Saturday, July 04, 2015

Wildlife Before People

The international reputation of Boston-based Thomson Safaris, a sister company of the long-established Thomson Family Adventures, has soared. The outfitter and its trips have won almost a dozen recent awards and accolades, including a citation in the National Geographic Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth list, Condé Nast Traveler's World Savers Award, Outside magazine's Active Travel Award, and for Wineland, Thomson Safaris' director, a lifetime-achievement award from the Adventure Travel Trade Association. The company is a three-time honoree of the Tanzania Tourist Board: 2001's Tour Operator of the Year, 2005's Humanitarian of the Year, and 2009's Tanzania Conservation Award.

The company's website includes a promotional video for a 12,000-acre tract called Enashiva, a Maasai word for "happiness"owned by an American couple named Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland, who paid $1.2 million for the property's lease under the name of their Tanzanian-registered company, Tanzania Conservation Ltd.—leasing it because Tanzania does not allow foreigners to own property, only extended land titles and where now at the property's luxury tent complex tourists pay $535 a night for an all-inclusive safari package, shows smiling Maasai dance and sing as they give thanks for the community projects—including building classrooms and a medical dispensary—that the company has enabled. It was set on the doorstep of Serengeti National Park, and human encroachment had driven away what had once been a rich wildlife population, including giraffe, wildebeest, and big cats. Thomson and Wineland were enticed by the challenge of bringing the animals back. Their first step was to put limits on grazing for the health of the environment, to control overgrazing and grazing was prohibited during much of the year, particularly during tourist high seasons—which happened to be when most grazing there occurred. Some local residents in the area obeyed. Many did not. Tourist development and droughts, made more intense by the effects of climate change, have left his villagers with few viable options for their herds. The Thomson land was the best, and only, reasonable option. For pastoralists, there is no need more fundamental than sufficient land to feed their animals—cows and, recently, sheep and goats—which function both as an economic foundation and as a social system (in crude terms, the Maasai with more cows have more power).

The wilful trespass drew consequences: frequent dispersal or temporary confiscation of herds by Thomson guards, beatings and arrests, prolonged detention in the local jail, and two shootings to date, according to locals' testimony. Residents speaking out against Thomson Safaris were routinely called in for police questioning. Journalists and aid workers who went to Loliondo to investigate started getting kicked out by local authorities. In 2009 and again in 2011, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ordered the Tanzanian government to look into human-rights-abuse allegations on the property, but the requests went nowhere. Rumors of a conspiracy between Thomson Safaris and the Tanzanian government began to circulate. In 2008, a New Zealand reporter was murdered under suspicious circumstances, shortly after investigating the company's operations in Loliondo.

Loliondo elder Tulito Olemguriem Lemgume’s boma was just inside the property newly titled to Thomson Safaris. According to Lemgume, local authorities told him and a handful of neighbors that "the land now belonged to an investor and we could no longer live there. We told them we have nowhere to go. We said, 'This is our place. This is our home.'" So the police arrived with gasoline, he said. The bomas went up in flames. Then "the police shot at us," Lemgume recalled. "It's like we were the animals and they were chasing us away."

