BLOG | Guns, fire and violence in the name of conservation in Loliondo, Tanzania.

Exploring the relationship between wildlife conservation and communities

Teklehaymanot G. Weldemichel is a PhD fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. He has a Master of Philosophy in Development Studies and has previously worked as a lecturer of Development Studies at the Institute of Environment, Gender and Development Studies in Mekelle University, Ethiopia. Read more about Teklehaymanot’s work on his website.

On the morning of Sunday the 13th of August 2017, I arrived in the village centre of Ololosokwan, a village adjacent to the north eastern corner of the Serengeti National Park, to meet with the village’s leaders and to get permission to do fieldwork.  A few minutes into our discussion with one of the village leaders, he got a phone call. I could see him become furious about something that the person on the other end of the phone told him. When I asked him what was going on, he told me that the national park authorities were burning the homes of local people in his village along the borders of the Serengeti National Park.  Our discussion was interrupted and he suggested that I immediately leave the village as local people may confuse me with government conservation workers and retaliate- I later found out that there were similar incidents where villagers attacked researchers due to their perceived affiliation with government. As we drive towards the Serengeti National Park to get to a safe place, we came across park rangers and government security forces burning houses along the road. Security forces were pouring fuel on grass-roofed pastoralist homes to set them on fire while the owners helplessly stood by and watched their homes turned into ashes in front of their eyes. I later found that more than 200 homes were burned down on the same day alone and more than 5000 within the next three months.

This brought back vivid memories of my childhood in Ethiopia. During the last years of the war against the Derg regime, government soldiers would come to the villages, burn farmers’ homes and slay anyone who was not able to flee to safety. The village where we lived was burned down five times between 1975 and 1991. Ever since the war, my parents always recall how farmers in the village spent the rainy summer of 1985 in a church building because all their houses were burnt down by the military.

I never thought I would be reminded of these difficult experiences. After the incident in August 2017, it took me days to deal with my own personal emotions. The image from that day still haunts me and I feel it will continue to do so.

Serengeti National Park rangers burning Maasai houses in Ololosokwan on the 13th of August 2017

As a researcher, to witness this kind of action and to claim to stay neutral is to deny who I am and what made me who I am. It is to claim that my own personal and family history, motivations, and position as an object of violence by national states do not matter. What would rather be more productive to me is to reflect on how my personal history and emotions may bring another level to an analysis of a similar event in a different context. Consequently, to deal with my experiences, I have tried to understand how the Tanzanian conservation authorities justify violence of this scale: why do they choose such heartless actions as burning down the homes of villagers? What has been striking to me is how the justifications for the use of violence in Tanzania are similar to how violence was justified in Ethiopia. Let me elaborate.

After the incident, I met and discussed with several authorities and they often offer three major justifications for the use violence in the name of conservation. These are; the need for establishing buffer zones, conception of traditional-ness and the cross border migration (of people and livestock) from Kenya. The Tanzanian Wildlife Act of 2009 underlines the need for the protecting wildlife resources and habitats in areas outside the traditionally state-controlled national parks.  Such areas are home to pastoral and agro-pastoral communities. The second argument that conservation authorities put forward in their support for the evictions is that traditional communities have changed their ways of lives and their new lifestyles are not friendly to wildlife conservation. For people, to stay close to wildlife-protected areas, they have to stay ‘traditional’ and behave in certain ways that are presumed traditional. Any alteration from such expectations may lead to evictions as they and their activities are no longer considered conservation friendly. Third, Ololosokwan is located close to the border with Kenya and one of the main arguments behind the eviction campaign and the use of violent measures was that many of the community members who were evicted are Kenyans who immigrated to illegally graze in the Serengeti national park.

The violent eviction was legitimized through the ‘othering’ of the Maasai as both non-traditional (thus not conservation friendly) and as Kenyans (invaders).

The East African (November 8 2017)Bringing in the narrative about the Kenyan-ness of the people is particularly interesting as it makes conservation an issue of national security. Framing it this way provides the state a legitimacy to use the national security apparatus.

The main objective of my PhD project is to explore the relations between wildlife conservation and communities who live within or adjacent to protected areas in the Greater Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem. Wildlife conservation spaces in Tanzania extend beyond the boundaries of traditional state-controlled protected areas and include surrounding communal and grazing land mostly used by pastoral and agro-pastoral communities. Land under what are now as exclusive state-controlled protected areas was also previously carved out of what used to be traditional community grazing areas. Communities were thus relegated/pushed into their current settlements adjacent to the protected areas around the end of colonial rule some 50 to 60 years ago. These spaces, settlement areas, have undergone a multitude of changes since then. The state continued expanding protected areas into places previously designated as community lands and allocated for human settlement and use. After the experience elaborated above, I particularly saw the need to probe into the context in which the decisions were made to commit such violent actions in the name of conservation in the areas of focus in my study. This desire to expand protected spaces, it seems, is at the heart of the violent actions I witnessed.

I am not personally against conservation. However, I am strongly against violence in the name of conservation. I want conservation practice that is rather less violent and one that recognizes the needs and interests of local people. Besides, I want the state to leave local people alone if it cannot work along in a peaceful manner. Violent relation of the state and wildlife conservation authorities with local communities may, and in some cases already does, lead to hostility between communities and wildlife and to the eventual exclusion of wildlife from the segments of landscape, which are left for human use. It means that wildlife conservation areas will be more isolated than they currently are. Moreover, in a system where the state takes all revenue generated from wildlife conservation, and where communities are alienated and marginalized, there is greater chance that communities will stand against what they believe is causing their state of deprivation. As one local interviewee from Ololosokwan put it, “they [conservation authorities] need the communities more than guns” as communities are better placed to protect wildlife than military actors.