KAMPALA, Uganda — Tens of thousands of Tanzania's ethnic Maasai people are homeless after the government burned their houses to keep the savannah open for tourism benefiting two foreign safari companies, a U.S.-based policy think tank charged Thursday.
Villagers in northern Tanzania's Loliondo area, near the Ngorongoro Crater tourism hotspot, have been evicted in the past year and denied access to vital grazing and watering holes, said the new report by the Oakland Institute, a California think tank that researches environmental and social issues.
"As tourism becomes one of the fastest-growing sectors within the Tanzanian economy, safari and game park schemes are wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of the Maasai," said Oakland Institute's Anuradha Mittal. "But this is not just about a specific company - it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities around the world."
Allegations of wrongdoing have persisted in recent years against Tanzania Conservation Limited, an affiliate of U.S.-based Thomson Safaris, and Ortello, a group that organizes hunting trips for the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.
Young Maasai herders are so afraid of authorities that they "flee when they see a vehicle approach," thinking it might carry representatives of foreign safari companies, the Oakland Institute report said.
Responding to the findings, Thomson Safaris said the "awful allegations of abuse are simply untrue." The company invested in Tanzania "in good faith," director Rick Thomson said in an email Thursday.
Concern for the Maasai has been raised at home and abroad by rights groups such as Minority Rights Group International and Survival International, which has warned that the alleged land grabs "could spell the end of the Maasai."
The Maasai, hundreds of thousands of cattle herders who inhabit the savannah in southern Kenya and parts of neighboring northern Tanzania, need land to graze their animals and maintain their pastoralist lifestyle. But the land bordering Tanzania's famous Serengeti National Park is also a wildlife corridor popular with tourists.
The east African nation's government depends substantially on tourism revenue to finance its budget.
The government has prioritized safari groups at the expense of indigenous communities, said Hellen Kijo-Bisimba, head of the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre.
"The government has been reviewing boundaries and subsequently evicting communities in the name of conservation," she told The Associated Press. "In my understanding the conservation should have been made to benefit people, and if people are affected then it calls for worries. The Maasai community (is) indeed suffering."
A court in the regional capital, Arusha, ruled against Loliondo's Maasai in 2015 when it decided that Thomson Safaris legally purchased 10,000 acres of a disputed 12,617 acres in 2006. The Maasai appealed and the case is pending.
Thomson, of Thomson Safaris, said in Thursday's email that "witnessing" the wildlife in Tanzania was a passion.
"But what made Tanzania so alluring was not just the wildlife, but the people," he said. "When people return from a safari with us, they say how magnificent the wildlife was, but that what was so extraordinary were the people they met."
Tanzania's Tourism Permanent Secretary Gaudence Milanzi denied the Maasai are being targeted, saying the government is working to improve their welfare by embracing modern methods of livestock keeping.
"There is no single group of people, say Maasai, who are intimidated, arrested, beaten or forced out of their land," Milanzi said.