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A World Treasure in Tanzania Worth Saving

Lerai Forest

The allegations of forcible evictions of indigenous communities in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in northern Tanzania are spurious and misleading.

The NCA offers a cautionary tale of human settlements in wildlife-protected areas without collective guidelines and enforcement.

The Tanzanian authorities have exercised extraordinary care, compassion, and consideration in resolving a national conservation conundrum with global import.

The NCA as a protected area, recognized as a World Heritage Site, World Biosphere Reserve and Global Geopark, is like no other.

It is home to geologic formations from Pangea before the continents were formed; paleontological records of human evolution going back 4 million years including the earliest footprints of upright walking hominids; and the most magnificent African wildlife including the famed Serengeti migration.

In loose comparison to America, NCA holds the combined attractions of the Yellowstone, Lava Beds, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, and Crater national parks.

The NCA, covering 8,292 km2, is bound by the Great Rift Valley to the south and the short grass plains of Serengeti to the north. Its southern rim is marked by the world-famous trio of extinct volcanic craters – Ngorongoro, Olmoti, and Empakai – and unique cloud highland forests.

The Ngorongoro crater is the largest uninterrupted caldera in the world with a base area of 250 km2 surrounded by walls averaging 600 m. It is a veritable garden of Eden teeming with elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, buffalo, antelope, flamingos, cranes, etc.

The northern edge of the NCA along Lake Ndutu hosts the calving grounds for the 1.5 million wildebeest that constitute the awe-inspiring Serengeti migration. In between lies the 14 km long Oldupai gorge where Richard and Mary Leakey unearthed the fossil records of natural history and human evolution tracing back 4 million years.

They record the evolution of four different kinds of hominids including the “nutcracker man” Australopithecus boisei of about 1.75 million years ago; Homo habilis, the maker of early stone tools between 1.8 to 1.6 million years ago; Homo erectus, the larger-bodied, larger brained hominine that preceded the earliest modern humans Homo sapiens.

The NCA’s more recent human history is equally striking. About 10,000 years ago the area was occupied by hunter-gathers like Hadzabe, who use a language based on “clicks” similar to that of “san” or Bushmen of the south.  Only a few hundred survive living on the edge of Lake Eyasi, to the NCA’s south.

About 2,000 years ago the Iraqi agro-pastoralists from the Ethiopian highlands appeared in the area. The Central African Bantu tribes reached the area 500 – 400 years ago.

The pastoral warriors Datooga arrived in the region about 300 years ago and displaced the earlier residents. The Maasai came up the Nile to reach the NCA in the mid-1800’s, a few decades before the European hunters and explorers arrived on the scene.

The Maasai and Datooga engaged in ferocious battles in which the Maasai prevailed. Today, Maasai are the most dominant and pervasive of tribes throughout the NCA wielding considerable local and national political clout aided by strong support groups in European capitals.

In 1959, the Greater Serengeti-Ngorongoro game reserve was divided into two parts. The Serengeti National Park with no human settlements and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area accommodates pastoral settlements.

The historical records from the time are scanty and incomplete. In 1959, the colonial records estimate, that about 4,000 Maasai tribesmen living in the NCA and a similar number relocating from the Serengeti with a collective herd of about 40,000 – 60,000 cattle.

Contemporary estimates of Datooga and Hadzabe in the area are absent. Today the increasingly sedentary communities of the NCA have grown to over 110,000 with over a million cattle, sheep, and goats. The NCA is under severe demographic pressures of proliferating settled communities with permanent structures within the protected area and even faster agricultural and urban growth abutting its southern boundary.

The NCA of today is far from what was anticipated by the 1959 ordinance – few transient pastoral communities coexisting in balance with and contributing to the resource protection of the area. The present situation ill-serves both the communities and conservation.

The ecological integrity of the NCA, and the greater Serengeti ecosystem, is under severe sustained stress by unprecedented land degradation and development. The living standards of communities inside the NCA are demonstrably poorer than that of their sisters living outside with greater access to health, education, and markets.

Expanding settlements in the NCA understandably demand similar living conditions as those enjoyed by their brethren outside. The present impasse of irreconcilable and unmet expectations, deep dissatisfaction, and uncertain future is the result of over 60 years of trial and error with numerous policy recommendations.

The choice today is increasingly clear. Either allow the NCA communities similar benefits as at offer outside the NCA resulting in greater population growth and development to the inevitable and total erosion of its wilderness values or offers the NCA communities voluntary options for resettlement outside the conservation area boundaries.

The Maasai, just like the Datooga and Hadzabe will always enjoy preferred access to their cultural sites in the NCA. Political expediency has led to the present degradation of the NCA ecology and communities. Political resolve is needed to correct the course before there is nothing left to save.

Tanzanian President Samia’s proposed action offers an opportunity to chart a mutually beneficial future for the NCA and its communities. President Samia has instructed her Ministry of Land, Housing, and Settlement Development to provide 521,000 acres of prime land outside the NCA for voluntary resettlement.

In 2022, about 40,000 individuals from 8,000 households are expected to accept the offer. The government categorizes 22,000 of them who own no livestock as destitute. An additional, 18,000 are classified as very poor. Each household will receive a 3-bedroom home on 2.5 acres with additional 5 acres of agricultural land plus the use of communal grazing lands.

Resettled communities will also include schools, medical centers, marketplaces, and recreational facilities. The NCA will offer food supplies to resettled families for up to 18 months to ensure a smooth transition. Separate incentives of cash and relocation costs are offered to the NCA households who want to relocate to a land of their own choosing.

In 2022, another 2,000 individuals from 400 households are expected to avail of these incentives. These and additional voluntary relocation incentives will persist till 2029. Tanzania’s first Prime Minister Julius Nyerere, on his nation’s independence in 1961, announced the Arusha Manifesto pledging national commitment to wildlife preservation for the benefit of Tanzanians and the larger world.

President Samia’s farsighted action carries that legacy forward. To persist with the status quo is irresponsible, as the simmering conflict, unaddressed, will lead to a certain attritional demise of the NCA’s universal natural and cultural values.

Dr. Freddy Manongi is the Conservation Commissioner of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority that manages the NCA. Dr. Kaush Arha previously served as the Deputy Asst. Secretary. For Wildlife and Parks and the Associate Solicitor at the U.S. Dept for Interior.

Article written by : Freddy Manongi and Kaush Arha

About the author

Adam Ihucha - eTN Tanzania

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