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Opinions: “Tourism is killing us” - The Maasai Way of life under threat again

Although we may think that there can be nothing as culturally enriching as exploring exotic parts of the world which we’ve never before visited - often paying money which we assume will go back into the local economy - the influx of tourist and commercial interest in East Africa is far from harmless. As was in the news recently, the Maasai (a semi-nomadic group of people living in parts of Kenya and Tanzania) are being constantly displaced from their homes to make way for hunting companies and tour operators.

Image courtesy of Eleanor Delaney, Tanzania Marine Conservation & Diving

Traditionally, the Maasai way of life has revolved around their cattle, and in recent years they have also been growing crops to cope with ecological change. Although they are not a people who have fully “modernized” as such, their way of life is largely sustainable. And yet ever since the 1980s, the Maasai and their cattle haven’t been permitted to enter Game Reserves or parks even if they have lived there for centuries. As stated by the non-profit organisation Tourism Concern, they are “typically excluded from participating in any tourism related income-generating activities” (even though they know the land and the climate better than those who claim to be experts).

Image courtesy of Tanzania Media and Journalism Internship

Although climate change is also a huge threat to the Maasai people, the threat caused by humans is more imminent. One of the biggest offenders is the Otterlo Business Corporation Ltd (OBC), a hunting business which buys land in the Loliondo region, near the Serengeti. Owned by a member of the Emirati Royal Family, most of the OBC’s activities have never been properly investigated, but in 2009 one of its worst offences was, with the help of the Tanzanian authorities, forcibly and violently evicting hundreds of Maasai and burning their villages to the ground. Aside from being used for game reserves like the OBC, the Maasai and their cattle have been displaced due to the creation of what the government calls ‘conservation areas’ or wildlife parks – both of which are popular destinations for tourists.

Another large eviction is due to happen this year. While the Tanzanian Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Khamis Kagasheki, argues that environmental conservation is important “for eco-system protection”, human rights groups estimate that if this eviction goes ahead around 60,000 people could be affected. The debate continues in Tanzania as to whether or not to go ahead with this year’s eviction, and many charities and NGOs are raising awareness about Maasai displacement and “land grabs”. But the situation here has reached a breaking point – is it reasonable or ethical to create wildlife corridors and game reserves at the expense of a whole group of people?  It’s a complex issue which may not have a simple answer, but for the Maasai, whatever the answer is could have grave consequences for their way of life.

By Katie O'Reilly

Katie will be volunteering with Frontier this summer on the Tanzania Media and Journalism Internship. Her article is published here as part of the Gap Year Blog's Opinions feature. Opinions articles express only the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Frontier.

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