From Tanzania, Ethiopia, Botswana - Africa's 'small people' sacrificed in the name of the economy

The Haratin people account for 40-45% of the total population of Mauritania, but are mostly slaves

THE Tanzanian government recently issued a public statement refuting claims that there were plans to evict members of the Maasai community from their ancestral land in the name of hunting, as was reported widely by local and international media. However, this would not have been the first time that a similar thing came to pass in the East African nation. 

Since 1992, the Ortello Business Corporation - a hunting tourism company from the United Arab Emirates - has flown in wealthy clients to shoot lions and leopards to the detriment of nomadic Maasai cattle herders who are blocked from using pastures in the hunting grounds. The land was allocated to OBC in 1993 under controversial circumstances involving the minister of tourism, Abubaker Yusuf Mgumia, and became known as “Loliondogate.” 

Mgumia allegedly leased the entire Loliondo Game Controlled Area at Ngorongoro to an army brigadier from the United Arab Emirates as a private hunting ground. In 2009, the Tanzanian government then went on to introduce a new law completely outlawing farming and herding in a 1,500sq km stretch of the Game Controlled Area. 

The same company, OBC, is the one named in the recent accusations against the Tanzanian government in which a proposed 4,000sq km stretch of land on the edge of the Serengeti National Park would be created as a “wildlife corridor”, serving the hunting company and evicting 40,000 Maasai pastoralists, directly or indirectly affecting the livelihoods of 80,000 people. 

Unhappy history

The Maasai have had an unhappy history of losing their land in Tanzania since the British moved them from the Serengeti in 1959, but provided them living space in the Ngorongoro highlands. This has continued under nationalist governments. 

The hunting industry has grown considerably in the last two decades and Tanzania is now one of the leading hunting destinations in the world - trophy hunting generated roughly $75 million for Tanzania’s economy from 2008 to 2011.

Threats which affect marginalised African communities, the “small people”, in the name of development or the economy are commonplace across the continent. This is particularly true of indigenous communities who depend on their natural environments for all of their economic activities, and “minor” communities who lack the voice to protest against government abuses.                         

Though the majority of communities that have been sidelined in the name of development will be those found in rural areas, this is certainly not always the case. 

In the heart of Nairobi

In Kenya a struggle over land is happening in the heart of the capital, Nairobi, between the Nubian population and the government. The Nubians, approximately 100,000 strong, are one of the oldest communities in the country having entered Kenya as early as 1884,  brought by the British from Sudan to help secure colonial rule in Kenya. 

Unable to return home they settled in various parts of Kenya after their service. One of these areas is “Kibra” or Kibera as it is more famously known - a former military exercise ground where the East Africa Protectorate army administration allowed its Nubian ex-soldiers and their families to settle. Today it is a sprawling slum with hundreds of thousands of people packed in an area of 550 acres, and where the descendants of these ex-soldiers form only a small minority. 

But with no recognition as an ethnic group until recently with the 2010 constitution, and because their claim to land in Kibera has been contested by successive governments, they are unable to claim or own any of the original 4,197 acres legally given to them as community land. Despite promises that the Kenyan Nubians would be given 288 acres, this still has not happened.                         

The added pressure of house demolitions to make way for road construction in the slum has made the situation particularly desperate for the Nubians. 

The Omo Valley people

Meanwhile in Ethiopia, Omo Valley communities, such as the Mursi and Dasanech groups, are encountering growing threats to their livelihoods. As it stands frequent droughts, national parks with fences and cultivation already threaten their natural resources. But the largest threat is coming from the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam, known as the Gilgel Gibe III Dam, and associated land grabs for plantations, in the Lower Omo River. 

The objective of the project is to enhance the hydropower generation capacity of the country through developing a plant with a capacity of 1870 MW and with an annual energy production of 6,500 GWh. This in turn is expected to raise the present 800 MW installed capacity of the country by 234%. The dam will also make large-scale irrigation in the Lower basin possible by controlling the flow of the Omo River.

This however will impact on the Omo river’s annual flood, which the communities depend on to support riverbank cultivation and grazing lands for livestock. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s policy of “villagisation” is forcing the relocation of approximately 260,000 local people from 17 different ethnic groups who live in the Lower Omo to make way for vast plantations. This process was enforced by the military, and numerous reports of killings, beating, rapes, and imprisonment of local people were made public by a recent report, “Ignoring abuse in Ethiopia: DFID and USAID in the Lower Omo Valley” by the Oakland Institute. Rights groups reported that many villagers in the area had been removed to provide up to 375,000 hectares in South Oromo for proposed sugar and cotton plantations.

Ethiopia has ambitions to become one of the world’s 10 biggest exporters of sugar, but advocacy groups believe that these economic ambitions spell “ecological collapse and hunger for the 500,000 indigenous people” in the area. 