Tourism was also touted as the best way for Maasai to benefit economically from the land without "harming" it any longer. They could sell handicrafts and charge for tours through their homes or for performing traditional dances. In Loliondo, tour companies arrived in the early 1990s with their own objective of luring zebras, rhinos, and lions back to the areas where pastoralists had once lived. The region had appeal for developers because by setting up just outside the Serengeti there was access to wildlife populations—which don't respect park boundaries—but with lower fees and fewer bureaucratic hassles than operating in the park would have entailed. The Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), an ostentatious Dubai-based outfitter that flies in Arab royalty to hunt and kill rare cats for pleasure, was apportioned vast "hunting blocks," giving the company the right to conduct its expeditions throughout virtually the entire Loliondo territory. OBC, the largest tour operator in the area, had been under fire for years for land grabbing and political corruption. Maasai resistance and foreign attention helped to thwart a bill that would have turned 40,000 square miles of Maasai land into a protected "wildlife migration corridor," with the company as its new lease holder.
A little while later, Wineland and Thomson read a newspaper ad for a plot of land with a title for sale. They were enticed not only by the possibility of reestablishing wildlife populations but also by the property's proximity to the Maasai themselves. Pioneers in the global-adventure-travel business, the couple had been specializing in "community-based tourism" for decades in more than a dozen countries. Rather than attracting business with exotic animals, Wineland said, they had always placed "pictures of people on the front cover of [our] brochures." They had done some charitable work in other Maasai areas of Tanzania and were excited to bring their business model to Loliondo. For Wineland and Thomson, making their business benefit the local Maasai was a prime objective. "We believe in a symbiotic relationship," Wineland has said. "Tourism has to benefit us, our guests, the wildlife, and the communities." They hoped this land would be the newest jewel in the company's emerging ecotourism empire, "a beautiful thing for us and our mission."

"The problem is not tourism," Ndekerei said "That can be OK. Sure, let women sell jewelry to foreigners. Build a school. The problem is when others make decisions without including us. If someone comes to your land and there is no conversation and they didn't get the land in the right way, that man cannot fit into your society. It's not right that they decide what is right for everyone."

In 2010, three villages adjacent to the Enashiva property filed a case arguing that the land's former titleholder, TBL, the state brewing company, abandoned the property so long ago that it legally reverted to village land long before the sale to the safari outfitter. Since Maasai villagers had not been consulted regarding the sale, this would make the 2006 transaction invalid under Tanzanian law. The case is based on a legal principle known as adverse possession. If an owner of a land does not prohibit someone coming in, doesn't do anything to dispute them using the land for a certain period of time—in Tanzania it's twelve years—then that piece of property reverts to that person. It's like squatter's rights, but much stronger. They  argue that the brewery that sold the title to Thomson Safaris' owners abandoned the property 16 years before Wineland and Thomson ever saw the ad in the newspaper. The sale was therefore illegal, they argue, and the land title should be returned to its rightful owners, the villages.

"We are victims of our own conservation," Maanda Ngoitiko explained. Ngoitiko is the founder of Pastoral Women's Council (PWC), a Maasai women's organization that provides scholarships for girls and organizes women's rights groups nationwide. But the arrival of tourist operators in Loliondo has pulled her into the land struggle.

An expert in Arusha on land issues. "There is no question the government is on the side of Thomson Safaris," he told me. "The government gives a kind of respect to investors so long as they pay taxes and bring in tourist dollars. For the public, the government uses the reasoning of putting the environment above all else. Investors can even violate human rights and the government is not going to look into it or punish them for it."

The court battle holds significance far greater than the fate of 12,000 square acres in the geographic center of Africa. "This is not an exceptional story of evil conservation," said Ben Gardner, an anthropologist who chairs the African studies program at the University of Washington. What's unique, he said, is that the plaintiffs are arguing in favor of the most controversial idea in conservation politics: giving the land back to its original owners. "If something is for sale and you buy it, how could you possibly be culpable of wrongdoing? Investors get a veil of moral cleanliness. You don't have to account for any history of dispossession or colonialism or the consequences of conservation work."

There are community-based tourism models in Tanzania and elsewhere in the world in which locals retain land rights so that they can negotiate whatever matters most to them, be it grazing rights or farming acreage or fishing access. ‘&Beyond’ leases acreage from a local community on which they operate tours. Members of the community limit their herding and police themselves. It's not a perfect arrangement, the company and villagers told us, but both sides benefit from a peaceful coexistence. There are also conservation models in which native groups administer their own business projects—touristic or otherwise—on protected land. Success of these projects will be essential for the health both of natural environments and indigenous communities in an era of climate change and growing populations.

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