Why Petrostates Keep Seizing the Serengeti

Why Petrostates Keep Seizing the Serengeti | Atmos

Maasai villagers of Kayapus Village (population 6000) in the Ngorongoro Ward.

A carbon credit company run by an Emirati sheik just gained control over 8% of Tanzania’s land, displacing nearly 100,000 Maasai people in the process.

A waning moon, still imprinted in the periwinkle sky, gazes over Maasai herders, who have been awake with their cattle since daybreak. Their vibrant plaid shawls, called shukas, punctuate the dull-sage savannah, revitalized by the ongoing rains in northern Tanzania. The Maasai, an ethnic group Indigenous to East Africa, are iconic figures here on the edge of the Serengeti—a name derived from the Maasai word “siringit, meaning “endless plains.” It has been their ancestral land for at least half a millennia. Yet, the boundaries of their territory are more nebulous than ever. 


Initially founded as Tanganyika’s (a territory under the colonial British military occupation) first national park in 1951, the origins of the Serengeti are rooted in violence. 72-year-old Kosen Kiewua was born and bred in the eastern regions of Moru and Sironet, part of modern-day Serengeti National Park. In 1959, when he was 16, Serengeti National Park was cleaved from Ngorongoro, the latter designated for traditional Maasai land use. This development booted him, along with his family and neighbors, from their birthplace. They were forced east, eventually settling in a remote village called Ololosokwan in the Ngorongoro district, home to more than 16,000 Maasai as of 2022.


“That was the genesis of everything happening up to now,” he said, donning a baseball cap and sitting on a white plastic chair in Ololosokwan—one of Tanzania’s epicenters for violence and land grabbing from the Maasai. Despite being uprooted from their ancestral land, here, they still abide by traditional practices, residing in manyattas (huts) built from twigs, mud, and cow dung; households revolve around bomas (livestock enclosures). Their lives and identities are inextricably bound to their animals. The wellbeing of one signifies that of the other. But their lives are changing—quickly. 

Lake Natron, northeast of Ngorongoro crater, is a salt lake where nearly 75% of the world’s lesser flamingos are born.

Maasai villagers of Kayapus Village.

Giraffe grazing in Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Although a longtime chief of Ololosokwan and highly regarded, Kiewua is no longer a wealthy man. In 2009, the first violent spate of evictions in Loliondo culminated in arson, kidnappings, and theft perpetuated by government police: 660 of his 700 cattle were seized. After the recent consecutive droughts, only seven remain. With virtually no assets left, his children had to drop out of school.


“Growing up, I’ve never heard or experienced anything like this,” Kiewua said, twirling his walking stick between his hands. “We have no hope in life. We just want to die because we are left with nothing.” 


Displacement didn’t end with that national park. By the late 1980s, luxury game hunters swooped in, seizing land for their leisure. And now, Arab sheikhs have eyes on their land to use in a dubious carbon credit market. The dark aspects of Tanzania’s history are metastasizing, exiling the Maasai in the name of conservation once again.


The Serengeti remains clear in Kiewua’s memory, even half a century after they were first evicted—Ololosokwan simply doesn’t compare. Those plains had everything; the conditions were perfect for both livestock and people. There was an abundance of water, pasture, and salty minerals for the cows to lick. Leaving behind his parents’ cemetery was a particularly harsh blow. Kiewua doesn’t think he will ever be able to pay homage to them again.

Naipanoi Kursas, 49, was left to care for her three children after her husband fled from the violent 2022 evictions in Loliondo.

“No one is supporting us because these issues were introduced by the government. We can’t cry to someone who is responsible for the evictions. Our cries go nowhere.”

Kosen Kiewua

chief, Ololosokwan

“No one is supporting us because these issues were introduced by the government,” the chief said. “We can’t cry to someone who is responsible for the evictions.” He shifts on his stool. “Our cries go nowhere.”


The Tanzanian Maasai’s right to exist has been an arduous cause: the parochial government has a long history of failing to recognize their birthright and right to natural resources. As early as 1989, Kiewua heard whispers of uneasy change as the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC) showed interest in their land. The game-hunting firm, owned by Brigadier Mohamed Abdul Rahim Al Ali, the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) deputy minister of defense and a member of the royal family, wanted “to demonstrate to all the seriousness that the Arab world is giving to wildlife conservation.” That purchase went through for an “unspecified fee” in 1993


Government officers and police continue to evict the Maasai to this day, often relying on brutality and persecution. In 2022, long-simmering tensions imploded when game wardens cordoned off 1,500 square kilometers in Ololosokwan. Babu Rotiken, a Maasai lawyer with grassroots firm Traditional Ecosystems Survival Tanzania, estimates that during this raid, tens of thousands of bomas, houses, and storage units containing maize were burned to the ground. 


Luciana Weyne, a senior media campaigner at the human rights organization Avaaz, said that the government dilutes these actions when they speak of displacement. “These evictions are called voluntary relocations, but our partners state these are not voluntary. It’s worrying that the government is continuing to push for a conservation and tourism strategy that wants the Maasai out of their land across the country,” Weyne said. 

Maasai villagers of Kayapus Village, kept warm by their shukas amidst the rainy season.

A beacon placed by government agents in Ngorongoro in 2022, marking future private hunting reserves.

Zebras and other wild animals are abundant throughout Ngorongoro.

Ngorongoro crater, a protected UNESCO heritage site.

