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Why are Ngorongoro's Maasai at risk of being evicted again? Tanzania's conservation-tourism industrial complex wants them out.

Image credit Abir Anwar via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Since last year, as thousands of Maasai are at risk of being evicted from their homes, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has been in the news. For decades now, the residence of Maasai in Ngorongoro has been a concern for conservation authorities and NGOs, tourism companies, and the Tanzanian state—all of whom worry that they may be spoiling the natural beauty of Ngorongoro. Although the threat of dispossession has loomed large over Ngorongoro residents in the past, this time the Tanzanian government seems to be particularly serious about resettling thousands of Maasai pastoralists in the name of conservation.

To better understand why the Maasai are perceived as a threat to Ngorongoro, we need to take a look at the colonial beginnings and the postcolonial history of the conservation industry in Tanzania. By resettling the Maasai from the Serengeti to Ngorongoro in the 1950s (where other Maasai had already lived prior to the establishment of Serengeti National Park), the British colonial administration and international conservation interest groups had sought to protect the Serengeti from the pastoralists. In doing so, they promised the Maasai that they would never be evicted from the Ngorongoro highlands. At the time, the irony of protecting the Serengeti from the people whose land use and environmental conservation practices had led to the very creation of the famous Serengeti plains was apparently lost on the colonial administration and Western conservationists such as Bernhard Grzimek.

To European colonizers, resettling the Maasai was not only good for nature conservation, but for evicted populations themselves. To this day, people living around protected areas in Tanzania continue to experience a deeply paternalistic treatment by the state, which perceives them as backward and in need of modernization and development. The state has mobilized the colonial discourse of a civilizing mission whenever Maasai or other pastoralists are resettled in the name of “conservation” and “development” in Tanzania. While this colonial legacy persists today, what has changed since the end of colonial rule is the paramount role of the tourism industry in present-day Tanzania.

When Tanzania’s world-famous protected areas were initially created, tourism was hardly developed as an economic sector and poorly integrated into the global tourism industry. What is more, in socialist Tanzania under Nyerere, the role of tourism was hotly debated and deeply contested, as Issa Shivji’s 1973 edited volume Tourism and Socialist Development demonstrates (it is unfortunately out of print today). Should Africans endure the “extremely humiliating subservient ‘memsahib’ and ‘sir’ attitudes” in order to “create a hospitable climate for tourists” in return for foreign exchange? Can, in other words, the economic promise of tourism outweigh the price of “cultural imperialism”? These were central questions 50 years ago—questions that seem almost entirely out of place today.

Since the liberalization of the Tanzanian economy beginning in the 1980s, the state has worked closely with western conservation NGOs, donors, and private tourism companies to grow the tourism industry in the country. Today, tourism funds conservation projects across the country and is a source of wealth and power for Tanzania’s political and economic elites. In 2017, Ngorongoro alone was visited by almost 650,000 tourists and generated around 56 million USD in entry fees. Before the pandemic, the direct and indirect contribution of tourism to Tanzania’s GDP was almost 11 percent, and the tourism industry was Tanzania’s largest source of foreign exchange.

Nature conservation has thus become economically unsustainable without a vibrant international tourism industry. At the same time, tourism depends almost entirely on the conservation of Tanzania’s flagship species—most prominently its elephants and lions—in some of the world’s most famous protected areas, such as the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. It is this conservation-tourism industrial complex that offers Tanzania’s political and economic elites the justification to continue threatening rural people with eviction and resettlement. The more successful Tanzania’s tourism sector is, the more the state desperately tries to protect its cash cow from any potential risks. Tourism has thus become a trap. The state cannot live without it, while some of its people suffer from it.

Due to this questionable role of tourism, the state treats rural people living around protected areas as conservation subjects whose contribution as citizens is primarily judged in relation to their value for the conservation-tourism industrial complex. Through tourism ads and brochures, the Maasai are visually represented and celebrated as exotic conservationists when they attract more tourism. When it undermines tourism potential, however, they are vilified through media campaigns. Ultimately, state and conservation authorities see any group whose land use practices are perceived to threaten the generation of revenues from international tourism as economic saboteurs. In Ngorongoro, once people were perceived as a threat, a slow process of marginalization and “stealthy dispossession” was set in motion to render their land grabbable and local people relocatable.

We should not overlook—or worse, dismiss—this patronizing relationship between the rent-extracting state-conservation-tourism nexus and its rural subjects when we discuss environmental conservation issues, when we are concerned about the state of wildlife, or when we consider the next trip to protected areas in Tanzania. We should not overlook, in other words, how “tourism perpetuates a colonialist political economy in a postcolonial world.” Tourists who visit Tanzania indirectly contribute to strengthening this status quo and thus bear some responsibility. Whether they agree with it or not, international tourists visiting Tanzania’s world-famous protected areas are complicit in this politics of conservation.

What, then, can be done? Grassroots efforts from Tanzanian civil society to stop the evictions should be supported. Environmentally minded people could reconsider their donation practices and stop funding conservation organizations that—directly or indirectly—support the fortress conservation model in Tanzania and beyond. People considering visiting Tanzania as tourists can also do their part by demanding that tourism operators present Tanzania as a country populated by people and wildlife, not as an unfenced zoo whose violent history of evictions remains invisible in curated and sterile safari experiences. Tourists can also consider boycotting protected areas whose operation and conservation is bound up with the dispossession of people living in or around these areas.

Further Reading