Eviction of Tanzania's Maasai shows need for indigenous rights in global nature pact

Members of the Maasai ethnic community in Kenya march during a protest against the eviction of their compatriots from Tanzania, holding a banner

Members of the Maasai ethnic community in Kenya march during a protest against the eviction of their compatriots from their ancestral land in Tanzania in Nairobi, Kenya June 17, 2022. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

In Tanzania, Maasai people are being evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation and economic need - something a new global nature accord cannot allow

Jennifer Corpuz, from the Kankana-ey Igorot People of Mountain Province in the Philippines, and a lawyer by profession, is global policy and advocacy lead for Nia Tero; Lucy Mulenkei is a Maasai from Kenya and co-chair of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB).

U.N. climate and nature summits usually take place far from the conflicts that plague indigenous peoples - whether those who invade ancestral territories without permission are seeking to protect nature or to extract wealth from resources such communities consider priceless. But not this time.

Just 400 km (249 miles) from where officials representing about 195 countries are meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya to negotiate the final draft of a global pact to conserve nature, thousands of Tanzania's Maasai are under siege.

Battling teargas and live ammunition launched against them by Tanzanian government forces, just over the Kenyan border, Maasai are being violently evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation and economic necessity.

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These actions violate a 2018 injunction issued by the East African Court of Justice. They also paint a vivid portrait of fortress conservation, a model for protecting nature that fuels conflict and endangers nature because it excludes the communities that often manage biodiversity best.

The scale of the evictions taking place in Tanzania is unusual, but the story is familiar to indigenous peoples on almost every continent.

The two of us - a Maasai activist from Kenya and an Igorot lawyer from the Philippines - are among dozens of indigenous leaders in Nairobi this week for the latest negotiations linked to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Many of us have been attending such talks for decades.

We have made significant progress in influencing the outcomes of meetings linked to the CBD, and we expect to do the same here in Nairobi this week.

The co-chairs of the U.N.'s CBD working group that is tasked with coming up with a plan for nature said last year that, "(our) intent is to guarantee that the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities will be respected and safeguarded".

Yet good intentions are clearly not enough to prevent the humanitarian and ecological catastrophe the entire world is witnessing in Tanzania. Most of us understand that our governments cannot be trusted to successfully implement climate and biodiversity agreements.

Despite this, a growing body of evidence supports indigenous peoples' involvement, concluding that success can only be achieved if our rights are a priority and if indigenous groups are allowed to play a central role in designing measure for protecting biodiversity.

According to analysis released last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), environmental group WWF, the U.N. Environment Programme and other high-level expert institutions, the ambitious goals that CBD negotiators are debating in Nairobi cannot be achieved, "without the lands and territories recognised, sustained, protected and restored by indigenous peoples and local communities".

So, what is our message to the climate and biodiversity negotiators at the two major U.N. conferences convening this year - the first in Sharm-el-Sheik in November and the second now planned for Montreal in December? They must focus on strengthening indigenous rights, specifically, and human rights more generally.

'Guardians of our land'

Negotiators of the global biodiversity deal may take comfort in the current draft for implementation, which suggests that words will be enough to encourage our governments to defend our peoples. Indigenous peoples know, however, that is not sufficient.

But non-binding texts do not work in bringing about the transformational change the global community is looking for. A human rights approach to conservation - including the scaling up and enforcement of the land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities - must be made explicit.

Recognising our rights and obtaining our free, prior, and informed consent must be a starting point for any effort aimed at protecting nature and benefiting from our traditional knowledge.

With strong rights, we represent a strategy for mitigating climate risk and biodiversity loss, and for stopping climate solutions from harming biodiversity. Yet we cannot accomplish this alone.

"Analysis of potential future pressures ... shows that the continued conservation of (indigenous peoples') lands cannot be taken for granted", a group of top biodiversity scientists warned in a perspective piece last year.

Biodiversity experts meeting this week in Nairobi have come far in heeding our warnings. But failure to embed indigenous peoples' rights in the final draft plan for saving biodiversity will leave all of us at risk. Certainly, the global community should sanction the Tanzanian government for its illegal and unjust treatment of the Maasai.

More broadly, however, negotiators in Montreal and Sharm-el-Sheik must incorporate indigenous peoples' rights into binding treaties if the goal is to save the natural world. Failure to do so will turn the plight of the Maasai in Tanzania into a reality for hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples worldwide.

Indigenous peoples will and should continue to fight to stay on our traditional lands, but we shouldn't have to do it alone.

The world should openly and concretely embrace indigenous peoples as the best guardians of our lands - not just for ourselves, but because we are critical for saving the entire planet.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Climate policy
  • Biodiversity
  • Indigenous communities

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