Maasai fight eviction from Tanzanian community land by US-based ecotourism company

Pastoralist land in Tanzania is under threat because of commercial agriculture and conservation. In some places 'philanthropic' ecotourism companies also add to the problem. This article focuses on a case in Loliondo.

Susanna Nordlund

IN Loliondo, the northern division of Ngorongoro district, near Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Thomson Safaris, a safari company from Boston, USA, claims to be developing 12,617 acres of Maasai grazing land into a model for community-based tourism and conservation initiatives, with the goal of fostering a symbiotic relationship made possible by ecotourism.  It calls the land its private Enashiva Nature Refuge (or sometimes Eastern Serengeti Nature Refuge).

The Maasai on whose land Thomson's project takes place, on their part, report about harassment, beatings and arrests of 'trespassers', and three villages surrounding the nature refuge are, with the support of Minority Rights Group International, involved in a court case to regain their land.

The tour operator from Boston came to claim ownership and right to manage Maasai land after 10,000 acres in Soitsambu village were in 1984-85 allocated to the then parastatal Tanzania Breweries Ltd (TBL) for barley cultivation. The minutes of the meeting in which the village council is supposed to have agreed to the land transfer look highly anomalous and are in the name of 'Sukenya village'. Sukenya was at the time a sub-village of Soitsambu, and would not become a village until a quarter-century later. TBL cultivated 100 of the 10,000 acres in 1985-86 and 700 acres in 1986-87 while the Maasai continued using the rest of the land as before. Thereafter TBL stopped cultivation altogether and left due to conditions that were too dry for barley and due to opposition.

In 2003-04, many years after having left, TBL managed to secure, despite allegations of forgery by the Maasai, a 99-year 'certificate of occupancy' for 12,617 acres, which they then put up for sale in 2006. This is how Thomson Safaris, through its sister company created for this purpose, Tanzania Conservation Ltd, came to buy Maasai land. These companies are subsidiaries of the parent company Wineland-Thomson Adventures Inc., owned by Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland.

Since Thomson's intention was to create its own private nature refuge, it started restricting grazing on land that the Maasai depended on for the cattle on which their livelihoods and culture are based. Needless to say, this required use of force, and herders risked beatings and arrests when accessing grazing or the nearest watering point in the 'nature refuge'.

Maasai resistance has been made difficult due to elaborate divide-and-rule tactics. Thomson did not need to develop these tactics, which were already in use by the central government and another investor in the area: Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), which organises hunting for the highest levels of United Arab Emirates society and was granted the hunting block - right to hunt in Loliondo - in 1992 without the consent of the Maasai.

OBC does not claim to own any land, but with its authority from the government it has caused much abuse and conflict trying to manage it. This is aggravated by a system in which the District Commissioner - the highest central government representative in the district - and district officials work for the interests of the central government and investors against the interests of local people.

The main threat by OBC is against 1,500 km2 of dry-season grazing land bordering Serengeti National Park (there was already a huge loss of land when the Maasai had to leave the national park in 1959). In 2009 there were violent extrajudicial evictions from this area by a special police force, the Field Force Unit, and OBC's rangers. A 7-year-old girl, Nashipai Gume, was lost in the evictions and has not been found.

People eventually moved back, but in 2010-11 a draft district land use plan - paid for by OBC, as its managing director had told the press - was revealed which proposed turning the 1,500 km2 into a protected area (not protected from hunting). This plan was strongly rejected by the District Council, and the government seemed to back off.  Then in 2013 the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism at the time made statements that the 1,500 km2 would be taken from the Maasai for a protected area - but he did this in a very roundabout way, pretending that the whole of Loliondo was protected and the Maasai would be generously 'given' the remaining land.

After many meetings and protest delegations to Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, Prime Minister Pinda in September of the same year revoked the threat in a speech - but this has still not been put in writing. In August 2012 the online petition site Avaaz had, without much explanation or detail, launched a petition against the threat posed by OBC, and this led to more international coverage that, while of great help, was unfortunately not always very fact-based.

