Regional court dismisses Maasai eviction case against Tanzanian government

DAR ES SALAAM, Sept 30 (Reuters) – A regional court on Friday dismissed a case brought by a group of Maasai villagers claiming the Tanzanian government used violence to evict them from their ancestral lands in the north of the country.

Rights groups said the ruling sent a dangerous message that indigenous peoples can be evicted from their lands in the name of conservation.

The government said four Maasai villages are located within the boundaries of Serengeti National Park, which was originally demarcated under British military rule for play but redesigned for conservation by later administrations.

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Land disputes between Maasai villagers and the national park management surfaced in 2012, but later in 2017 the government ordered residents to leave and security forces then forcibly evicted them.

In 2018, the East Africa Regional Court of Justice issued an interim order to end the evictions, pending a final judgment.

Rights groups and the Maasai community say the villages are outside the park boundaries and villagers have faced a violent police crackdown aimed at forcing them off their traditional lands to make way for hunting trophies by tourists and conservation.

On Friday, three judges of the East African Court of Justice wrote in their decision that the case was unfounded, saying the Maasai had failed to prove that the eviction had taken place outside the park.

They said much of the evidence of alleged violence and brutality was hearsay or inconsistent.

A representative of the Maasai community said the villagers would appeal.

“We are not satisfied with the ruling and believe the court erred in analyzing the evidence we provided,” said Jebra Kambole, who represented the Maasai in the interim ruling.

Fiore Longo of Survival International, an indigenous rights organisation, said the judgment was a blow to the Maasai and to indigenous peoples around the world.

“The tribunal sent a strong signal to the international community that evictions and human rights violations against indigenous peoples should be tolerated if they are committed in the name of nature conservation,” Longo said.

Tanzania has long been criticized by the international community for its violence against the Maasai. In 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the government for violating their human rights.

The government denies violating their rights.

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Reporting by Hereward Holland and Nairobi Newsroom; Written by Hereward Holland; Editing by James Macharia Chege and Aurora Ellis

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Elna M. Lemons