“I don't know who his father is.” The tears are slowly rolling down Mtongoli Nenga's cheeks as she cradles her one-month-old son, Youssouf, in the squalid ten-square-meter room she shares with her six children. The first four are from her deceased husband; the youngest two from “clients.” When the sweet-faced 30-year-old works the streets of Mugumu, a small agrarian town in northern Tanzania, her oldest child, 18, watches the others. “They don't know I sell my body. I tell them I go out at night to look for money, but I don't tell where it comes from,” she whispers.
Her life unraveled on October 14, 2001. That day, the police torched her home to the ground in the village of Nyamuma, which sits on the northeastern edge of the Serengeti National Park, one of the world's most pristine wildlife preservation areas. The hilly hamlet was the home of poor millet farmers and small-game hunters from the Kurya, an ethnic group that is also present across the nearby border with Kenya. The security forces accused the villagers of being unlawful residents, criminals and foreigners from Kenya. But Nyamuma also happens to be located very close to an ambitious ecotourism project driven by Paul Tudor Jones, a legendary American hedge fund manager, fueling speculation that the hamlet had been cleared to promote animal viewing for wealthy tourists. After their expulsion, most of the villagers moved to nearby Mugumu, where they now live in dire poverty, relying on temporary manual jobs if they are lucky — and, in Nenga's case, sleeping with men who pay a premium for unprotected sex.
Nenga is a collateral victim of Tanzania's eager embrace of luxury safaris, an industry that draws around half a million visitors each year and is by far the main contributor to the country's annual tourism earnings (which totaled $1.26 billion in 2009, according to a report from the Tanzanian central bank). In recent years, there have been a number of government-orchestrated forcible dispossessions related to high-end safari ventures in northern Tanzania — first and foremost around the Serengeti National Park, where endless herds of elephants, zebras and wildebeests, followed by packs of predators, migrate every year.
What happened in Nenga's village is neither an isolated case nor an incident harking back to a bygone era. While the traces of the evictions in Nyamuma have long since disappeared, a strikingly similar set of events is unfolding on the other side of the Serengeti National Park, in a remote area called Loliondo. After years of peaceful coexistence with hunters from the Persian Gulf, the legendary Maasai pastoralists are under assault, accused of trespassing, destroying the environment and, just like the Nyamuma villagers, of being illegal immigrants from neighboring Kenya. Starting in July 2009, the police began burning their bomas — their traditional mud-and-wood homesteads — in the grazing areas of eight villages bordering grounds owned by the safari hunting company Ortello Business Corporation (OBC). Since then, the Maasais, who could be seen shepherding their cattle, sheep and goats all over those greenish hills with their trademark red-and-blue garb, intricately beaded necklaces, and bows and arrows, have gone into hiding.
A quarter of Tanzania's land mass is already allocated to wildlife, and the authorities are striving to extend this domain. That objective, however, has become more problematic because of the country's explosive population growth — from 10.4 million at independence in 1961 to 42.5 million in 2008 — and because the zones bordering the wildlife areas have seen an influx of new inhabitants lured by their rich agricultural and pastoral potential. According to the law, when the president decides to transform land into a national park or game reserve — which ban human settlement and activities except hunting and animal viewing — he simply needs to issue a decree. The law stipulates that the inhabitants of the area are to be informed, resettled and compensated.
However, “the land situation is much worse in Tanzania than in many African countries because of the compulsory land acquisition presidential prerogative and because compensation is tepid and only granted after people are evacuated,” says Peter Veit, a senior fellow with the World Resource Institute, a research organization based in Washington.
After the 2001 events, the Nyamuma villagers received... nothing. They were kicked out on short notice and were neither compensated nor resettled.
The cultivators had settled in the area in the mid-1980s after being chased from their land further south. But the proximity with the Ikongoro Reserve, which is located in the migratory corridor between the Serengeti National Park and Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, would soon prove contentious. In 1994 the Ikongoro Reserve was expanded and its status was upgraded from “game-controlled area,” where both animals and humans are allowed, to an animals-only “game reserve.” The expansion put the main part of the village inside Ikongoro; its inhabitants were thus removed and compensated. Most of them resettled in the part of the village that sat just off the reserve, which took the name Remaining Nyamuma. But when villagers of nearby Nyanguge were evicted from their homes in 2000 for allegedly being Kenyans, they also moved into Remaining Nyamuma. This influx created tensions over land and water with neighboring villages and the wardens of the game-controlled areas.
