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Who needs Africa's land more: us or wildlife?

Thembi Mutch

29th December, 2009

An explosive mix of animals, people and economics means that land in Africa is becoming more valuable - and more contested - than ever

You'd think that an increase in the African elephant population to more than 150,000 individuals since the ivory ban in 1989 would be good news. And it's true that the worldwide crackdown on ivory trading has been remarkable success.

But there is a side of the story that goes significantly under-reported.

Although they look beautiful on our television screens and through tourist lenses, elephants do huge damage to local crops. Earlier this year six elephants were killed in West Kilimanjaro, as thousands of local people – many Maasai - stood by and cheered. The incident was hushed up: elephants hacked to death are bad for business. But the evidence suggests that the situation may be set to become even more serious.

In Tanazania, since the gradual elimination of poaching (of bush meat - small antelope, rather than elephant ivory) and the granting of new hunting licences, elephants and other wildlife are starting to return to areas once abandoned. In the interim, however, their former migration routes have been settled and farmed by national investors and villagers, struggling to keep up with the food demand of a growing population.

Both wildlife and people need access to land. In both cases, the numbers are increasing, fast.

Land use, indigenous rights, management and conservation are highly contentious political issues in Tanzania. Both wildlife and people need access to land. In both cases, the numbers are increasing, fast. The question, then, is whether more land can be found and used in ways that support local populations, wildlife, and tourists, and yet don’t exploit the environment.

Hunter or hunted?

Hunting, ironically, is considered a good choice in terms of raising money by the government wildlife division and some ecologists. Tanzania now only lags behind South Africa as a big game hunting destination. Hunting can earn good money - one African bull elephant can cost $15,000 to hunt (for a foreigner) and, managed correctly, hunting encourages local people to preserve their sources of revenue - the wildlife.

Fred Nelson of the Tanzania Natural Resource Foundation says:
'The key policy issue to sustain wildlife is to spread the benefits so that they are felt by the landholders, at a local level. The story of conservation is the struggle between government, hunting agencies and villagers trying to control the most valuable asset, the wildlife'.

Examples such as Ikona in Western Tanzania and Eastern Tarangire are cited as instances where communties benefited by dealing directly with tour companies and charging for access, or selling  hunting rights. At a smaller level new hotels potentially bring markets for local farmers to sell their produce to them, and crafts to tourists.

Evictions

But hunting - or more particularly establishing the reserves that support it - is not an easy solution. In creating the famous Mikomazi game reserve in Ngorogoro in 1988, 5,000 Maasai pastoralists were evicted. They lost everything: there are still many hapless Masai selling bangles and trinkets in Arusha and even thousands of miles away in Zanzibar.

In Loliondo, four hundred Maasai families are currently being forced to abandon their homes according to local NGO UJamma. For six months of the year they are denied any rights to their own land, whilst the several thousand acres are used exclusively by hunters from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The case is being debated in parliament at the moment, and the surrounding secrecy, potential corruption, and death of at least one journalist is an embarrassing blot on Tanzania’s reputation.

Richard Ndaskoi, a Maasai with over fifteen years of working with NGO and community groups in Tanzania, explains that the issue is like a set of balancing cards, all interlinked, and easy to topple.

'The policy is to reimburse people when they are moved off land by private investors or government wanting the land for game reserves or parks,' he says. 'Actually what happens is the infrastructure is so cumbersome, the sums awarded so small, and the distances so great that they don’t get paid. Masai became third class citizens on their own land. Remember some of these people depend on cattle for everything; it is wealth, food, bride price and an indicator of status, even though many Masai would actually prefer white collar jobs and education!'

Foreign ownership

Of course, land itself is valuable, and Africa's land is increasingly in demand. Much of East Africa's prime land is already owned by overseas investors. Paul Tudor Jones, a US billionaire, owns the only private (and extremely valuable) hunting concessions in the Serengeti, Tanzania.
Meanwhile, Bill Gates, Paul Allen (his business partner) Richard Branson, Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Dubai recently put in bids to buy up tracts of Africa, including land in Tanzania, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Congo. The ailing state-owned conglomerate Dubai World has several large hotel contracts in Tanzania, Zanzibar and Rwanda.

