Environmental Justice Case Study: Maasai Land Rights in Kenya and Tanzania

By: Julie Narimatsu

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Key Actors
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While many people perceive the term eco-tourism to mean a more friendly, sustainable kind of tourism, most are not aware of the negative impacts that result from this type of tourism. Most of what goes on is what is considered "nature tourism." It is based on the use of natural resources in an undeveloped state. Therefore, when tourists engage in "nature tourism," they are seeing the wilds of Africa, South America and Australia, among other destinations, free of human interaction or disruption. To distinguish among the many types of tourism, we will define the more idealistic eco-tourism as "progressive, educational travel, which conserves the environment and benefits the locals (Schaller, 2)."

In Africa, the Maasai tribes of Kenya and Tanzania have endured a long history of colonization by the British. The value of the natural resources in these areas became apparent from the very beginning, when the British perceived the pastoralist Maasai and other tribes to be incompatible with the wildlife that inhabited the area. With this separation of people and nature, national parks in Kenya were created without any consideration for the local communities (Cheeseman, 2).

Today, these problems have escalated as more and more parks and reserves are being created by the government without the participation or consent of the indigenous people. The indigenous people consider development, whether it is through tourism or other government projects, to only benefit others and not their own situations (Kipuri, 2). Over the course of their existence, Maasai land has been taken away from them repeatedly, and after many broken promises of compensation and participation, the Maasai have started to fight for their land rights. Says Edward ole Mbarnoti, a Maasai leader,

It is we Maasai who have preserved this priceless heritage in our land. We were sharing it with the wild animals long before the arrival of those who use game only as a means of making money. So please do not tell us that we must be pushed off our land for the financial convenience of commercial hunters and hotel-keepers. Nor tell us that we must live only by the rules and regulations of zoologists…If Uhuru (independence) means anything at all, it means that we are to be treated like humans, not animals (Amin, 181).

This case study begins with the colonization of the British and their prioritization of wildlife over the indigenous people and continues to this day, with the increasing numbers of tourists longing to experience the world in its most natural form at the expense of the indigenous communities.

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The Maasai

The Maasai people probably arrived in East Africa during the 15th century A.D. They stretched from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean and from the highlands near Nairobi, Kenya to the Maasai steppe of Tanzania. They existed here, in harmony with their land and nature, until the late 19th century, when cholera, other diseases and British colonization took over their population, their herds and their land. The Maasai are now restricted to much smaller areas in Kenya and Tanzania (Cattle, 1). They are divided into 12 sections, or oroloshon, which are different politically and culturally, but all speak the same language; Maa (Evangelou, 98).

The Maasai people are transhumance pastoralists, meaning their herds are moved around to give the land a chance to regenerate and to find fresh water. Cattle are a central part of their lives. The milk and blood of the animals sustain life, and they are killed only on occasion for their meat (Cattle, 1). The land in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania in which the Maasai live is unsuitable for agriculture, and more compatible with pastoralism (Cheeseman, 1). Agriculturists border them, though: the agro-pastoralists Kalenjin and the agriculturist Bantu tribes, including the Kikuyu and Luo and the Chagga and Abugasi. The relationship between these tribes has been relatively peaceful, based considerably on trade (Cheeseman, 1).

Political History

Upon arrival, the British began developing with the Kikuyu and the Luo, and by 1910, colonists controlled most of the land in the area. Seeing the Maasai as a nuisance, they manipulated them with a treaty in 1904 and, in exchange, received a piece of land in the Rift Valley. In 1911, the British negotiated another treaty in which the Maasai received a small extension of the Southern Reserve while the British received the whole Northern Reserve. A Maasai chief who wanted more control over the Southern Maasai, however, negotiated this treaty (Cheeseman, 2-3). In the 1950s, in a deal that was very similar to the previous dealings among the British and the Maasai, the British successfully convinced the Maasai to move out of the Serengeti in exchange for land in the Ngorongoro highlands, where fellow Maasai already lived (Background, 2). The Maasai, in all these dealings, lost the best dry-season rangeland in their area to the benefit of all the wildlife among which they had lived for so many years (Cheeseman, 3).

In 1963, Kenya gained independence from Britain, and Jomo Kenyatta became the first president of Kenya. As a member of the Kikuyu tribe, he continued the British emphasis on agriculture and on preserving the wildlife. Additionally, his government was over-represented by the Kikuyu tribe. As the country became more politically stable, it became more attractive to development projects and tourism. The Maasai were continually left out of the processes of development (Cheeseman, 3).

After Kenyatta's death in 1978, then vice-president Daniel arap Moi took over. Moi was from the Kalenjin tribe, and during his vice-presidency, believed in Majimboism, which is a political ideology described by ethnic regionalism or ethno-federalism. This system would allow the people in a region to control that region. Once in power, however, he abandoned this ideology and maintained the single-power rule (Cheeseman, 3).

