Dar es Salaam – Tanzania has charged 20 Maasai protesters over the killing of a policeman during a demonstration against the government’s decision to cordon off land for wildlife protection, according to a chargesheet seen by AFP on Friday.
The clashes erupted last weekend in Loliondo in Ngorongoro district, where Maasai herders protested against the government’s push to reserve 1 500 square kilometres (580 square miles) of land to create a wildlife protection area.
One officer was killed and several protesters were injured during the demonstrations, sparking anger among the Maasai who have accused the government of trying to force them off their land in order to organise safaris and hunting expeditions.
The government has rejected these accusations, claiming that it wants to protect the area from human activity.
Police have now charged 20 of the protesters in connection with the policeman’s killing, according to a chargesheet signed on Thursday, with the case filed at the resident magistrate court in Arusha.
“It is now official, our relatives and our leaders in Loliondo have been maliciously charged (in) a murder case,” Onesmo Olengurumwa, the coordinator of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, said on Twitter on Friday.
“These include those who were illegally detained one day before the killing of the police officer,” he said, adding: “This marks the end of any negotiations.”
Tanzania has historically allowed indigenous communities such as the Maasai to live within some national parks, including the Ngorongoro conservation area, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But they now face the threat of eviction, as the authorities contend that their growing population is encroaching on wildlife habitat.
‘Depend on grazing’
The pastoralists and some local lawmakers believe the demarcation, which will leave herders with access to 2,500 square kilometres out of 4 000, will reduce grazing land in Loliondo.
“The 2 500 square kilometres are already loaded with district offices, hospitals, schools and colleges,” Ngorongoro legislator Emmanuel Ole Shangai said in February as the plans were under discussion.
“Some 23 villages with over 73 000 people depend on the area, (which is) being protected, for grazing,” he added.
The violence in Loliondo has triggered outrage among campaigners, with Amnesty International describing it as “shocking both in its scale and brutality.”
“Authorities must halt the ongoing demarcation and security operation in Loliondo, and begin genuine consultations with the community,” it said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Hamad Masauni has ordered police to investigate all non-profit organisations operating in Loliondo, warning that “their operations should not disturb national security in any way.”
In 2009, thousands of Maasai families were moved from Loliondo to allow an Emirati safari company, Ortelo Business Corporation, to organise hunting expeditions there.
The government cancelled that deal in 2017, following allegations of corruption.