On October 8, 2001, the district authorities informed the residents of Remaining Nyamuma by loudspeaker that they had to evacuate by October 12. The residents refused, and two days later the evictions began. They were led by the district commissioner (known as the DC), Loy Thomas Sabaya, the highest central government representative in the area. Villagers were forced to empty and burn their homes, storage spaces and cowsheds. At least 135 households were completely razed. The district authorities ordered all neighboring villages not to accommodate the villagers. More than eight years later, they keep vivid memories of those fateful days.
Esther Jackson was six months pregnant. “The district commissioner and his deputy beat me with sticks and fists,” she told me in Mugumu in the outdoor terrace of one of the hotels where safari visitors generally stay overnight on their way to Serengeti. “I began to bleed more and more. I slept outside because I was too weak, until someone brought me to the hospital.” She miscarried. She and her husband, Mwita, along with their thirteen children and grandchildren, now live in four small rented rooms in Mugumu. Their only source of revenue comes from bringing water into town from a river dam a few kilometers away.
Mugere Mwita, a 38-year-old cripple, recounts how his wife was able to flee the police. “But I obviously couldn't. So they beat me, the DC broke my crutches and they left me in the bush.” The DC then told him: “You really want to live here? You can just stay here now!” Mwita remained in the bush for eight hours, until his wife came back and brought him to the Mugumu hospital. He now shines shoes in the streets, unable to feed his three children more than once a day or to send them to school, “because I can't afford the uniforms and the books.”
For the past eight years, the Nyamuma peasants have wondered about the reasons behind their eviction. Some offer that Sabaya acted at the behest of neighboring villagers eager to seize their land. Others believe he took revenge on them after they accused him of pocketing a foreign grant for a primary school in Nyamuma that was never built. In addition, some of the evictees who had recently arrived from the neighboring hamlet of Nyanguge had filed a civil suit against the government protesting their expulsion, and the case was due to be heard the week of the raid.
But human rights activists surmise the real reason is a company called Grumeti Reserves, which is controlled by Paul Tudor Jones, the 55-year-old Tennessee-born hedge fund manager. Jones first worked as a cotton trader on Wall Street before opening Tudor Investment Corporation in the 1980s. He earned his fame by predicting Black Monday, the 1987 stock market crash in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6 percent — and winning big on it. His net is estimated at $3.2 billion by Forbes, which ranks him No. 297 on its list of the world's richest billionaires. In an hourlong profile called Trader: The Documentary, broadcast on PBS in November 1987, the intense bespectacled financier can be seen proudly touting his methods. Most famously, he predicts in his Southern drawl that the market will collapse like an “Acapulco cliff dive.” “There will be some type of a decline, without a question, in the next ten, twenty months,” he says in the first scene of the documentary. “And it will be earth-shaking; it will be saber-rattling.” The video has since become a prized asset for traders eager to emulate Jones. According to a 2007 article in theNew York Times, the financier asked director Michael Glyn to remove the video from circulation — presumably to protect his trade secrets but also to erase the swashbuckling image he projected. (The documentary began to appear on video-sharing websites last July.)
Jones has averted the limelight for years and worked to remake his image by becoming a philanthropist — he created the Robin Hood Foundation, an antipoverty program in New York City, and serves as a trustee on the board of the Excellence Boys Charter School, one of the country's first all-boys charter schools, which is located in Brooklyn's downtrodden Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He has also become an ecotourism magnate and has chosen Tanzania as his main investment target.
Grumeti Reserves acquired concessions on the Ikorongo Reserve, as well as the adjoining Grumeti Reserve and Ikoma open area, in 2002 — a surface totaling 340,000 acres. Since then the company has built three high-end lodges dedicated to wildlife viewing in the area. Grumeti Reserves Singita — Singita, a South African hospitality management company, has a contract with Grumeti to run the luxury lodges — explains that its mission is “to rehabilitate and improve the indigenous biodiversity of the western Serengeti-Mara system to the benefit of local communities and districts, as well as national, and international stakeholders, through practices that are financially sustainable, environmentally and culturally responsible, and politically acceptable.”
