LONDON - Thousands of Masai are gathering in their ancestral lands in Tanzania to discuss allegations that the government plans to evict them and sell off the land to build a game-hunting reserve for rich Arabs. Tanzania’s president has dismissed the claims in a post on the social media site Twitter. A global petition against the reported plan attracted more than two million signatures.
As they have done for centuries, Masai tribesmen graze their goat herds on the vast plain bordering Tanzania’s world-famous Serengeti National Park.
But Masai here fear their grazing rights - and their right to live on the land - are under threat.
They claim the government wants to evict 40,000 villagers and turn the plain into a game-hunting reserve, run by a safari company based in the Persian Gulf. More than two million people from around the globe signed a petition against the proposal on the website of rights group Avaaz.
Last week, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete tweeted a message saying: "There has never been, nor will there ever be any plan by the Government of Tanzania to evict the Masai people from their ancestral land."
That’s not true, says Masai activist Samwel Nangire, who spoke to VOA on a poor phone line from Loliondo in Tanzania, part of the land in question.
"This plan has been there, and everybody knows, but the government denied that. So, after the president says there has never been a plan and there will not be a plan, the Masai want to get evidence of that in writing as a commitment from the government," said Nangire.
Nangire says the police are trying to disrupt a meeting of around 5,000 Masai in the disputed region.
“The police have been ordered to go on the ground and dismiss the meeting. And no media have been allowed to go there," he said.
The Tanzanian High Commission in London did not respond to requests for an interview.
Conservationists say it's vital that indigenous groups like the Masai play a central role in securing remote areas for both people and wildlife.
“For any political party to try and relocate a considerably large community like that to another area is not only political disaster, there will also be issues of security," said Ian Saunders, a Kenyan conservationist and counter-insurgency expert who has lived in the Masai tribal areas.
The Masai insist they will keep protesting until they receive written confirmation that their ancestral land will not be sold off.