Will ecotourism rob Maasai of their land?

"When struggles over conservation involve questions of development, local people are often seen as parochial and culturally uninformed. This is one of the ways that colonial legacies continue to influence contemporary politics almost 50 years after most African nations have achieved their independence," says Benjamin Gardner. (Credit: Anita Ritenour/Flickr)

The new book Selling the Serengeti: The Cultural Politics of Safari Tourism examines the relationship between the Maasai people of northern Tanzania and the influence of foreign-owned ecotourism companies. University writer Peter Kelley recently spoke with Benjamin Gardner, the book’s author and an associate professor and chair of the African studies program at the University of Washington.


What’s the concept behind this book?


In 2006 an ecotourism company purchased land from the Tanzanian government for a nature reserve to protect African wildlife and benefit local communities. Projects like these abound across the globe under the name of community conservation or integrated conservation. Though some are more successful than others, the premise of using Western knowledge and markets to transform landscapes for conservation is rarely questioned.

In the communities known as Loliondo, however, the largely Maasai community organized and resisted the project on the grounds that it took away their land and enforced a colonial idea of conservation where people had no place.


What has happened since then?


Almost 10 years since the land was purchased the project is still in the center of a political maelstrom. Despite the company’s best efforts to win support from the community, most residents continue to organize against the project. In doing so, they have come together to voice their own vision of conservation that is compatible with their pastoralist livelihood.

This might sound like an all-too-familiar story of an indigenous group being displaced and dispossessed of its land by foreign investors in the name of progress and development.

The twist, however, is that the communities see some tourism companies as allies in their political struggle. I wrote this book to understand why this was happening and what we could learn from it, as well as to tell the exceptional story of communities fighting against dominant ideas and powerful actors.


You write of the changes that “neoliberal” reforms brought to Tanzania and the African ecosystem known as the Serengeti. Would you explain?


Tourism is often seen as a passive activity, one that simply adds value to already existing areas. But tourism in Tanzania is an industry that depends on specific notions about African nature and wildlife, what their value is. and how best to protect them.

Nested in these common understandings of the meanings and values of African wildlife are discourses—ways of thinking—that empower certain groups to speak for African nature and wildlife. These empower Western conservationists over local people. In fact, Maasai residents of northern Tanzania have historically been viewed as a threat to the very landscapes they have managed for hundreds of years.

The late 1980s brought the fall of Tanzania’s socialist government and the onset of structural adjustment reforms. Liberalization led to the dismantling of many state institutions and opened new possibilities for civil society groups to organize.

These Maasai were particularly active in building grassroots organizations to articulate longstanding claims to land and natural resources, as well as to their own political voice. With the opening up of the economy came an increase in tourism investment, which unleashed new interests on the landscape.

While most tourism companies see themselves as economic actors, they play an equally important role in the politics of conservation and development. With limited resources for development, state institutions, and local communities often depend on their relationships with investors to manage their land. In this new paradigm relationships with investors become proxies for longstanding struggles over land and civic rights.


The ecotourism company stressed conservation and development. But you also noted the “implicit idea” that “foreign whites are in a better position to care for African nature than are the African residents of that place, in this case the Maasai.” How prevalent is this colonial thinking here in the 21st century?


In the film, Serengeti Shall Not Die, famed German zoologist and conservationist Bernhard Grzimek says that the Serengeti is the “cultural heritage of the whole of mankind.” On their own, statements like this may sound generous and innocent. But this quote and the film are one of many different examples where the universal value of African nature is upheld as fact. This discourse is more than a way of thinking about Africa and African wildlife—it is a way of acting.

For example, when the ecotourism company purchased land for their own nature reserve, they directly benefit from the power of this discourse. When Maasai challenge them and their true interests, the question of money is easily pushed aside for more ethical considerations.

The ecotourism company echoed Grizimek directly, saying, “We don’t own this land. It is for our children and our children’s children.” Such statements can either sound ridiculous—given they purchased the land for $1.2 million dollars—or simply reflect the common sense belief in conservation as a universal value.

Conservation as we know it today in Africa was set in motion under colonialism. While many independent governments like Tanzania have embraced conservation for their cultural heritage and economic productivity, conservation thinking continues to favor certain ideas and the people who advocate those ideas.

In the case of Loliondo conservation, this thinking continues to empower people who “speak for the universal value of African nature.”

When struggles over conservation involve questions of development, local people are often seen as parochial and culturally uninformed. This is one of the ways that colonial legacies continue to influence contemporary politics almost 50 years after most African nations have achieved their independence.


You conclude describing a land-rights victory of the Maasai people in dealing with the Tanzanian government. What do you think the future holds for the Maasai, and for the tourism industry in the Serengeti?


The struggle over land rights and conservation is a very fluid dynamic. The Maasai have recently lost a court case against one of the tourism companies described in the book. The hopeful part of the story is that the Maasai have continued to advocate for their vision of conservation and development.

Ideas alone don’t often stop powerful transnational interests and actors, but ideas that lead to collective action—locally, nationally and internationally—do matter profoundly.

Against all odds Maasai in Loliondo have continued to show that their ideas do matter and have value despite not fitting neatly into popular narratives about conservation and development. Their efforts have so far prevented several attempts to create new protected areas on their land.