The land occupied by Thomson is just outside the 1,500 km2 and adding to the problem. There are three Maasai sections in Loliondo - the Purko, the Loita and the Laitayok - and OBC has focused on working with Laitayok leaders to divide and rule. Thomson has done the same, and the same leaders that express support for OBC also do so for Thomson.

Soitsambu has over the past five years been split up into several villages, and Enashiva Nature Refuge now falls within the areas of Sukenya and Mondorosi villages. Thomson has tried to use this to its advantage, but the villages have joined in a court case to get back the land. This case is based on the fact that the land had returned to the Maasai through adverse possession due to TBL's long absence before transferring it to Thomson for a paltry $1.2 million.

Accounts of arrests and beatings

Through the years there have been many accounts of arrests and beatings by Thomson's guards together with the police. Visitors have experienced how young herders run away in a panic upon seeing a vehicle.

In 2008 Lesinko Nanyoi from Enadooshoke next to the nature refuge was shot in the jaw, having to spend months in hospital, after the police were called in to deal with a confrontation between herders and Thomson guards, and started shooting. Authorities absolved both the guards and the police of blame for the shooting, and Lesinko is yet to see any justice.

In 2012-13 Thomson dragged a group of herders, two minors included, to court for 'trespass'. The case was eventually dismissed since the herders had a good lawyer from the Legal and Human Rights Centre and the plaintiffs were contradicting themselves.

In January 2014 several herders were beaten up by Thomson's guards and the police, and taken to the tour operator's camp. This angered warriors (young men) who wanted to burn down the camp, and the police fired shots into the air.

Thomson has through the years - with minor adjustments according to time and to who is asking - flatly denied any wrongdoing and claimed to be victims of a minority with selfish interests that are spreading lies about it. How specific it is about this minority varies, but many have heard the story narrowed down to the founder and director of the non-governmental Pastoral Women's Council, Maanda Ngoitiko, who was born and raised just north of the land that Thomson claims ownership to. In April this year Ngoitiko was named Tanzania's Rural Human Rights Defender of 2014 by the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition.

Thomson has also been very active and aggressive in online PR for Enashiva Nature Refuge, and has received several awards, not least one from the Tanzania Tourist Board in 2009 for the nature refuge.

Charity is one weapon in Thomson's war for managing Maasai land. This is also something it shares with OBC. Its charitable branch FoTZC has built classrooms and teachers' housing with funds raised from former tourists. Thomson is very proud of a women's group that sells beadwork to its tourists. It has also built a dispensary in Sukenya; in May 2015 there were protests against the land grab and against the increasingly 'investor-friendly' - now voted out - MP for Ngorongoro, Telele,  who was there to inaugurate the dispensary. The Minister for Health who had also been flown in left early because of the protests.

Foreigners wanting to report about Thomson have got into trouble: In 2008 a photographer from New Zealand, Trent Keegan, who wanted to investigate alleged attacks on the Maasai  had told friends he was worried for his own safety after being approached by the police and Thomson's guards. He then decided to leave Tanzania for Nairobi. Tragically, a few days later, he was found beaten to death in a drainage ditch in the Kenyan capital. Keegan's laptop and phone were stolen, but not his money and credit card. Two men charged in 2008 with his death (allegedly in the course of a robbery) were acquitted for lack of evidence, as was another man in 2011.

Keegan's friend Brian MacCormaic from Ireland, who was working as an adviser to a school in the area, met with Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland to inform them about the complaints the Maasai had against their employees on the ground. When MacCormaic wanted to leave the meeting, the atmosphere became threatening; he was held up by 10 armed men arriving in a Thomson vehicle and not let go until after phone calls were made to the Irish Embassy and the Regional Commissioner. Later, outside the District Commissioner's office, Thomson's manager Daniel Yamat boasted to MacCormaic about having files from his laptop. Later in a meeting, this manager, according to those present, also presented files that appeared to be from Keegan's laptop to the District Commissioner.

