Maasai conservationist strives to protect Indigenous rights because ‘land is life’ (commentary)
- “As a member of the Maasai community in Tanzania, I am all too aware of how for thousands of years, Indigenous communities have been the caretakers of the environment, protecting their lands and respecting wildlife,” a new op-ed says.
- Dismas Partala argues that Indigenous communities can offer a more sustainable solution to advancing conservation, and at a lower cost through the biodiversity protection roles they play.
- A conservation program his organization developed for Indigenous-led conservation secures a communal land title deed known as ‘Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy,’ which has resulted in elephants, cheetahs and wild dogs being spotted with greater frequency.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
The idea that ‘land is life’ has been at the core of what I do since I began my journey in grassroots conservation.
I was born in the Loliondo district on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, where Maasai land rights have frequently been disputed. Experiencing first-hand what it feels like to have your homeland stripped away from you, I grew up with a clear sense of what was right and wrong.
This awakened a vocational calling in me and I knew I had to be the one to support the many Indigenous communities suffering from the continuous encroachment on their land and housing.
As a member of the Maasai community in Tanzania, I am all too aware of how for thousands of years, Indigenous communities have been the caretakers of the environment, protecting their lands and respecting wildlife.
Despite making up just six percent of the global population, today, they continue to safeguard some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, with at least a quarter of the world’s land area being managed or owned by Indigenous peoples and local communities.
Over the last two decades, I have been working to help secure land rights for the local Hadzabe community, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes. Depending on plants for food and medicine, they have lived sustainably from the forests of northern Tanzania’s Yaeda Valley, close to the highlands of world heritage site Ngorongoro Crater, for centuries.
However, like many other Indigenous peoples, since the 1960s, the Hadzabe people have seen 90 percent of their nomadic land disappear as a result of the growing settlements and the ensuing territorial disputes.
Unsurprisingly, the situation is further aggravated by the effects of climate change drying out rivers and stunting grass growth.
Through my role as a program coordinator for the Ujamaa Community Resource Team, I have aimed to maintain and preserve this symbiotic relationship between nature and the Hadzabe people, while also allowing grazing provision for neighboring communities.
I spent weeks living alongside the tribe, sleeping on weathered animal hides and eating the food they ate, to grow my understanding of the importance of the tribe’s connection to the wildlife and natural resources that surround them.
The experience taught me that Indigenous communities can offer a more sustainable solution to advancing conservation at a lower cost through the role they already play in their day to day lives.
Yet their contributions often go unrecognized.
As such, in 2011 my team and I developed a unique model for Indigenous-led conservation, which secures a communal land title deed known as ‘Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy,’ aiming to protect Indigenous peoples’ territories and culture.
Since then, we have scaled it to help communities across northern Tanzania, reaching approximately 100,500 hectares of land and bringing connectivity for wildlife beyond and between protected areas.
It is important to facilitate governance and legal tools such as village certificates and zoning laws to ensure people feel safe and able to thrive.
However, securing these areas is more than just about avoiding potential conflicts between tribes. It is essential to raise awareness of these issues amongst the public, platforming the work undertaken by Indigenous communities so broader audiences can fully comprehend the magnitude of the positive change they make.
Thanks to the model we developed, the biodiversity in protected areas has flourished with elephants, cheetahs and wild dogs being spotted with greater frequency.
Going a step further, in 2011 I helped the Hadzabe community sign a twenty-year contract with Carbon Tanzania to sell carbon offsets on their behalf. Higher payments are made for trees that remain unharmed than the price they would fetch if cut down, providing an economic incentive to conserve forest lands.
To date, 71,700 trees have been saved by the project due to strong tenure rights for the Hadzabe community aiding 61,000 people from 12 villages through investments in education, healthcare and enforcement of land protection.
See more coverage of Tanzania conservation here.
My vision is for a connected and healthy landscape that supports the resilience of Indigenous people, livestock, and wildlife. Local people should be seen as custodians of their land and its wildlife rather than a threat.
However, with the outside world continuing to encroach, this is never easy to achieve. Tourists increasingly drive south from Ngorongoro, which has an estimated 750,000 visitors annually, to visit the tribes living in the area.
In addition, the world is approaching the brink of irrevocable damage with the climate crisis. Devastation has been inflicted on swathes of the world, extreme weather is increasingly driving displacement of people in Africa, and rapid changes to ecosystems are causing the loss of many species. While we are witnessing these effects on the ground, it is not only from local efforts, but international attention, that these problems can be addressed.
It is therefore vital that our work does not go unrecognized. Initiatives such as the Tusk Conservation Awards, for which I was a finalist in 2022, offer a platform to not only celebrate the work of African conservationists but to look ahead to how we move forward together into a new era, with new challenges and new opportunities.
Recognizing the extraordinary people who protect Africa’s irreplaceable natural heritage helps to shine a light on their valuable work. Step by step, it helps us to gather momentum, against all the odds.
While Indigenous communities continue to step up for the planet, they cannot continue to do it alone.
Dismas Partalala is a Maasai grassroots conservationist based in the Loliondo district of Tanzania.
Related audio from the other side of Africa from Mongabay’s podcast: Two experts discuss conservation opportunities and challenges in the Congo Basin, listen here:
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