By 1982, the end of the cold war led to Western pressure for democratic reforms. In 1991, Kenya finally obliged and repealed the 1982 constitutional amendment of one-party states. Multiple parties were now legal, but Moi preserved his control by using physical pressure on dissenting voices (Cheeseman, 3).

Like the British, the new government of Kenya realized how important the wildlife and natural areas of Kenya were. However, their focus was more on the economic opportunities that existed in conserving the natural areas. Their goal was to have one million tourists by 1990. They, too, saw the indigenous communities as threats to the land and wildlife, and since they needed these two commodities in order to obtain the growth they aspired to gain, the people living among them had to be confined (Cheeseman, 4).

With the appointment of Richard Leakey to the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989 came a tight anti-poaching and hunting regime. Park guards were instructed to "shoot to kill." Over 100 poachers were killed in the first two years of Leaky’s and the KWS’s existence (Cheeseman, 4). This practice was occurring in many other places, including Togo, West Africa (Lowery, 1). There was considerable controversy over this, and Leakey was forced to resign in 1993. His successor was David Western, whose ideology included participatory conservation and cooperative problem resolution, which has helped to alleviate some of the current management problems in the parks (Cheeseman, 4-5).

Land Privatization

Land privatization became popular among a few "progressive" Maasai because of the land security it provided. The government began the practice of group ranches, in which a group of people owned a piece of land. The owners could move around only within this area, and others were prohibited to graze within these areas. The intent, on the government’s part, was to lower the numbers of the Maasai herds while providing meat for the rest of the country and the world. It was, thus, transforming the Maasai from a subsistence way of life to a more commercial way of life (Cheeseman, 5).

The Maasai were highly influenced by the "Lawrence Report," a government document expressing the benefits of privatization and by the World Bank, which encouraged privatization (Cheeseman, 5). Privatization, however, was not an ideal substitution for the traditional migration that was so compatible with the land. While the Maasai did compete with the wildlife, it was not so significant for it to be damaging. Privatization concentrated their livelihood to a restricted piece of land, thus contributing to "unsustainable ecology (Cheeseman, 6)."

Two events have played into the environmental injustices that have occurred among the Maasai people. First, the Maasai lost considerable rangeland to the rich, white British colonists in the early part of their history, and it is unknown whether or not the land they were left with can sustain the remaining population. Second, to keep their parks desirable to tourists by preserving the wildlife, the governments restricted the Maasai to small parcels of land, which is not compatible with a pastoral way of life. In a survey conducted among 14 ranches in the Kaputiei area, only 6 pieces of land had adequate dry-season rangeland to be self-contained entities (Cheeseman, 6). It is ironic that while the government is blaming Maasai overgrazing on park degradation, they are encouraging unsustainable practices by restricting them from migrating.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Having lost much grazing land in the protection of the Serengeti in the 1950s, the Maasai moved to an area called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, or NCA (Neumann, 146). The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers 8,000 square kilometers on the southeast corner of the Serengeti. It has the highest concentration of wildlife on earth when the annual migration of more than one million wildebeest, a half million gazelles and a quarter million zebras come over from the Serengeti. It contains a high population of lions and cheetahs and is a refuge for elephants and black rhinos. The NCA has the last remaining populations of these black rhinos (Background, 1). In a speech to the Maasai Federal Council in 1959, the governor of Tanzania (then Tanganyika) said that the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was "a multiple use area with the dual objective of conserving wildlife and preserving the Maasai’s pastoral way of life (Our voices, 2)." In 1975, authority was given to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) to manage the land in this area. The NCAA, in a 1975 ordinance was to "safeguard and promote the interests of Maasai citizens (Our voices, 2)."

The Maasai peoples’ lives in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, however, have been worsening. Livestock numbers have decreased due to disease and increases in sales. They have had to turn to subsistence cultivation over the protests of conservationists who are against cultivation (Neumann, 136). Tourism has increased, but they have not seen any of the benefits from this imposition. In 1994, the NCAA, in conjunction with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), developed a General Management Plan, or GMP (Our voices, 2). This 116-page document describes the process of separating the endangered rhino and other wildlife residing in the NCA from the Maasai (Wambui, 1). In contrast to the previous history of interaction with the Maasai people, this plan was going to be completed in a participatory manner. According to Paul Mshanga, the Chief Manager of the NCAA Tourism Department, "We realized that the traditional top-down approach to protected area management was not going to work. Since 1965, two management plans were formulated for the area but did not take off because the rights and obligations of the local people were not addressed (Our voices, 2)."

