Maasai community clash with Tanzania in court over eviction from Serengeti

Maasai herders near Tanzania’s famous Serengeti wildlife park have asked a regional court to stop the government intimidating witnesses supporting their legal bid to return to their ancestral land, a lawyer for the community said on Thursday.

Maasai from four villages in Loliondo, on the outskirts of the Serengeti - famous for its annual wildebeest migration - sued Tanzania in September for the right to return to their villages which have become part of a park.

“The government is trying to intimidate the villagers to withdraw the case,” Donald Deya of the Pan African Lawyers Union, who is representing the Maasai, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after a hearing in the East African Court of Justice.

“For the last three weeks, the police have gone back to the community and they are summoning leaders and they are arresting them,” he said, adding that about seven men were charged with attending an unlawful meeting.

Tanzania’s tourism minister Hamisi Kigwangalla said he was aware that the hearing had begun but declined to comment.

He has previously denied the existence of human rights violations, and said that the government has found a solution to the conflict in Loliondo that is acceptable to all sides.

“Activists cook up these things for their own gains,” he said on Twitter last month. “I went there and asked the people to volunteer any violation and there was none.”

The Maasai, a semi-nomadic people known for dressing in distinctive red robes and colourful beads, have fought government evictions for years, calling for recognition of their customary rights to land they have roamed for generations.

Rising numbers of large-scale land deals in Africa are pitting indigenous people against investors, with resource and tourism projects bringing money and jobs but campaigners fearing loss of land for marginalised communities.

Mass evictions of Maasai from Loliondo took place in 2014, activists say, ostensibly to make way for a wildlife corridor although the land has ultimately been used by a United Arab Emirates-based company as a private game park.

“They are now seeking interim orders to be allowed back to their land until this case is heard,” Deya said.

The Maasai represent one of the largest pastoral groups worldwide, with about 1 million roaming across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, according to rights campaigners (Reporting by Kevin Mwanza; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.