In its November 2006 issue, Travel and Leisure described the lodges as offering “21st-century service in a sumptuous bush-chic setting.” According to the brochure, the Singita Sasakwa Lodge is built “in the style of an Edwardian manor house,” with “stone walls, deep verandas, high ceilings, stately furniture, silverware and ornamental pieces.” Its most exclusive lodging, the villa, has four “en-suite bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, a nanny flat and a private infinity plunge pool in the garden.” Price tag: $16,500 per day. Tanzania's annual GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund: $592.
Requests for comments from Jones about his Tanzanian venture, conveyed to the headquarters of Tudor Investment Corporation in Greenwich, Connecticut, were redirected to his Tanzanian company. Grumeti Reserves told The Nation that it had no hand in the October 2001 eviction of Nyamuma since it preceded the company's arrival. “You need to understand that in October 2001, Mr. Jones was not even aware of the Tanzanian opportunity,” Brian Harris, the managing director of the Singita Grumeti Fund, which runs the operation's community outreach, wildlife management and law-enforcement operations, told The Nationin an e-mail. “In other words he had not as yet even been introduced to the property.” Moreover, other villagers have since settled in the Remaining Nyamuma area, lending the impression that the land was not meant to be seized to expand the reserve.
But Helen Kijo-Bisimba, co-founder of the Legal Human Rights Center (LHCR), an NGO based in Dar es Salaam that has been assisting the Nyamuma villagers, begs to differ. “Given the exclusivity of the tourism that is now being marketed in the very site, or very close to the evictions, it is easy to see why these people and their activities might have become an issue for the government in 2001, if this venture were at the proposal stage at that time,” she writes in a chapter of a forthcoming book from Stanford University Press called Stones of Hope: How African Activists Reclaim Human Rights to Challenge Global Poverty, co-written with Toronto-based law professors Ruth Buchanan and Kerry Rittich. Francis Stolla, a lawyer for the Nyamuma villagers, said there was no clear-cut evidence of collusion between the authorities and Grumeti. But he stressed that he had encountered a number of indications of their close ties, pointing out, for instance, that District Commissioner Sabaya often expressed support for the company in public and that Grumeti vehicles transported local officials and their witnesses to attend the hearings of a commission of inquiry. Mohamed Madehele, director of the Wildlife Department at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, counters that there was no quid pro quo about moving villagers when the Grumeti concessions were awarded.
Kijo-Bisimba told The Nation that the operation ended up vastly reducing the population of Nyamuma — and thus the frictions over land with the reserve management. “So we think the government likely wanted to please the foreign investors or, maybe, do their bidding,” she says. “Animals count more than humans in Tanzania.”
Two months after the October 2001 eviction, the LHCR conducted a fact-finding mission in the area. Despite being harassed by the police, its researchers were able to gather evidence of abuses. In March 2002, the NGO lodged a complaint before the newly created Tanzanian commission for human rights accusing Sabaya and his deputy of human rights violations. Three days into the probe, Attorney General Andrew Chenge objected, saying the plaintiffs were “fake.” Despite logistical obstacles and intimidation tactics used by authorities against villagers, the proceedings went ahead. And they proved cathartic for the victims, who saw their main tormentor, Sabaya, being grilled by their lawyers and forced to recant his claims that the villagers were criminals and Kenyans. Moreover, Sabaya admitted that he had been acting on orders from the central government, which at first denied playing any role but eventually acknowledged its involvement. (The government has repeatedly argued before the commission and later in court that the villagers who were displaced were either Kenyans or poachers.)
After a two-year probe, the commission rendered an unequivocal verdict that stunned the authorities. It concluded that the villagers were victims of arbitrary deprivation of property, physical assault and loss of livelihood. As such, they were entitled to relocation and fair compensation, which the commission put at 890 million shillings ($665,000). Moreover, it described the government obstruction of its inquiry as a human rights violation in and of itself. Chenge immediately rejected the commission's recommendations. The LHCR then filed a complaint before the High Court to force the government to implement them. In 2005 the High Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction, a decision overturned in October 2008 by the Court of Appeals, the highest in the country, which ordered the High Court to implement the commission's recommendations. The High Court was supposed to hold a hearing on November 17; the hearing was postponed to March and is now scheduled to take place in July. Despite the delays, Stolla hails the Court of Appeals ruling as a “watershed” for grassroots advocacy of economic and social rights.