In 2009 British journalist Alex Renton and photographer Caroline Irby visited Enashiva Nature Refuge with an invitation from Thomson's manager in Arusha. The local manager Yamat refused to answer questions, and some 10 minutes after leaving, the reporters were picked up by the police. They were taken by the police to the District Commissioner's office, after which they were escorted out of the district. The District Commissioner's secretary told them they were acting on a complaint by Thomson.

After having come across this conflict in an online travel forum in May 2008, this writer, in 2010 when on a tourist visit, asked the Ward Executive Officer (WEO) of Soitsambu if what was written on Thomson's website corresponded with reality. The WEO phoned the District Commissioner, who said he would answer my questions, but instead the following morning I was picked up by the police and taken to the Ngorongoro Security Committee. The District Commissioner took my passport and I had to go to Immigration in Arusha, where I was declared a 'prohibited immigrant'. I visited Loliondo in 2011 and 2013 without any problems.

In December 2014 American journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and photographer Noah Friedman-Rudovsky managed to arrange an interview with Daniel Yamat and were taken to a community meeting arranged by the councillor for Oloipiri, William Alais, whose letter praising Thomson and OBC was published in the Jamhuri newspaper that was stoking negative sentiment against the Maasai of Loliondo. Alais wasn't totally happy with the reporters and called up the District Commissioner, and a lengthy and threatening interrogation by the Security Committee followed. What prevented any escalation was the reporters' explanation that they would spend their last day in Loliondo visiting Thomson's projects, talking to their supporters and interviewing Alais. Alais' men were told not to leave the reporters alone, but even so the Thomson supporters they were introduced to had their own complaints about harassment by the company's guards.

In 2010 a British social justice organisation that works, among others, on the issue of land rights in Loliondo received a letter from a London law firm instructed by Thomson. The tour operator wanted to stop this organisation from mentioning it on the organisation's website. An even starker example of Thomson's aggressive litigiousness concerns the Stop Thomson Safaris website, started in 2012 by anonymous people in Tanzania who had seen firsthand the effects of Thomson's occupation on the residents of Loliondo and decided to raise awareness about the situation. These people were sued and had to agree to a settlement to keep their anonymity. The website was taken down.


Local people who speak up against the land threats are often victims of intense harassment. One tactic often employed by authorities and not least certain segments of the Tanzanian press is to accuse them of being 'Kenyan'. The most rabidly 'patriotic' journalist extends this to claiming that 70% of the population of Loliondo would not be Tanzanian.

In June 2015 I went to Loliondo to get further information from the ground, but before I could visit Sukenya and Mondorosi I was arrested, locked up for three nights without being allowed to contact friends and family, and again declared a prohibited immigrant. After being released in Kenya it was discovered that my computer had been seriously tampered with during my arrest.

On the evening of 8 July 2014 Olunjai Timan was looking for cows that had been chased and dispersed by Thomson's guards after his sons had been herding and the cows entered Enashiva Nature Refuge. A Thomson vehicle appeared when Olunjai was on his way home, there was an order to shoot and a bullet hit Olunjai's thigh. He was hospitalised for a week. The identity of the policeman who fired the shot was known, but the only action taken was to transfer him to another area. There were protest meetings and warriors again wanted to burn down Thomson's camp but were calmed down by elders. After more meetings the then District Commissioner and district officials advised Thomson to allow grazing until the court case was over. According to reports, herders have been entering with their animals without suffering any violence.

In court the defendants were to have been heard on 24 July, but the hearings were postponed until September and then the judgment date was set for 28 October, when the court totally failed to protect the land rights of the Maasai, ruling against all but one minor point. The Maasai's lawyers, Wallace N. Kapaya and Rashid S. Rashid, told Minority Rights Group, 'We are tremendously dissatisfied with this judgment and intend to appeal it at the first opportunity. Based on the evidence at trial the court did not come to a fair decision, and this judgment only serves to cement the marginalisation of the Maasai in Ngorongoro in the name of conservation.'

The battle for justice goes on!

Susanna Nordlund is an independent blogger focusing on land-grabbing 'investors' in Loliondo, Tanzania.

*Third World Resurgence No. 301/302, September/October 2015, pp 26-28