Stories from the Grassroots: The Greengrants Blog
Oct 30, 2013 | No Comments
The Maasai people are traditional pastoralists who live in what is now Tanzania and Kenya. For decades, colonial and modern governments have been taking land from them. Have you ever traveled to the Serengeti National Park, for example – or wished you could go? At 5,700 square miles (about the size of the state of Connecticut), it is the largest wildlife refuge in Africa. The Maasai were forcibly evicted from their lands there several decades ago in order to create the park. British colonials told the Maasai they could graze and cultivate on other lands, but then were evicted from those as well. The story goes on and on.
More recently, another attempt has been made to grab Maasai land. Tanzania’s tourism ministry wanted to create what it called a “wildlife corridor.” This “conservation” area would allow access to a big game luxury hunting and safari company from the United Arab Emirates with close ties to the royal family in Dubai. But the Maasai, who do not kill big game, would be forbidden from entering the area, which serves as their home, and provides crucial grazing land for their cattle.
Global Greengrants Advisor
East Africa Board
Enter Global Greengrants Advisor Makko Sinandei. Makko, who is very involved in land rights work, was committed to stopping this latest land grab. He realized that one of the key problems in the Maasai’s attempts to keep their land centered on traditional leadership. Over the years, colonialism has weakened the authority of Maasai traditional leaders by imposing systems that give power to government officials and people who make money. Makko saw that without strong leadership, communities were struggling to organize effectively to protect their land. In 2012, he gave a grant to a local Maasai leadership council so that they could create a shop that would sell maize. Their ability to generate income renewed their strength in the eyes of the community.
Then, in the summer of 2013, as the online advocacy organization Avaaz.org brought international scrutiny to this latest attempted land grab, Makko recommended another grant, this one to the Ujamaa Community Resource Team. The funds supported traditional leaders to organize community meetings in order to consult with the people, elect representatives, and create a land management plan. The funds also paid for the elders to travel to Parliament and demand that the land remain with the Maasai, and to generate media attention for their efforts.
Long story short, the combination of effective local organizing, strong traditional leadership, women’s participation, getting a small amount of money into the hands of grassroots leaders at the right time, and international pressure proved too much for the government. A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister announced that the tens of thousands of villagers will get to keep their land.Women played a leading role in the protests. Two thousand participated in community meetings, some of them walking a day and a half just to get there. In a brilliant move, they collected all of their membership cards to the ruling political party and delivered them in person to the party’s general secretary. According to Makko, this shocked the political establishment. “This was the first time the government realized that this was becoming a threat to their leadership,” he told me.
After the announcement, our East Africa coordinator, Janet Awimbo, told me: “I don’t think people who live in the West really understand. Loliondo is remote and the people are so marginalized. They don’t have access to the internet, don’t have the resources to make a long trip to Parliament. The small grant – of just $3,550 in this case – at just the right time made all the difference. It allowed people to be independent, to take the long trip.”
And Makko wrote to us:
“I would like to express my sincere thanks to Greengrants for the valuable support that enabled us to sustain the land movement which saved our grabbed land. This would not have been possible without your financial and moral support.”
For me, this story demonstrates the power and complexity of our work at Greengrants. We’ve been taught in so many ways that people from the West have the solutions. We swoop in with ‘development’ projects that often make problems worse than they were to start with. We tell other countries how they should run their economies. But this story illustrates the power of trusting local leaders to come up with solutions. Would Westerners have come up with these solutions, that bridged the traditional and modern and found a way to save the Maasai land? In this way, Global Greengrants is at once radical and conservative. By helping people to help themselves, we are working together to create a just and sustainable world.
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