But the villagers are not yet convinced that they will see justice. “I have no hopes that our rights will be redressed,” lead plaintiff Ibrahim Kossoro, a discreet 48-year-old man with short hair tells me with his soft voice, seated in the cramped and dark room where he lives with his two wives and nine children. “The reality is this: only two of my six kids go to school, and I was not able to send my 16-year-old daughter to secondary.”
After spending a few hours barreling across the windswept rolling hills of the Serengeti National Park in a creaky Landrover that sends throngs of gazelles and zebras on the run, my cellphone suddenly beeps. The text message reads, “Dear guest, welcome to the U.A.E. Enjoy the best network and other unmatched services only with Etisalat. Please use + or 00 before the country code or international codes.”
So it was true. I had a hard time believing that a few ridges away from the Serengeti, I would be greeted by a phone carrier from the Gulf sheikhdom. But as we approach the headquarters of the Ortello Business Corporation, which some suggest is controlled by the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, the exotic satellite signal does come through. For the Maasai tribesmen, the text message is a vivid illustration of the clout OBC has acquired in Loliondo and a stark reminder of why they have gone into hiding.
When our four-wheel drive veers off the main dirt road passing through the grazing area of the Maasai village of Arash, several human-shaped red dots can be seen scampering toward a forested hill. Only when we exit the vehicle do they realize we are not a patrol from the Field Force Unit (FFU), the dreaded riot police who have been harassing them. Among those slowly trickling back is Nongaba Kukuti, a shy 21-year-old wrapped in a blue-and-red shawl, flanked by her two young sons. She brings us toward a torn and dry acacia tree, where their few belongings — faded wool blankets, chipped metal bowls — are wrapped into rolled canvas and rusted corrugated iron sheets. “This is where we live,” she explains, staring down at the dung-filled brownish soil, swatting the dozens of flies hovering around her children. “The police beat me and tried to burn our boma, but they couldn't. They were angry, so they threatened that next time, they would burn it with the kids inside,” she adds softly. “I am afraid, but I have no place to go. Whatever happens, happens. Let them do whatever they want.”
Signs of destruction and intimidation are everywhere apparent: smoldering ashes of recently burned bomas in Malooni village, young Maasai warriors bringing animals to water sources at night to avert the police, villages overflowing with people and animals expelled from the grazing areas near the OBC grounds.
In Soitsambu, skeletons of cows and goats litter the center of the village near a group of some fifty recently arrived women. They are all reluctant to speak except Neura Anaryu, a tall and lanky 40-year-old. “There is not enough pasture, so the animals die,” she says, visibly angry, gesturing toward the dead animals. “We don't have anywhere to go. We're going to die like them, right here!”
Rolled in an old blue-and-white blanket and wearing a brown wool hat, a tall and elderly Maasai with a white beard emerges from the bush. Orkosilos Yaile was born more than eighty years ago in this area, where he has shepherded his cattle for decades. But on July 1, 2009, his life changed. That day, the FFU arrived and burned his boma. “The police told us, 'Move, this is not your land,'” he mutters in a gravelly voice, slowly walking toward the dung-filled clearing where dozens of his relatives, dirty and weak, sleep in the cold among the animals. The riot police came back on several occasions after his family rebuilt a homestead. “I used to have many more goats, but some were killed, many fled. My maize was taken away, and the youngest of my six wives miscarried,” he says dryly. “We never had such problems before. There was both hunting and grazing. It seems the government wants to sell our land to the Arabs. Are we back to the colonial era?”
In 1992 the government leased the whole Loliondo game-controlled area to a representative of Brig. Gen. Mohamed Abdulrahim al-Ali, then the UAE deputy defense minister, through the Ortello Business Corporation. The move prompted media reports and local protests against the lack of transparency in the hunting concession contract. But Madehele, the director of wildlife at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, brushed aside the allegations and stressed that OBC was granted a hunting license in a “proper” manner.
In game-controlled areas, the licensee is supposed to reach understandings with local inhabitants over land use. For years, the Maasais and OBC had a modus operandi whereby the nomads would avoid the OBC grounds during the three-month hunting season. But tensions arose last year after OBC offered a new contract to the eight neighboring villages. The villagers were to receive an annual 25 million shillings ($18,400) fee and refrain from any agricultural and grazing activities on nearby OBC grounds during the hunting season. Six villages signed, but two refused because the documents did not clearly delimit the respective hunting and grazing areas. However, it made no difference in the end.
