protests to the governments. One high profile case involves Maasai and Parakuyo pastoralists who have taken the government to court for recognition of their customary land rights. For four years, groups from the Mkomazi Reserve sent representatives to the government and Catholic Church, requesting an alternative site for their herds and to be allowed to use the Reserve in the meantime. When these efforts failed, outside organizations including the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED), Canadian Universities Service Overseas (CUSO), and the Legal Aid Committee of Dar es Salaam University took the case to court. A Tanzanian Maasai organization, closely involved in the case, Ilaramatek Lolkonerei, is training witnesses with legal skills and lobbying locally and internationally. A problem with this organization, as Daniel Brockington notes, is that it does not include Pare or Samba agriculturalists who are the majority inhabitants in the Mkomazi region and equally affected by the evictions.

The Mkomazi case has powerful implications for other protected areas. One judge has already given up the case saying that it is too hard to judge and he urged the parties to negotiate. The Tanzanian government appealed and the case continues.

The Mkomazi case, like that of the NCA, reflects an unfortunate bias among wildlife conservationists that pits the interests of wildlife against the needs of local Africans who utilize the same resources. In Mkomazi, the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trusts (GAWPT), registered in the UK, Germany, and Holland, and the Tony Fitzjohn/George Adamson African Wildlife Preservation Trust (TFGWAAPT), registered in the US, have been active in rehabilitating the Reserve after the evictions. This has included building roads, airstrips and clearing boundaries, equipping the ranger force with uniforms and radios, and taking an active role in patrolling and excluding livestock from the Reserve. Recently, the Trusts have engaged in restoring wild dogs to the Mkomazi ecosystem and plan to introduce the Black Rhino from South Africa into the Reserve. The presence of Black Rhino would dramatically alter the conservation value of the Reserve, which could influence the outcome of court hearings or out-of-court negotiations.

Struggles between wildlife conservationists and rural African populations need not be antagonistic. Kenya has had policies where Maasai residents around Amboseli and Masai Mara receive a portion of the tourist revenues through local country councils and as income as game scouts and guards. Maasai do have a sense that wildlife, including elephants, wildebeest, and lions, are part of their environment, and as long as these wild animals do not directly threaten their households or cattle, Maasai are actively engaged in their protection. In Zimbabwe, the CAMPFIRE program initiated by World Wildlife Fund brings park and hunting revenues directly to local villages and residents who have committed efforts to preventing elephant poaching.

Indigenous NGOs

The number of indigenous NGOs in Africa has increased dramatically in the past five years. Many are ethnically-based and represent organizational responses to increasing problems of land loss and equitable integration into a market economy This is particularly true among East African pastoralists, who although occupying over 70% of Kenya and 40% of Tanzania, make up less than one million of Kenya's 27 million and Tanzania's 30 million people.

The Ilkerin Loita Integral Development Project in Kenya was started 20 years ago by the Loita Maasai, and now runs their own schools, health facility, veterinary program, livestock breeding and marketing cooperatives. They have been active in leading the campaign to save the Naimina Enkiyo forest.

The Maa Development Association of Kenya (MDA), described in the Fourth World Bulletin, testified at the 1993 meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) and also at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. They articulate problems of the ecological degradation of Maasailand, the lack of adequate educational facilities, Maasai displacement at the hands of competing peoples, and the misappropriation of funds earmarked for indigenous development projects. The MDA emphasizes the need to educate the Maasai people about the violation of their rights and freedoms. Their first priority is clear: put an end to the dispossession of Maasai land.

Other NGOs in Kenya have met to limit environmental degradation and include Kenya's Pastoralist Survival Forum, Action Aid, The Pastoralists Forum, EcoNews Africa, the Environment Liaison Center International (ELCI), Katutu Multi-Purpose Self-Help Group, the Kenya Energy and EnvirOnment Organizations (KENGO), and the Society for the Protection of the Environment in Kenya (SPEK).

In Tanzania, the Maasai Pastoralists Development Organization (Inyuat e-Maa) articulates Maasai priorities and values including community participation in decision-making, respect for Maa religion and traditional institutions, economic survival, and environmental preservation. The organization Ilaramatek Lolkonerei is involved in the Mkomazi struggle, and is participating in the court case in defense of Maasai and Maa-speaking Paraguyu interests. Maasai and Barabaig pastoralists have formed the Pastoralist Indigenous Forum (PINGOs), a forum of pastoralist and hunter-gatherer organizations which encourages community development and acts as a civil pressure group on issues like land alienation.

One shortcoming of indigenous Maasai organizations like Ilaramatek Lolkonerei is their exclusion of non-Maa speaking groups from negotiations with the government over land use. In Kenya, where ethnic divisions have attained the stature of national policy under President Moi's vision of majimboism, or ethnically separate autonomous regions, the Maasai have aligned with Moi's Kalenjin group against Kikuyu, Luhya and Luo peoples living in the Rift Valley Province. Violence erupted during the 1992 multiparty elections when over 1,500 people, primarily Kikuyu, were killed or driven from their farms by Kalenjin and Maasai warriors. Although the violence has not been as severe during this year's elections, the Maasai remain distrustful of larger groups and continue to back President Moi's KANU party.


East African pastoralists face major land losses. Some of these problems are demographic as populations of farmers, herders, domestic livestock, and wildlife continue to grow, all competing for dwindling land resources. But much of the Maasai land loss is due to political and economic reasons as African governments increase their demand for foreign revenues gained by commercial beef, wheat, and game park tourism.

For pastoral populations to continue to live off their herds, several changes in current policy must occur. First and foremost, herders must have rights to pasture and water, rights which may include communal, village based, or cooperative tenure guaranteed by law. The greatest impediment to Maasai or Barabaig pastoralism in Africa is the enclosure, privatization, and fencing of grazing lands which exclude former owners. Recognition of customary land tenure is essential for the continuation of pastoralism in most parts of the world. This recognition will not come without struggle and pastoralists are increasingly organizing to defend their rights.

Secondly, the needs of pastoral herders to graze their livestock should not be pitted against the conservation of wildlife. Cattle herders have occupied the same savannas as wild herbivores for the past 3,000 years in East Africa and current research suggests that shared grazing between wild and domestic herds may be mutually beneficial. Evicting pastoralists from game parks do not solve the problem of range use, but create greater problems by forcing pastoralists into greater competition with agricultural or other pastoral populations. Wildlife policy needs to be coordinated with pastoral needs, preferably though direct meetings between governments and pastoralists and by sharing mutual rewards such as tourism revenues. The television image of African wildlife grazing serenely without any humans or domestic livestock nearby is false. Herders, farmers, and wildlife have shared the East African savanna for many millennia. Forcing one or another group to give up their rights to the land is not the answer to land crowding; negotiation over shared resources must include all parties, especially representatives of the pastoralist groups themselves.


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