The GMP, however, was implemented despite protests from the Maasai. After a short period in which the Maasai were to comment, the IUCN and NCAA made the decision to adopt it, although most of the community disliked or did not understand the GMP (Our voices, 3). The Ngorongoro Pastoralist Survivalist Trust, a local community group, among many other international NGOs, are assisting the Maasai in this fight for land rights (Wambui, 1).

This most recent blatant disregard for the Maasai people is an example of all the Maasai have endured over the course of their history, beginning with the British colonization. They have not only interacted with the land and wildlife for thousands of years, but they have done so sustainably. While the government accuses the Maasai of overgrazing, studies show that, in fact, these pastoralists are very efficient livestock producers, and, rarely, do they keep more animals than they need or the land can sustain (Cattle, 2). Yet, their long history has been wrought with land rights injustices designed to benefit the wildlife and ecosystems, making the parks and reserves more attractive to the tourism industry and the rich tourists. Six of Kenya and Tanzania’s national parks alone have required the removal of the Maasai from 13,000 square kilometers of land (Cattle, 2). It has been mostly the blame of the government, whose priorities lie in valuing the dollar that is generated by tourism and wildlife parks above the interests of its people.

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The Maasai: This pastoral tribe relies on the land for raising their cattle. They have interacted with the land, sustainably, for thousands of years by migrating in order to allow the grass to regenerate. Ever since the British colonization, however, this interaction has been disrupted in order to protect the wildlife from unnecessary competition from the Maasai. This concern for the wildlife stems not from a moral ethic, but from the economic opportunities it creates. The Maasai’s only demand is rights to the land that they have inhabited for years. Not only have they been denied this right, but they have not been compensated adequately for the land they have given up.

Kenya and Tanzania Governments: Both governments’ major priorities are economic growth, and both have relied on tourism and other projects to obtain this growth at the expense of the indigenous communities that reside in these valuable areas.

Tourism Community: This industry has grown to be a $439 billion a year business. For 83% of the world’s countries, tourism is one of their five top export categories (Pera, 1). It is no surprise, then, that Kenya and Tanzania, two countries with the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro to their names, wants to take advantage of this incredible economic opportunity. In competition with many other beautiful places, Kenya and Tanzania have to make their lands look the most attractive to the tourism community, and, unfortunately, the price is paid by the local people.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA): This assembly was created by the Tanzanian government to establish "law and order" in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. While it claims to want to protect the Maasai community, its main concern is to protect the endangered rhinos that inhabit the area (Background, 1).

World Conservation Union (IUCN): A conservation organization, this group was instrumental in creating the General Management Plan, a plan that described the process of protecting the wildlife that inhabited the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Against the protest of the Maasai people, the IUCN and NCAA encouraged the implementation of the plan (Our Voices, 2).

Ngorongoro Pastoralist Survivalist Trust: This grassroots, local organization is made up of community leaders in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. They seek to ensure fair representation of the Maasai people in land rights issues. They have made many requests to the Tanzanian government concerning the General Management Plan created by the NCA and the IUCN, including delaying the adoption of the plan and considering a new alternative plan (Wambui, 1).

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Native African















Other African




It has been difficult to distinguish indigenous groups in Africa because of the fact that, in its most literal meanings, it refers to the original inhabitants of an area (Kipuri, 1). In this case, most Africans would be considered "indigenous." The meaning, these days, refers more to those who are "marginalized, oppressed and dominated by other in their won territories (Kipuri, 2)." In Kenya, there are about 28.3 million people. Although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain because of their wide dispersal with little communication, pastoralists number approximately six million people. This is about 25% of the population in Kenya (Kipuri, 2).

There are about 30.6 million people in Tanzania (http://www.abcnews.go.com/reference). In the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, there are more than 40,000 residents (Background, 1). The Maasai have lived here for over two centuries, and pastoralism has been practiced here for more than 7,000 years. Small populations of Tatoga pastoralists and Hadza hunter-gatherers also reside in this area (Background, 1).

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The Maasai have only recently begun to organize for this struggle for land rights. Their organizational skills have been lacking. They have not united or networked with other indigenous communities in their area or in other countries to press for their cases. While a few have attended international conferences on indigenous communities, they have not been a consistent figure in the international scene, mostly due to a lack of funds (Kipuri, 5). Although they bring cases to the courts, most laws can be interpreted against the rights of the communities, and they lose. They have also raised public campaigns, and while this has instigated hostility between the communities and the government, it has, at least, raised some awareness to the public and to the government (Lane, 1). Some have even threatened to not conserve the area in order to lessen the tourist value (Our voices, 11).

The Ngorongoro Pastoralist Survivalist Trust considered a number of actions to bring before the government concerning the General Management Plan and the rights of the Maasai. They are: 1) an angry march to the authorities; 2) a request to the government that they delay the approval of the GMP for one year; 3) a request to the government to consider an alternative plan; and 4) a petition to the courts stating that they need more time to comment on the GMP and a request to provide the government with an alternative (Wambui, 2).