In early July 2009, the FFU conducted evictions in the grazing areas of all eight villages, under the pretext that Maasais were degrading the environment. In late August, the district commissioner and OBC convened the chairmen of the eight villages and handed each of them 25 million shillings, a gesture meant to put them before a fait accompli and sow divisions among the Maasais. But the villagers refused the money, and the standoff continues.
The Maasais are seething at “the Arabs” and at the local authorities, whom they accuse of protecting OBC in exchange for monetary favors. They speak of “the king's palace” and the airstrip from where live animals are said to be flown to the UAE.
“We only cut branches to build our bomas,” says Arash village leader Konini Natuin. “OBC kills and captures wild animals, and I'm the one destroying the environment!”
The company has refused access to its headquarters and declined comment on the dispute with the Maasais. The authorities have been harassing NGOs and the media looking into the issue. (I did not identify myself as a reporter when I visited the area.) But the news eventually trickled out, prompting foreign diplomats to take up the issue.
In early August, the African Union's human rights commission fired a letter to President Jakaya Kikwete asking for clarification about the reports of abuses, which, if correct, would mean “the government of the United Republic of Tanzania would be failing its obligations to respect and protect human rights.”
Two weeks later, the Swedish and the British ambassadors co-wrote a missive to Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda on behalf of foreign donors in which they complained about the government's reluctance to meet and discuss “repeated reports of human rights abuse in connection with land disputes between farmers and other users of Tanzania's natural resources and pastoralist groups.” The letter cites the Loliondo reports as a “cause for serious concern, as they suggest that violence and numerous breaches of rights have occurred.”
In early September, the local authorities refused access to the area to representatives of six Western embassies, prompting the Danish ambassador to take the unusual step of lashing out publicly at the Tanzanian government.
The government has brushed aside the allegations, asserting that it was merely restoring order and accusing Maasais of crossing over from Kenya to escape a severe drought. Two lawmakers from the area persuaded Parliament to form an investigative committee to look into the incidents, but the report it was supposed to issue has been postponed, fueling suspicion among activists that the ruling party, which holds a large majority in Parliament, is trying to bury it. In addition, human rights groups have brought a legal case before the district court in Loliondo against the district commissioner, accusing him of unlawfully ordering the burnings. As a result of this scrutiny, the burnings stopped in late October and the Ministry of Land has pledged to demarcate the disputed areas. But local villagers and NGOs fear they will resume once attention shifts away, and authorities are preventing them from returning to the areas that were burned.
Madehele explained that “the demographic growth in game-controlled areas has led to more human encroachment and less space for animals. And nomadic people are proving especially problematic.”
To address the issue, the government is planning to use a provision of the new Wildlife Act that would simply ban human presence in game-controlled areas, just like in national parks and game reserves. The 2008 act came into force in December. In that light, the Loliondo events were no accident but in fact a preview of what could be taking place on a much wider scale in the years to come. All the more so when the populations involved hail from small and weak ethnic groups such as the Maasais of Loliondo or the Kuryas in Nyamuma.
“The authorities always come up with a new argument to expand the boundaries of wildlife areas, be it the need to preserve biodiversity or, more recently, the imperative to fight climate change,” says Veit of the World Resource Institute.
A crucial test of the authorities' true intentions will be whether they implement the court ruling ordering them to resettle and compensate the Nyamuma villagers.
Mwita Jackson, like most of his fellow villagers, is convinced that the Tanzanian government will never comply. Wearing dark blue rain boots and a light brown farmer hat, he briskly walks through the hills of Remaining Nyamuma. The stocky middle-aged man is clearly moved to go back to his former village, where other peasants now live in round thatch-wood huts. Wandering amid the fields of millet, maize, sweet potato and cassava, Jackson shows the place where his home once stood, the trees he planted and the fields he used to till. “I am a peasant, this is my life, not living in cramped rooms in town,” he says ruefully in front of the entrance of the Ikongoro Reserve. On a huge rock, a message is painted in large white characters: “Access Allowed Only With a License.” Jackson points to a ridge where the original Nyamuma village once stood, which is now covered by trees. “This used to be my home. Now I can't go in — only the gazelles can.”
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.