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Thomson Safaris lawsuit (re Maasai in Tanzania)

In 2010, semi nomadic Maasi pastoralists filed a claim in Tanzania against Tanzania Breweries and Tanzania Conservation, alleging the companies had forcefully evicted the plaintiffs from their ancestral land and acquired it without the plaintiff's prior consent. The case is ongoing. 

 

On 3 February 2010, semi nomadic Maasai pastoralists filed a claim in Tanzania against Tanzania Breweries (TB) and Tanzania Conservation Ltd (TC), alleging that the companies forcefully evicted the plaintiffs from their ancestral land, and acquired it without the plaintiffs’ prior consent.  The Soitsambu Village Council filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Maasai in the High Court of Tanzania, Land Division.  TC is a Tanzanian subsidiary of Thomson Safaris, a US-based tourism safari company.  The plaintiffs seek an order recognising their ownership of the disputed land.

Sukenya Farm, where the plaintiffs claim to have lived for generations, was, until recently, part of the Soitsambu Village, which borders with the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.  The plaintiffs claim that the authorities allocated a total of 10,000 acres of land on the Sukenya Farm to TB in 1984, increased to a total of 12,617 acres in 2003, without plaintiffs’ consent.  The plaintiffs argue that because the land was not used by TB for 19 years, in accordance with Tanzanian land law, it had reverted back to common village ownership.  The plaintiffs further claim that in 2006, TB leased the disputed land to TC without consulting with the plaintiffs and without obtaining their consent to do so.  It is alleged that in 2006, TC employees burned, damaged and removed plaintiffs’ homes and possessions from Sukenya Farm.  The plaintiffs charge that they have been subjected to beatings, shootings, harassment, extrajudicial arrests and detention by TC employees and by the local authorities whenever they try to access the grazing and water sources on the farm.  Both TB and TC deny all allegations.  They claim that the allocation of the disputed land to TB and the subsequent lease to TC were done in accordance with the law.  TC also asserts that a 2008 investigation carried out by the Office of the Prime Minister of Tanzania regarding plaintiffs’ claims cleared TC of all charges.  

In August 2010, the plaintiffs asked the court to issue an injunction, barring the defendants from preventing the plaintiffs from grazing cattle on the Sukenya Farm.  The application was dismissed by the court due to a technical error in the pleadings and an amended application was filed in September 2010.  Both defendants contested the interim application, stating that the Soitsambu Village Council had no legal standing to represent the plaintiffs because it no longer governed Sukenya Farm.  In January 2013, the judge upheld the objections of the defendants and dismissed the application (though awarded no costs because the matter had been by frustrated by circumstances).

In respect of the main suit, the defendants raised various preliminary objections in an attempt to get the case dismissed without consideration of the merits.  In one such objection, the defendants argued that the parties, the subject matter and the plaintiffs’ claims were the same as in a previous lawsuit, because in the 1980s a small number of villagers had contested the legality of the land transfer to TB.  In May 2011 the judge ruled in favour of the companies on this claim and dismissed the case.  The plaintiffs appealed and in May 2012 the Court of Appeal found in their favour.  It reversed the lower court’s decision and held that the facts needed to rule on this objection by the defendants could not be determined without consideration of all the evidence.  The matter was therefore sent back to the High Court.  In May 2013, it was dismissed on a similar technical point to that which had resulted in the dismissal of the injunction application. 

New proceedings were filed at the end of June 2013, naming Soitsambu, Sukenya and Mondorosi villages as plaintiffs and joining the local District Council and Commissioner for Lands as additional defendants.  The plaintiffs alleged that the companies conspired with local government authorities to illegally transfer part of the land, and asked the court to revoke the company’s title to the land, to prevent conversion of the land’s designated use of pastoralism to tourism, and to award damages to the community for their displacement.  In October 2015, the High Court denied all of community’s arguments except for the point concerning the illegal transfer of the land.  The Counsel for the Maasai intends to appeal.  

On 26 February 2014, the Soitsambu, Sukenya and Mondorosi villages filed an action in a US federal court against Thomson Safaris, an affiliate of TC, and its owners. The plaintiffs seek to compel the defendants to provide information on the circumstances of the land transfer, which they believe will prove the land was confiscated illegally. The plaintiffs brought the action under a law that allows people to obtain documents and information from individuals or companies in the United States for use in foreign legal proceedings. In April 2014, the court ordered Thomson Safaris and its owners to turn over documents and give sworn testimony about the sale of Sukenya Farm, the alleged home burnings and beatings, and the conversion of the land from Maasai grazing territory to a deluxe private reserve. Under the court order, Thomson Safaris and its owners must turn over all documents by 9 May and give sworn testimony before the end of June 2014.

 

- "MRG deeply disappointed by Arusha Court land rights judgment against Loliondo Maasai", Minority Rights Group, 3 Nov 2015
- "Grabbing land for conservation in Loliondo, Tanzania", Just Conservation, 2 Dec 2012

- "Maasai land conflict in Tanzania sparks online campaign against Thomson Safaris", Tourism Concern, 4 Nov 2012
- "Maasai Pastoralists of Soitsambu Villege, Tanzania asserts their rights to ancestral lands", Michelle Chan, Minority Voices Newsroom, 15 Feb 2011
- "Last Days of the Maasai", Conde Nast Traveler [US], Nov 2010
- "Hunted Down, Maasai evicted so foreigners might play", New Internationalist [UK], Dec 2009,
- [PDF] "Letter to Permanent Mission of the United Republic of Tanzania", UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 13 Mar 2009

- Thomson Safari website: Thomson Safaris Spotlights Good Works in Tanzania
Stop Thomson Safaris [website run by plaintiffs’ supporters]

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