In many African countries the mechanisms to monitor land appropriation, such as a companies register, don't exist. So although there is an auditor general in Tanzania - and an anti-corruption unit - bypassing them both is straightforward: they monitor only government or donor money, not private investment.

Government departments seem happy to play along:
'There is an increasing trend for government departments to raise levies and fees, and to collect that money in such a way that it doesn’t go through the auditor general, doesn’t come under scrutiny from the anti-corruption unit, and is very difficult to account for,' says Jean De Villiers, Executive Director of the Whale Shark Conservation Society in Mafia Marine Park, Tanzania. 'It’s basically parallel taxation.'

The problem with selling land in this way is that it often rides roughshod over local people. Title deeds were not common until recently. Land can be leased to hotels and game parks, but unless it has conservation status, there are often no stipulations about what it is used for, or indeed incentives for potential investors to find out what the national policy directives are for land use. 

Tourist paradise?

One option that should work for both people and wildlife is tourism. In Zanzibar alone 87 new licences for hotels were granted in 2009, according to government statistics. Yet no statistics exist on how land is proportioned, or how much is available for agriculture: on a small island under 90 km long and 40km wide, with a million inhabitants and a dwindling water table, it seems odd that these are not easily accessible facts. Similarly, as international hotels spring up apace in the capital Dar Es Salaam, few draw attention to the fact that the majority of the seven million inhabitants have no working sewage or clean water.

Some defend the national parks system fiercely:
'There are now fifteen national parks in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro produces the largest amount of revenue which supports other parks,' says Jo Anderson, an environment consultant based in Arusha and regular Mountain guide on Killimanjaro. 'The fact is the system IS working!'.

But others say that the money gained from the parks doesn't find its way back to where it is needed, especially when government departments refuse to 'cross-fund' each other. The detractors say that money is not, despite the propaganda, being used for building infrastructure in poor communities.

Local knowledge

Meanwhile, as people haggle over land prices and use, animals are continuing to tread centuries-old routes. Right now, the migration routes of the wildebeest, elephants and zebras run across corridors of land at the base of Kilimanjaro. The rainfall decline due to deforestation, the melting of snow on Kilimanjaro and increased tourism means the animals' migration routes have changed. Elephants now walk (or rather crash through) valuable land that has been cultivated for years by villagers, causing understandable annoyance. This year, according to Director of Tanzania Wildlife Research institute (TAWIRI), Simon Mduma, at least 200 families around the Serengeti have lost all their crops from elephant damage.

Many believe that the answer lies in genuine community consultation, which can take years, and a great deal of knowledge and skill. Several NGOs are now actively involving communities in prime wildlife areas to encourage them to respect wildlife and learn systems of law, tenure and advocacy. Says Fred Nelson, 'The Maasai are resilient and have established and effective systems of consultation and consensus, systems of handing down knowledge, these need to be properly used: they are good conservationists, conservation has benefited from them, they have not benefited from conservation'.

Tanzania is in the middle of an uneasy balancing act between animals, people, investors with an eye on the long game, and the less scrupulous ones out for a quick buck. The best intentions of governments often fall by the wayside as they lack research facilities, infrastructure, vehicles and people power to implement their plans.

Too much intervention from government and business however, and communities begin to regard wildlife as government property, even though these governments don't have the cash - and arguably the moral authority - to do any more than play cops and robbers around wildlife.

Ultimately, any strategy to bring harmony back to relationship between man and beast in Africa must be sensitive to practical realities. As Simon Mduma, Head of TAWIRI wryly observes: 'Biodiversity and conservation is good for the intellectuals; it’s hard to believe it when you are losing, when your relatives are being killed, or you can’t eat.

Thembi Mutch is a freelance journalist based in Tanzania

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