The regional East African Court of Justice has ruled that Tanzania’s decision to cordon off land for wildlife protection was legal, dealing a blow to the Maasai Indigenous group who had protested against the move, accusing the government of trying to force them off their ancestral land to promote tourism.
The government claims it wants to “protect” 1,500 square kilometres (580 square miles) of the area from human activity, but rights groups said Friday’s ruling sent a dangerous message that Indigenous peoples can be evicted from their land in the name of conservation.
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Tensions have soared in recent months with violent clashes breaking out in June in Loliondo in the Ngorongoro district – one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations – between police and Maasai demonstrators.
Four Maasai villages are located within the boundaries of the Serengeti National Park, according to the government. The boundaries were originally demarcated under British military rule but redrawn for conservation by subsequent administrations.
The Arusha-based East African Court of Justice ruled that the Maasai had failed to prove the eviction had taken place outside the park, and that much of the evidence of alleged violence and brutality was hearsay or inconsistent.
But a representative of the Maasai community said the villagers would appeal.
“We are not satisfied with the ruling and we believe the court has erred in analysing the evidence we had provided,” said Jebra Kambole, who represented the Maasai in the interim ruling.
Tanzania has historically allowed Indigenous communities such as the Maasai to live within some national parks, including the Ngorongoro conservation area, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But authorities say their growing population is encroaching on wildlife habitats.
Maasai say that “they were forcefully evicted by the government forces and their property was destroyed,” said Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi.
Soi explained that the government argues that the Maasai community has been destroying the park as their population has been growing quickly.
“I think it is important to understand that many Maasais, that’s up to 50,000, in that area have already been relocated to other parts that have been set aside by the government for that purpose,” Soi said.
She added that this disputed area is very important for tourism.
The land disputes between the national park management and the Maasai villagers arose in 2012 but the government ordered them to leave in 2017. Security forces later evicted them by force.
The court ordered to halt the evictions in 2018, pending a final judgement.
The Maasai had asked the court to “stop the evictions, the arrest, detention or persecution” of their members and demanded a billion Tanzanian shillings ($430,000) as damages.
The three-judge bench said no compensation was due, Esther Mnaro, a lawyer for the Maasai, told AFP.
Fiore Longo from Survival International, an indigenous rights advocacy, said the judgement was a blow for the Maasai and for Indigenous peoples across the world.
“The court has given a strong signal to the international community that evictions and human rights abuses against Indigenous peoples should be tolerated if they are done in the name of protecting nature,” Longo said.
Tanzania has long been criticised by the international community for violence against the Maasai. In 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the government for violating their human rights.
The government rejects that it has violated their rights.
There was no immediate comment from Tanzania’s government, which depends on tourism for a significant part of its economy.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic system around tourism was the largest foreign exchange earner, the second largest contributor to gross domestic product and the third largest contributor to employment, according to a World Bank report in 2021.