For more than two decades, the sprawling picturesque savannah of northern Tanzania has been the centre of controversy due to an array of clashing interests.
To the Maasai who call it home and graze their cattle on the land, it is a battle for survival pitting them against the government. On their side are civil society organisations fighting for human rights.
But for the government, tour companies and high end trophy hunters, commercial interests are key. Also in the mix are conservationists keen on preserving nature.
The 4,000 square kilometre wildlife-rich Loliondo area straddles three jewels of East Africa’s tourism industry. There is the Serengeti National Park to the west, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the south on the Tanzanian side, and Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve to the north.
It is here that the annual wildebeest migration — declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World — takes place, attracting millions of tourists, photographers and filming companies.
However, over and above the different players fighting for a piece of Loliondo, are laws and policies that have been revised over time and have complicated the matter further.
For example, the Village Land Act 1999 recognises the Loliondo area as village land, whereas the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2009 ranks it as a game-controlled area.
But the resident Maasai community has rejected the latter ranking, maintaining that Loliondo is village property.
The conflict over Loliondo began in 1992 when a Dubai-based luxury safari company named Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) was given a hunting permit in the block.
The Maasai community was sceptical about the move saying that government was planning to evict them from the land so that it could sell it to foreigners. But the government maintained that it did not harbour such plans.
Last year, in an effort to resolve the conflict and enforce the 2009 Wildlife Act, the government came up with a land use plan for Loliondo, in which the 4,000 sq km area was to be demarcated into village land and a game-controlled area.
According to the blueprint, a total of 2,500 sq km would be handed to the local community, and the Tanzanian government committed itself to building dams that would provide water for cattle. The locals would then introduce community- managed wildlife areas in their section.
The idea is rooted in the concept of community-based natural resources management, which in this case refers to wildlife in human settlements.
The government would retain some 1,500 square kilometres — the part of Loliondo adjoining the Serengeti National Park, which is part of the annual migration route for the wildebeest, and is also a water source for wild animals, including the big five — lion, leopard, elephant, black rhinoceros and buffalo.
The area was to become a lucrative hunting block where OBC would conduct its activities uninterrupted.
However, the Maasai, backed by civil society, rejected the idea, demanding that the government rank the entire game-controlled area as village land.
“We want the state to act in accordance with the Wildlife Act No. 6 of 2009, which demands that all game-controlled areas found in village lands cease from existing,” said Samwel Nangiria, a spokesperson for the Ngorongoro NGOs Network.
They also turned down government’s plan to carve out 1,500 sq km from the game-controlled area, saying it was the only pastureland for livestock, the livelihood of about 40,000 Maasai in Loliondo.
“If the government goes ahead with plans to carve out our village land for wildlife conservation and hunting block concession, we will go to court to claim our alienated land, which was used to create the Serengeti National Park without our consent or any compensation,” Mr Nangiria warned.
Recently, the matter resurfaced following claims by activists that the government was going ahead with the demarcation plan, that would see OBC take up the wildlife-rich hunting block. The land sale claim also resurfaced.
But government denied the claim, maintaining that OBC, like any other hunting firm was operating in Loliondo under five-year renewable concession agreements.
According to the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Lazaro Nyalandu, the country’s laws do not allow foreigners to own land, and so the land transaction claims are false, malicious and unfounded.
And on Twitter, President Jakaya Kikwete added his voice to the matter.
“There has never been, nor will there ever be any plan by the government of Tanzania to evict the Maasai from their ancestral land,” he said.
OBC too denied the claim that it planned to buy the Loliondo land.
“We have neither bought the land nor ever conceived such an idea; after all, Tanzania’s land laws prohibit foreigners from buying its land,” said Issac Mollel, the company’s country director.
Mr Mollel accused filming companies and NGOs operating in the area of fanning campaigns against its activities.
“The idea behind these nasty campaigns is to frustrate OBC so that we quit and allow them to dominate the area,” he said.
But the law on the other hand continues to generate a storm, with the Maasai refusing to recognise the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2009.
According to Elifuraha Laltaika, a law lecturer at Tumaini University, all laws prior to that were favourable to the community.
“The Wildlife Conservation Act of 1974 for example, categorised Loliondo and other parts of Maasai land as game-controlled but it never generated a controversy because the ranking did not prohibit human habitation,” he said.
Mr Laltaika added: “The Village Land Act of 1999 too recognised Loliondo as consisting of recognised villages irrespective of the categorisation as a game-controlled area; Equally, local government laws also recognised the villages as such, and certificates were issued accordingly.”
But the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1974 was repealed and replaced with the Wildlife Conservation Act 2009, which prohibits human settlement and activity in game-controlled areas. And that is where the controversy lies.
The Maasai opposed the law even before parliament passed it. Their argument was that the decision to review existing game-controlled areas was left open-ended at the discretion of the minister and conservation lobbyists.
They were to remove from the list areas seen to have lost their conservation significance. But no criteria were issued and no particular body was given the mandate to do so.
To date, the game-controlled areas have not been reviewed.
“People do not seem to be aware of this problem, and the government is using it to its advantage,” said Mr Laltaika.
Mr Laltaika added that on the flip side, the communities would have more control of their lands according to the proposed plan. However, they would have to compromise with the government for the scheme to work in the national as well as local interest.
But the real struggle would be that between government and non-governmental organisations.
According to former natural resources and tourism minister Hamis Kaghasheki, it is interesting that a small controlled area like Loliondo would attract more than 30 non-governmental organisations “who are benefiting from the conflict.”
He said that the conflict has earned the NGOs and their principles international publicity and credibility through their media campaigns.
So how best can the matter be resolved?
According to Mr Laltaika, the law should be revised entirely by removing Loliondo from the list of game-controlled areas.
“This way, the Maasai will not only have security of land tenure but they can also take care of the natural resources within their land with the help of the government and other conservation actors,” said Mr Laltaika.
He added that the Maasai could also file an administrative law case in court compelling the minister to review all game-controlled areas and remove Loliondo from the list.
He added that since the area is strategic for conservation, the government at all levels, central and local, can work with the Maasai to ensure it is conserved.
“There is no doubt about the potential of Loliondo inherent in the division’s natural beauty, wildlife and Maasai culture, and as part of the wider Serengeti ecosystem. This is why it is increasingly important and valuable to the world, the nation’s interest and the local people that it is conserved and sustainably utilised,” said the lawyer.
Mr Laltaika also recommended that the government invest in leadership as well as time and effort to build trust and faith, to research, understand and resolve the conflict.
He added that the community engage with the government to reach an understanding of the opportunities for change that will end the conflict; investors remain patient and NGOs re-orientate, refit, allow and make room for constructive engagement with all stakeholders if lasting peace and prosperity is to be realised.