Maasai Women and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Vehicle driving through Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Maximiliana Eligi Mtenga

31st of May 2022

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in Tanzania spans the Ngorongoro crater and is surrounded by many flora and fauna. The distinctive volcanic caldera provides an astonishing view to tourists and visitors who mostly come from outside Africa. The NCA is also home to the Indigenous Maasai community, who have been the custodians of the area for centuries.

The NCA was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 as a “natural site” and in 2010 as a cultural property. One might think that NCA is blessed with the world’s heritage ‘title’ and the protection that comes with it, but in reality, all that glitters is not gold.

For the past five decades, key researchers have highlighted that the United Republic of Tanzania does not have a land rights regime to protect the rights of the dignified livelihood of indigenous Maasai women. The laws of Tanzania do not adequately recognize and protect indigenous pastoralists’ ancestral lands, which constitute their means of survival and the basis for their communal existence.

UNESCO’s efforts to promote respect for humankind and the planet earth in which we live are valuable. Yet, under its watch, ongoing eviction plans by the government of Tanzania are putting all residents of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area at risk of deepened poverty for the indigenous Maasai community and its women.

Indigenous Maasai women’s rights are being violated in the name of conservation. The Maasai Indigenous women are likely to lose their identity and dignity due to losing ancestral land and poverty. Furthermore, evicting the indigenous Maasai women from the NCA will destroy their traditional “Bomas” homes, livestock, economic activities, and handicraft businesses. 

 

The crisis, just like any other crisis 

The continuing threats of evictions of the Indigenous Maasai men and women from their motherland in the name of conservation only exacerbate women’s rights violations that the Maasai women in the NCA have experienced from the Maasai traditional practices for decades. Indigenous women’s rights are embedded in international laws and human rights conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of 1979, which Tanzania ratified in 1989. However, despite this protection and the mutual agreement at the international level, the Maasai women’s rights are rarely respected in practice. On the contrary, they are violated at the national and international levels by either governments or the private sectors.

These violations amount to a ‘crisis’ because the eviction processes come with significant impacts such as loss of life properties and hunger resulting from day-to-day conspiracies against the indigenous NCA residents who are refusing to be evicted. 

The Director of Advocacy and Reforms from the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) in Tanzania, Fulgence Massawe, says that;

 

“Maasai women need their Bomas (houses) more than men because Maasai men are usually moving with their livestock. So, if the eviction plans succeed, the indigenous Maasai women are more likely to suffer more than men. Indigenous Maasai women are householders; they build Bomas and don’t move easily like men, so their Bomas are their safe settlement.”  

 

Adding on the issues of the co-assistance of the Maasai community with wildlife in the NCA, Massawe continues to express his concerns on the possibility of a loss of Maasai Livelihood amidst the ongoing eviction plans; 

 

“The Maasai people at the NCA are pastoralists, and in an environment where wild animals exist, it means that their livestock can survive in that area, so when you re-allocate them in a place that does not have wildlife, even the survival of their livestock cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, they are going for a disaster, and they will lose their richness, including their livestock; the government might claim that the area is humanly habitable but is it friendly to the Maasai’s livestock?”

 

The fact that there is an ongoing process of evicting the indigenous Maasai men and women in the NCA under the watch of UNESCO is reminiscent of colonial behaviours. Furthermore, the fact that Tanzania is violating the indigenous Maasai women’s rights in the NCA in daylight makes me feel like Tanzania as a country has forgotten the pinch of colonialism. I am forced to think like this because conserving the NCA by evicting the Maasai community, who have been the custodian of that area for decades, means that the Maasai community is being colonized. It’s unbelievable that Tanzania has recently celebrated 60 years of independence while the Maasai community in the NCA are still being colonized. 

Colonialism was indeed a nightmare, and as much as no one wishes to go back to the colonial era, I worry that the indigenous Maasai people in the NCA have never gained independence from their colonial masters. In the long run, the eviction of the Maasai people in the NCA is going to be catastrophic as Massawe continues to add;

 

“We should remember the indigenous Maasai people have their Gods, and they consider their ancestral land to be sacred, so if they are evicting the Maasai people, how are they going to re-allocate their Gods? Because for example, Ol Doinyo Lengai is a sacred mountain to the Maasai where they worship and offer sacrifices to God. So, alienating them from their ancestral land means you are pushing them away from their nature and system of life in general”.

 

From the human rights perspective, if the conservation of the NCA is not in line with rights-based approaches. These include but are not limited to the free, prior, and informed consent for any activity on their land, then that’s the most significant human rights violation which should be condemned by all means.

 

Maasai Women Rights and the SDGs

Regional and international conservators need to employ rights-based approaches in conserving the NCA, which will add to the insightful and innovative work of gender equality in developing countries. That way, indigenous Maasai women are not left behind on the sustainable development agenda 2030 or the Tanzania development vision for 2025. 

What is life if we are not learning from others? What is happening to the indigenous women in the NCA is similar to the situation of Ireland Travellers before and after their official recognition as an indigenous ethnic minority in 2017. The fact that Ireland took decades to recognize the Irish Travellers came with a greater magnitude of effects. The 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy and other State policies attempted to force Travellers to assimilate with “settled” people. As a result of the Travellers’ indigenous rights negligence, almost five years after their official Recognition of Irish Travellers as the Indigenous ethnicity minority, they still suffer from doubt and distrust from other members of the Irish community.

 

A repeated mistake?

Tanzania is bound to repeat the same mistake that the government made a decade ago when it violently evicted the Nyamuma people from their motherland as part of this same ‘conservation’ paradigm. After a decade of battling in the court of law and support from civil society organizations, the Nyamuma people won their case against the government, and their ancestral land was returned. The Director of Advocacy and Reforms from the Legal and Human Rights Centre, Fulgence Massawe, asserts;

 

“The government doesn’t have a realistic re-allocation plan because, for example, they tell you that the population of the NCA residents are almost over 100,000, but the houses they have built-in Handeni Tanga are barely exceeding 100, so where will they take all these people and what will these people do in this circumstance?”. 

 

The Indigenous Maasai women’s rights crisis in the NCA would have been solved if Tanzania had ratified the 1989 International Labour Organization’s Convention (No. 169) Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. This Convention outlines the special rights of indigenous peoples regarding activities on their customary lands. 

 

 

Anyone interested in supporting the Maasai Women in Ngorongoro can sign a petition from Rainforest-Rescue.org

 

 

Featured Image by Ema Studios on Unsplash

This article was supported by: Engagement Coordinator Aislin

 

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