Francis ole Ikayo, a member of the Maasai tribe residing in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, was also successful in bringing awareness to the situation in the NCA. After the IUCN and NCAA claimed to have received only positive comments about the GMP, Ikayo began recording traditional Maasai meetings as a way to represent the Maasai. The meetings were led by leaders in the village and were conducted in the Maa language. Between 50 and 200 individuals attended each of the six meetings that were recorded. At the beginning of each meeting, Ikayo would introduce himself and the intent of his recording. Out of 20 hours that were recorded, Ikayo created a fifty-minute video called "Enkigwana Ee Ramat" with English subtitles. "Enkigwana" is the Maasai term for the traditional Maasai meeting form, and "Ramat" is the Maasai name for the Ngorongoro Highlands area. It means "caretaker of all (Our voices, 3)."

Local leaders approved the video, and he sent it to the NCAA. While the NCAA pretty much disregarded the video and adopted the plan without the consent of the Maasai, these recordings provided a peaceful way of expressing the opinions of the local people that the GMP would affect. In fact, after the NCAA and IUCN watched the video, Francis offered his assistance to the NCAA to help create a video in the Maa language that explains the GMP. The NCAA, however, was not interested and has since prohibited videotaping of such meetings (Our voices, 3).

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The main solutions to the problems plaguing the Maasai tribe is that the governments should secure prior informed consent from the communities that exist in these areas before beginning a development project, and then give them more control over the implementation of the project. The former, according to Roy Taylor of the North American Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Project, should be "decisions based on knowledge about both the pros and cons of development…We are tired of hearing about the ‘enterprise concept’ which usually promotes only the benefits of ‘development’ and we need to know the potential downside too. That is the hallmark of informed consent (Pera, 4)." Local control would give back to the community and would lessen the impacts of development because the locals would have more interest in preserving something they are actually benefiting from. However, with all the tour companies that exist today, local communities do not have the political or economic force to compete with these other corporations and their government (Schaller, 2).

An example of this kind of control occurred in 1999, when the Maasai people of Ololosokwan leased some of their land to Conservation Corporation Africa (CCA) for $34,500. The CCA has exclusive use of hundreds of acres in the Serengeti as well as the use of a tourist camp built in 1926. With this new 15-year lease, the Maasai will receive 40% of the profits and pay local taxes, whereas they previously received only about 7%. The Maasai of this area will still be able to graze their herds and gather water on most of this land. Now, the Maasai are much less doubtful about dealing with outsiders, like travel agencies and the tourists that visit the area. They also received a health clinic, a market for the Maasai women to sell their goods to tourists and a wild honey industry (Associated Press, 1). The benefits of this transaction are invaluable to both sides.

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It is not unusual for people to be distrustful of the government, and it is no different for the Maasai people, who have suffered through a number of broken promises. There are many things the government can do to break down the preconceptions they have about indigenous people and to recognize how tourism can negatively affect these people when considering future projects. They should recognize that it not only affects the people by taking their land away, but that it has many social and psychological impacts also. First, the scale of the tourism project should be considered. The number of tourists should not overwhelm the local population (Zeppel, 1). Second, the economic disparity between the host and the guest should be examined. This disparity could lead to increased hostility among the hosts and guests. Third, the cultural differences between the host and guest should be explored. Guests should respect the traditions and wishes of the hosts. Finally, guests should not come with any cultural expectations (Zeppel, 2).

The government should realize that the local communities have a right to say no to tourism activities in the area. They should also receive all information as to what is occurring on the issue. Educating the Maasai on the benefits of the parks might make them more inclined to protect them (Lowery, 1). The Maasai desperately desire to have access and/or participation in the decision-making opportunities. Finally, to compensate for such imposition, the government should support indigenous community programs (Pera, 4).

In the NCA, dialogue must occur between the NCAA and the village. These dialogues and forums should occur in the Maa language. Also, NCA should have better representation when it comes to dealing with their land. The NCAA should take responsibility for past mistakes and misunderstandings and should be more accessible to those they claim to represent. The Pastoral Council, which consists of elected leaders from different communities in the NCAA, should be held at the same level as the NCAA, and not inferior to it (Our voices, 11).

This problem has been developing for a long time, beginning with the British colonization of this area. The Maasai, as well as many other indigenous communities, have been pushed out of their land without their consent or input. This has been mostly the result of the governments’ continual prioritization of wildlife for the economic opportunities it creates. There are many avenues for correction that should be explored by governments, the tourism industry and environmental organizations. Above all, they must realize that while they are preserving the wildlife in these areas, they are eliminating some of the most endangered groups in the world.

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Alma Lower



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Retrieved November 21, 2000. Available: http://www-trees.slu.se/ngorongoro/Ourvoices.html

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