The Twa people

The Twa people of Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are facing similar challenges in terms of eviction. For the past 30 years Twa communities in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo have been expelled from their forest lands to make way for conservation and agricultural projects. 

Today these groups continue to live near the margins of their forests but with very few resources. In DRC for example the Twa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park were evicted from traditional territories in the name of wildlife conservation - this despite the fact that these (originally) hunter-gatherers were widely recognised as the descendants of the first inhabitants of the forests of eastern Congo. 

The Kahuzi-Biega National Park is a vast area of primary tropical forest dominated by two volcanoes, “Kahuzi” and “Biega”, the park is also home to one of the last groups of eastern lowland gorillas - consisting of only some 250 individuals. But the park does not seem to be solely used for the conservation of its spectacular flora and fauna. The main area where the metallic ore Coltan is mined contains the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and there are reports that the DRC used the space inside the national park to mine more Coltan. Coltan, found mainly in the eastern regions of the DRC, is a vital component in the capacitors that control current flow in cell phone circuit boards. As a result of the technology boom, at one point the price of Coltan was as high as $600 per kilogram

The extraction of resources in the DRC has also impacted greatly on the lives of the Mbuti people, or Bambuti, people. Deforestation, gold mining, a hunting ban and modern agriculture has all become a threat to their food supply. A lack of legal protection combined with no formally established and recognised boundaries means that there can be a continued appropriation of their lands by both logging companies and conservation projects. In 2002, the government established a “Forest Code”, with 40% being zoned for commercial exploitation and 15% zoned for conservation. The remaining 45% is available for concessions. Bambuti tenure was not included in the code. 

Botswana’s San community

For the San “Bushmen” of Botswana, even though they won a landmark case in 2006 against the government which allowed them the right to return to their ancestral land after they were forcibly evicted, they are banned from hunting, and forced to apply for permits to enter their land. 

This is because the San’s ancestral home is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve - the second largest wildlife reserve in the world and the richest diamond-producing area in the world. The Gope mine, opened in September this year in the reserve, is said to contain a diamond deposit worth an estimated $4 billion. 

Diamonds were discovered in the reserve in the early 1980s and even though the San are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years, nearly all of the San were forcibly evicted from the reserve in 1997, 2002 and 2005. 

Bushmen traditionally lived in Southern Africa in; Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia,  Zimbabwe and Angola, with loosely related groups in Tanzania. Today virtually none live purely by hunting and gathering due to pressures - like the ones that Botswana’s San have encountered. For these San today, Botswana’s strict policies means they are rarely able to hunt, and arrested and beaten when they do, and many are dependent on government handouts. 

The Ogoni in Nigeria

At times it is the by-product of economic development, not forcible eviction, of groups that leads to their detriment. In Nigeria for example the Ogoni community living in the Niger delta are subjected to hazardous levels of pollution as a result of over 50 years of oil operations in the area. 

The oil has earned the country approximately $600 billion in revenue over the past five decades, but a UNEP study found that the community living in the area had been exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in air, water and soil due to oil spills which occur with “alarming regularity” and residents had been exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in air, water and soil. 

According to the 2006 National Census approximately 832,000 people were living in Ogoniland. The Ogoni have lived in the Niger Delta for hundreds of years in close-knit rural communities, their livelihoods based on agriculture and fishing - activities that put them highly at risk considering petroleum hydrocarbons

These can enter people’s bodies when they breathe air, bathe, eat fish, drink water or touch soil or sediment that  is contaminated with oil. It is estimated a clean-up operation will take up to 30 years to return contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and ecosystems back to full health. 

Ultimately, indigenous communities in Africa have been subjected to “economic sacrifice” over resources - particularly land - for decades. For some the community is “small” enough that they can be sacrificed with some international outcry but minimal local bother. In some cases however, the community is so large that a different form of control appears to take place. 

Mauritania’s Haratin

The Haratin people of Mauritania are an indigenous community who have survived removal, forced labor and economic deprivation at the hands of both French colonial forces and the nationalist government. 

Today, even though slavery was officially banned in 1980 and, in 2007 Mauritania is one of the countries in which slavery is the most deeply anchored. But these slaves are not trafficked and rarely bought or sold. Instead, they inherit their status through their mother, working for the same families generation after generation. 

Rather than being physically forced to obey their masters, Mauritanian slaves are psychologically bonded through centuries of tradition. Incredibly, the Haratin people community accounts for 40-45% of the total population of Mauritania. 

The most recent estimate put the population at approximately 2.5 million. Since a huge number of the Haratin are slaves, or emancipated slaves struggling to re-integrate into society, they pose little threat to an economy that has operated without almost half of its population demanding rights to land. Their land rights are frequently violated and as a result of the Land Reform Act of 1983, lands Haratin have been cultivating for generations under feudalistic conditions are subject to land grabbing and can be leased at any time to national and foreign investors.


San - Dietmar Temps

Dasanech - Rod Waddington 


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