A bitter land dispute has arisen in northern Tanzania, where land that has traditionally belonged to native Maasai herdsmen is being designated as a game-controlled area reserved for government-led conservation efforts. The Maasai claim land rights in the 1,500 square kilometers of the Loliondo District as herding and grazing grounds during the dry season. But the government wants to designate the land a wildlife corridor between two important conservation areas.
While the traditional lack of private land ownership in most African countries makes tension over land especially complex, the conflict between conservation attempts and land ownership is not unique to Africa. Chile, for example, relies largely on private ownership for land conservation. The largest swath of land is owned by American businessman Doug Tompkins, the founder of the North Face clothing company. But such landowners are under no obligation to keep their land free of encroachment, and can even abandon conservation all together for mining or logging contracts. In effect, native people have very little power to protect their land.
In Kenya, by contrast, Maasai herdsmen and ranchers have the ability to own land communally. According to the Kenyan constitution, which was revised in 2010, a group formed on the basis of ethnicity, culture, or common interest has the right to own “community land.” In the past, managing communal land proved difficult, and much of it was eventually sold to be developed. However, current Kenyan officials and researchers believe that the legal establishment of group land ownership will help protect the land rights of native people in the future.
One well-known historical example of the displacement of indigenous people from their land occurred here in the United States, with the creation of the National Parks. The National Park system came at a high cost for native people, who were banished from the land that had sustained them for thousands of years. The US government never acknowledged that native land rights were equally as important as land conservation, and failed to see that the two were not mutually exclusive.
Governments and policy makers need to address the possibility that native land use and conservation can easily co-exist, and do in many cases. The Maasai way of life does not necessarily interfere with wildlife migration or conservation. One approach to resolving the dispute would be to allow flexibility in land designation, permitting the Maasai to maintain land rights and continue their traditional way of life, while forbidding any type of development that would undermine conservation efforts.
– Kat Henrichs