Tanzania on Thursday began the resettlement of Maasai herders from the famous Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a move that rights activists have described as unlawful evictions.
The indigenous community have been living in the reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Northern Tanzania, for over a century. But now they face eviction as authorities claim their growing population is encroaching on wildlife habitat.
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Officials insist the move is voluntary.
Arusha Regional Commissioner John Mongella said around 296 families had opted to move to Handeni in Tanga, a district 600 kilometers south of Ngorongoro, registered.
“There is no eviction here, all people who (will) leave will be registered voluntarily and the government will make it easier for them,” he said in a video statement.
< The government has earmarked 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of land for resettled Maasai households, he said. But the community remains sharply divided on the issue, with many reluctant to leave the only home they have ever known.
“This eviction was never voluntary for the people of Ngorongoro,” said the Ngorongoro Resident human rights lawyer and activist Joseph Oleshangay told AFP.
The resettlement has raised concerns, and a team of UN-appointed independent legal experts warned that “it could endanger the physical and cultural survival of the Maasai. “
” This will cause irreparable harm and could amount to dispossession, eviction and arbitrary displacement prohibited under international law,” they said in a statement on Wednesday.
Tanzania has historically allowed indigenous communities like the Maasai to live in some national parks, but since 1959 the number of people living in Ngorongoro has skyrocketed from 8,000 to over 100,000.
The livestock population has grown even faster, from around 260,000 in 2017 to over a million today.
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The Maasai say authorities are trying to force them to evict their lands in order to organize safaris and private hunting trips for tourists. The government has denied these allegations, but the matter has sparked clashes between herdsmen and police.
One official was killed and several protesters injured during demonstrations in the town of Loliondo, Ngorongoro district last weekend, prompting outrage among activists.
The protest erupted as the government pushed to cordon off 1,500 square kilometers (550 sq mi) of Loliondo to create a wildlife sanctuary.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Hamad ordered Masauni pol ice to conduct a “review and investigation of all NGOs operating in Loliondo” and warn that “their operations should in no way interfere with national security.”
“The government will crack down on all NGOs who are breaking the rules,” he warned.
Amnesty International said on Wednesday the “forced evictions” in Loliondo were “both in scale and in scale ality shocking.”
“The authorities must halt ongoing demarcation and security operations in Loliondo and begin genuine consultations with the community,” it said.
In 2009, thousands moved from Loliondo by Maasai families to allow an Emirati safari company, Ortelo Business Corporation, to organize hunting expeditions there. The government canceled this deal in 2017 following allegations of corruption.
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