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How Maasai Women Are Resisting Land Grabs

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic pastoralist community in Tanzania that proudly practice an indigenous way of life closely tied to their land and cattle.
Maasai women in traditional clothing and jewellery in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Maasai women in traditional clothing and jewellery in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Image Courtesy: Flickr

In Mwanza, Tanzania, Nairukoki Leyian-Naisinyai tells me that here, “Corporations come with papers from the government claiming that they have the right to our land.” She points to the large corporations that have entered the lands of the Maasai people to mine rubies and tanzanite. The Maasai can neither assert their rights to the land nor benefit from the mining of these precious resources.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic pastoralist community that proudly practice an Indigenous way of life closely tied to their land and cattle. Their ancestral lands border the East African Rift Valley, the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The government aims to expand the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania and plans to turn it into a game reserve.

Every activity depends on the land,” says Rosa Olokwani-Mundarara, who—along with Leyian-Naisinyai—fights for the rights of the Maasai people to have greater control over their lives. The Maasai community, like other pastoralists, find themselves being marginalised by the capture of their lands for mining, tourism and conservation.

According to the Legal Resources Centre and Oxfam, the globally recognised principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) can be extended to African human rights law and customary law, providing a legal basis to resist displacement. Joyce Ndakaru, who works at the nonprofit HakiMadini (or Right to Minerals), tells me that while FPIC offers important legal protection, the precarious situation of the Maasai land tenure—in particular women’s land tenure—rights poses challenges for women like Olokwani-Mundarara and Leyian-Naisinyai.

Conservation or Displacement?

Pastoralists, such as the Maasai community, have lost their land to mining, tourism and conservation as a result of unjust practices that are rooted in colonial processes. Desperate to provide water to their declining livestock herds (62,000 have been lost between December 2021 and January 2022 due to the drought in Tanzania), the Maasai have been excluded from areas reserved for tourism, trophy hunting and conservation.

For three decades, the Maasai of Loliondo have been resisting displacement by a game reserve that will be managed by Otterlo Business Corporation based in the United Arab Emirates, which has alleged ties to Dubai’s royal family. An attempt in June to demarcate 540 square miles of this land for the game reserve was met with protests. Many Maasai were injured by police. Twenty-four are currently facing charges for the murder of a police officer; their lawyer argues that this is a “politically motivated” trial.

More than 2,000 Maasai, mostly women and children, have fled into Kenya, seeking medical care and protection. In a statement to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Maasai of Loliondo denounced the land grab as an existential threat.

Soon after Tanzania won its independence in 1961, Prime Minister Julius Nyerere argued that African socialism would be rooted within African traditional society (although traditions that marginalised women would still have to be overcome). Nyerere implemented village collectivisation projects to restructure rural production systems.

In Define and Rule (2012), Mahmood Mamdani explains that this restructure of the production systems was done to dismantle the legal and administrative arms of the colonial state to ensure that these structures served a different political vision of forging unity by overcoming differences under one legal regime. As the global economic crises in the late 1980s led to a shift toward neoliberal globalisation, Nyerere’s approach was considered outmoded. Challenges with collectivisation programmes had devastating economic outcomes in Tanzania. The World Bank criticised Nyerere’s economic policies as overemphasising equity rather than productivity.

Privatisation under structural adjustment in the 1980s expanded mining, agriculture and tourism sectors. Land tenure reforms a decade later became a focus of contestation, with women’s groups aiming for statutory property rights, while pastoralist groups sought to protect customary rights. The former raised the threat of integration into markets on detrimental terms through titling, while the latter offered to protect communal rights (and remained steeped in patriarchal practices). Women pastoralists have remained locked into this harsh situation.

Struggles of the Maasai Women

The challenge that women are facing is that we do not have the capital to engage in mining, and do not own livestock,” Olokwani-Mundarara tells me. We are talking about how women’s economic activity, particularly in Olokwani-Mundarara’s Maasai community, is controlled by men. “Men want women to go to the market and to provide food. Failure to do so results in beating,” Olokwani-Mundarara says.

Any attempt by a woman to explore a livelihood strategy that cannot be controlled by men is also met with violence. Leyian-Naisinyai says, “Women are expected to do housework and care for the livestock… [owned by] men.” Meanwhile, climate change is only adding to the issues faced by women. A journal article published in Environmental Policy and Law (2021) highlights how the climate crisis is “exacerbating sexual and gender-based violence against women.”

When Olokwani-Mundarara decided to speak publicly about the need to resist corporations that are threatening to take their ancestral lands, the elders, who are all men, verbally humiliated her as “seeking [the] attention of men.”

Joyce Ndakaru of HakiMadini, who is also Maasai, explains how she had to overcome prejudice to secure her right to education and now organizes Maasai women to reflect on the conditions within which they live and learn about their rights to property and to consent to the development model that serves their interests.

Ndakaru tells me about the experience of being a Maasai woman in a deeply patriarchal society: “Maasai women are born, grow and live in a community where men make decisions [about] everything, including those… [related to] women’s needs.” Ndakaru makes it clear that Maasai women are not treated as equal to the men in their community, but are instead infantilised and are seen as sources of free labour. Ndakaru says, “Women are labeled as property, [childlike] and ignorant; hence, their participation in decision-making is very low.”

Ndakaru further tells me that this prevents Maasai women from being able to build their own autonomy. She says, “This puts Maasai women in a pool of poverty, marginalisation and oppression. Studies have proven that if women are empowered, given equal positions as men and their contributions are appreciated, they are really strong and genuine activists in the community.” To resist land grabbing, women must assert their rights to contest control and ownership over land and natural resources. Ndakaru concludes: “Land, leadership and strong income-generating activities are among key elements to ensure silent voices, including [those] of women, are brought up, respected and advocated [for].”

Reflecting on this reality, Olokwani-Mundarara and Leyian-Naisinyai affirmed that they aim to secure a title to resist land grabbing. A four-year study published in the Journal of Peasant Studies (2016) finds that Maasai women who have pursued individual titles still struggle to acquire formal titles due to prevailing patrilineal practices at village-level governance. Instead, according to the study, by being rooted in “collective action,”

Maasai women can increase their “access to knowledge, social relations, collective identity, and authority” by asserting their rights to access land, which enables greater political control. As Ndakaru, Olokwani-Mundarara and Leyian-Naisinyai continue their journey in organising against corporate-led land grabbing by asserting FPIC, and in pursuing land tenure titles, they have an uphill struggle ahead.

Hibist Kassa is the research coordinator at WoMin African Alliance. She is the author of “Ethiopia at the Crossroad: The Pitfalls of Narrow Nationalism” for the Agrarian South Network Research Bulletin (2021) and “Researching Women and Gender in Africa: Present Realities, Future Directions” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Women’s Studies (2021).

Source: This article was produced by Globetrotter.

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