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African tribes losing ground to conservation

Efforts to protect wildlife are pushing Maasai tribes from land on which they've grazed their cattle for generations.

Last Modified: 23 May 2013 09:59
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Nairobi, Kenya - Trouble is brewing in northern Tanzania, where the government has recently designated a wildlife protection zone that threatens to displace tens of thousands of Maasai tribespeople, who live and graze cattle across the grasslands.

In a rush to protect elephants, rhinos and other endangered animals from gun-toting poachers, governments are fencing off swathes of territory that have been inhabited and used by small ethnic groups for generations.

Samwel Nangiria, who represents several Maasai groups, said his people have repeatedly lost out in the name of animal welfare and insisted it will not happen again.

"If they enforce this eviction, blood will be shed," he told Al Jazeera.

Human rights groups warn the Maasai are not alone. Hunter-gatherers, nomadic cattle-herders and other distinct African tribes routinely face eviction and violence when their ancestral lands are selected for conservation.

Estimates of the number of evictions vary. One study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison described expansions of Africa's protected areas in recent decades that have displaced anywhere from 900,000 to 14.4 million people.

Tanzania tribe evicted from ancestral land  

In Tanzania, elders of the semi-nomadic Maasai, best known for their vibrant shuka fabrics and beaded jewellery, seek to overturn a decision in March to declare a 1,500-square kilometre wildlife zone on the eastern fringes of the Serengeti.

"We are scared because we know we are fighting the government," said Nangiria. "The memories are fresh in our minds of previous evictions. People were shot, houses were burned. But this time round the Maasai are not leaving. We have compromised so much for the sake of conservation."

Ministers say the Maasai have been granted alternative land and stress the importance of animal breeding grounds along the "iconic great migration" route of wildebeest. Critics say officials seek bigger safari tourism revenues, including from an Emirati-owned hunting lodge in the area .

'Not prepared'

Tanzania's northern neighbour, Kenya, has its own rifts between ecologists and native peoples. Samburu pastoralists from the central highlands say their ancestral terrain has been chipped away by years of successive wildlife protection schemes.

The latest project at Eland Downs, in Laikipia, was a 171 sq km national park that was designated on land purchased by two US-based environment charities, the Nature Conservancy and the African Wildlife Foundation.

Richard Leiyagu, chairman of the Loiborkineji Self-Help Group, said 25,000 Samburu families had been shunted off land that their semi-nomadic forefathers had used for grazing cattle, the lifeblood of their community.

"These people have not been prepared for another lifestyle. The only way to sustain their way of life is through livestock," he said. "It's a time-bomb. They will be forced to demand more space and they will clash with the private conservationists."

The pattern is repeated across Africa. In southeast Cameroon, Baka pygmies bemoan beatings at the hands of government-backed eco-guards when they are caught using traditional hunting skills under the canopies of Boumba Bek National Park, according to Survival International.

Likewise, the Bushmen of the Kalahari reserve in Botswana have reportedly been beaten and arrested for killing antelopes on protected land, despite tribesmen winning court battles that upheld their right to live and hunt on their ancestral terrain, the indigenous rights group said.

Conservation has climbed up the political agenda in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in response to a surge in poaching for elephant tusk and rhino horn, feeding demand for traditional medicines in Asia's growing middle-class.

The conservation group WWF ranks wildlife contraband as a comparable global threat to drug trafficking and gun-running. Last year, poachers slaughtered nearly 700 South African rhinos and as many as 30,000 elephants.

There is a real concern now about people being displaced as a result of conservation, and there needs to be a way of reconciling the needs of indigenous groups and conservationists.

Andrew Erueti, Amnesty International

But in their effort to halt animal extinctions, conservationists clash with indigenous groups. Pastoralists are pushed off land to make way for national parks, and hunter-gatherers are arrested for traditional bush-meat hunting in the forests.

"Over the past decade, tribal groups of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists across Africa have tapped into the global indigenous movement as a force for funding and advocacy," said Andrew Erueti, an expert on indigenous rights for the UK-based rights group Amnesty International.

"There is a real concern now about people being displaced as a result of conservation, and there needs to be a way of reconciling the needs of indigenous groups and conservationists."

Mohamed Matovu, a spokesman for Minority Rights Groups, said creating national parks ranks alongside other threats faced by rural African groups, such as valley-flooding dam projects and land-grabs for farming, mining and logging.

"Conservation is also business, when you look at it," Matovu said. "With revenues shrinking, tourism is an easy way to spruce up your economy. And the money that comes from tourism is almost never shared with those who are evicted from the lands."

Jo Woodman, a campaigner for Survival International, said Western conservationists wield "vast influence" over African officials. Rather than embracing native peoples, who understand rural terrain and have lived alongside animals for generations, lobby groups typically design "people-free" reserves, under the control of government ministries, she added.

"Tribal communities could have really done with the conservation groups to help fight off encroachment by loggers and poachers, but instead they are dragged out of parks and dumped on the edges, made into the enemies of conservation," Woodman said.

Sinister undertone

Her colleague, Fiona Watson, said there was also something more sinister going on. 
 
"There's a deep element of racism throughout Africa against hunter-gatherers," she said. "Many members of government see hunter-gatherers and semi-nomadic pastoralists as backwards and that they have to drag these people into this century."

New wildlife protection schemes are moving with the times. The state-backed Northern Rangelands Trust brings together 19 conservatories in northern Kenya that are managed by the region's 100,000 residents, mostly rural cattle-herders.

One of the biggest global conservation groups, WWF, said it works to protect Africa's gorillas, elephants and other endangered beasts - while also ensuring that "local communities maintain their ability to provide for their families".

Tanya Saunders, CEO of the Tsavo Trust, is designing a conservancy in eastern Kenya that will be managed by semi-nomadic Orma pastoralists, an impoverished group that has faced repeated inter-tribal clashes along the troubled Tana River.

"We need to address wildlife conservation through the people who live alongside the wildlife, who are expected to be its guardians," she said. "Nothing short of ownership of conservation projects by the people themselves has any chance of viability in the long term."

Maasai elders at a community meeting [Al Jazeera]

Albert Barume, an expert in tribal groups for the UN's International Labour Organization, has monitored conflict between conservationists and tribal peoples throughout his career, and has noticed two recent reasons for optimism.
 
In March, the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, ordered Kenya to temporarily stop forcing Ogiek hunter-gatherers from the Mau Forest, marking another legal victory for native groups.
 
He has also noted a growing awareness among conservationists that those living on lands destined for national park status should be co-opted into conservation, rather than forced to the peripheries of protected zones. 
 
"The old-fashioned concept of conserving nature was that humans harm nature, but that school is phasing out to a new generation of activists," he said. "Nowadays it’s about creating a partnership between indigenous groups and conservation. 
 
"Instead of being portrayed as anti-conservation, I think they'll be allies of conservation."

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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