Villagers from Kayapus Village, one of Ngorongoro’s wards, say that agents from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (a state-owned organization with the mission of preserving, conserving, protecting, and managing the region while ‘also striving to make it the world’s top tourism destination’) have been approaching them with offers to relocate them to Msomera, a completely foreign place 350 kilometers east. The Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, describes the relocation site as “critically flawed.” This March, 46-year-old Selema Kotama was asked to move. She refused, not wanting to leave her ancestral land “where my great-great-grandfather was born.” 


“They told me that we have the option now. Later on ‘they will have to make tough decisions,” Kotama recounted. “I’m not worried (about moving) for now. In the end, I’m ready to die for my land.”


The government isn’t acting alone. In early 2019, UNESCO and the Frankfurt Zoological Society allegedly attempted to relocate more than 100,000 Maasai from Ngorongoro to establish a so-called conservation area—in reality, it’s all for tourism, said Edward Mauru Nduleti, a village counselor and chairperson of the Ngorongoro pastoral council.


In an email, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre spokesperson insisted “we have made clear over the past two years, our organization has never asked for the displacement of the Maasai people, or of any other local communities.” The Frankfurt Zoological Society, which did not respond to requests for comment, still claims they have been “supporting our Tanzanian partners for more than 60 years.”

“These deals fundamentally restrict the Maasai’s access to their land—this will isolate them from a myriad of ecosystem services, including food, medicine, mental wellbeing and cultural identity.”

David Obura

Director, CORDIO East Africa

Nduleti scoffs at such statements. “Frankfurt Zoo says they’re here to teach Tanzanians how to conserve… But what do they know? There’s no professional statistics that show there are less rhinos year by year because of the Maasai. It’s not about conservation, it’s the big potato of getting money from the Emirati.” 


Naipanoi Kursas, a 49-year-old who lives 15 kilometers from Ololosokwan senses a more nefarious ulterior motive. “This happened because of how conducive, beautiful, and unique our land is,” she said. “The government had their eye on it and seized it. They hate us, our culture, our lifestyle, and our livestock.”


Indeed, it was this unique and beautiful land that once attracted tourism groups and game hunters, seizing land in the name of conservation. Now it’s taken with a new suitor: rapacious carbon credit companies, bringing another iteration of the same ethical issues.


Late last year, Tanzania reached a deal to hand over roughly 8% of its land to Blue Carbon, a nascent carbon offsetting company headed by UAE Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum in the UAE. The basic idea of carbon offsetting is that companies, rather than reducing their own emissions, can sequester greenhouse gasses elsewhere—for example, by purchasing a carbon credit that protects or restores a certain amount of forest. Although theoretically intuitive, in practice, experts doubt the marketplace’s validity. Some sellers overestimate the amount of pollution mitigation, and others make it up entirely. What’s happening in Tanzania is no exception. 

A Maasai moran (warrior) near Ngorongoro, a UNESCO heritage site.

Traditional manyattas (huts) of Kayapus village in Ngorongoro.

Naarmasin Saning’o, a resident of Kayapus Village, was approached by agents of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority to relocate from her ancestral land to Msomera, more than 350 kilometers away.

If these forests weren’t under threat of deforestation to begin with, “preserving” them through carbon credits adds no additional value—a violation of a concept called additionality. Notably, Indigenous people, including the Maasai, are famously strong stewards of their environment, not motivated by monetary perks for their inherent conservation practices. Is displacing them truly adding value to the forest? 


Beyond the legitimacy of the credit scheme, this new era of Maasai displacement—which Nduleti calls “genocide”—is becoming a hotbed for human rights concerns. Blue Carbon, which did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, claims that carbon projects would benefit local communities; involve strict auditing; and require free, prior, and informed consent. However, experts, such as David Obura, the Director of CORDIO East Africa, said that this is insufficient to protect the local communities. 


“Indigenous systems have grown and evolved with ecosystems over time: the culture and identity of folks like the Maasai are deeply, physically tied to land tenure and rights. These deals fundamentally restrict the Maasai’s access to their land—this will isolate them from a myriad of ecosystem services, including food, medicine, mental wellbeing and cultural identity,” said Obura.


In Ngarasero Ward, home to 9,000 Maasai, land grabs have already done just that. The village sits on the shores of Natron, a saline and alkaline lake where thousands of flamingos breed each year. In 2022, government officials marked off nine square kilometers of their land without meaningful, participatory consultation with residents. It’s not clear whether that will be a game reserve or carbon credit site—obfuscation is part of the venal government’s playbook. “It was a real shock,” said 56-year-old Elizabeth Lemakanga, “Since our village land is legally registered.” 

Ol Doinyo Lengai, a sacred Maasai mountain, viewed through a boma (animal pen) in Lake Natron’s Ngarasero village.

One of countless wildebeest in Ngorongoro, part of the famed, seasonal migration.

Now that it’s olari—the rainy season—they should be taking their cattle to above the escarpment, toward the base of Ol Doinyo Lengai, a sacred mountain that the Maasai worship. But after the 2022 land grab, that’s no longer possible.


Christopher Mollot, a former village chairperson, fears where this is all going. “Is the government doing this because we have (wild) animals?” he ponders. If the goal is to protect wildlife, excluding the Maasai may have the opposite effect. “In Arusha, Dar es Salam, you don’t find these animals as you do in Maasai land. But the government doesn’t see that we’re playing a part (in conservation).” 


This historical amnesia may be the death of Tanzanian Maasai identity, Mollot believes. He gazes over at Ol Doinyo Lengai, magnificent in the sunshine. “Maybe, by being conservationists, we’re bringing this to ourselves, and it’s not a good thing.” 


In the distance, hundreds of cotton-candy pink flamingos preen themselves, padding through Lake Natron’s dark, warm mud. The air shudders in the heat, braced, like the people on the land, for the next cloudburst.

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