Saturday, 27 February 2016

A personal view on the book Selling the Serengeti by Ben Gardner

There have been some developments in Loliondo that I need to blog about when I’ve got enough information, but first I have a book to write about.

A book of great interest to this blog has been published: Selling the Serengeti: The Cultural Politics of Safari Tourism by associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, Benjamin Gardner. In spite of the title, the focus of this book is exclusively on the Loliondo Maasai and the different “investors” that are using, and in the worst case, claiming ownership to Maasai land.

Selling the Serengeti is not a report about what has happened, but rather something like an analysis of how the different actors are presented, or present themselves and their relation to the land, and how it affects the Maasai’s struggle to control their land. The book situates this in relation to earlier research, like that of Rod Neumann, Doreen Massey and Stuart Hall (which makes the list of books I need to get hold of longer and more expensive). Some important pieces of the story are left out, while others are closely examined.

Already in the preface there’s a most alarming mention of how the statements in Thomson Safaris’ infamous (well, at least I have written about it) propaganda video about their land grab appears to “make a lot of sense” to a some of the people Gardner has shown it to, including his students. Though Gardner tells that after further examination it became clearer that Thomson, while appearing to speak on behalf of “humankind” and not their own historically situated position, were “drawing on a discourse of African conservation that relies on the implicit idea that foreign whites are in a better position to care for African nature than are the African residents in that place, in this case the Maasai.” I learn that Hall would say that the “discourse is not innocent”, and Gardner reminiscences Grzimek. Gardner says that the payment of $1.2 million for the right of occupancy is missing completely from the video. This was paid to Tanzania Breweries ltd (TBL) that cultivated some barley for a few years two decades earlier and not to the Maasai land owners. It should be added that also missing from the video is the fact that Thomson have defended their right to “own” and manage other people’s land using violence, and thousands and thousands of dollars to lawyers, and online reputation management experts.

A main argument in the book is that the Maasai have used “neoliberalism” to make their land rights more visible, forming joint ventures with tour companies. This is what Gardner and Nelson have been writing about for years. The joint-venture investor exemplified is the smaller Dorobo Safaris that does not often come up in the discussion, except among researchers. The land is registered to the – originally state-imposed – villages, as so clearly spelled out in Village Land Act No. 5 of 1999, and entering contracts with tour companies reaffirms this. This leads a pre-print reviewer to claim that the Maasai – unlike the state – would be “cheerleaders” for neoliberalism, when – as described by Gardner - both the state and the Maasai are using “investors” for their own purposes. Imposing OBC (Otterlo Business Corporation is the spelling I find most likely to be correct) and Thomson Safaris on the Maasai is state – or “government”, the word used in Loliondo – ambitions of controlling the land with anti-pastoralist bias, need for funds for development, and maybe also for the pockets of those making decisions (the latter is not mentioned by Gardner). Gardner does of course describe the most dangerous and violent government action in support of OBC – the 2009 evictions – but not the silly and farcically rabid harassment of visitors that have asked questions about Thomson Safaris – several journalists, and this blogger even before being a blogger. It does not seem like Gardner himself has encountered this kind of problem, yet. The more serious – recently again repeated - media incitement against the Maasai of Loliondo as "Kenyans" is only briefly mentioned.

Most interesting is Gardner’s over two decades long relation to Loliondo and some Maasai there. I would have liked to see this taking over a larger part of the book, even if the fact that Gardner first met Parkipuny in 1992 makes me, who came too late, very jealous. And it’s sad to read that in 1992 Parkipuny thought that the government, and TBL, had been defeated and “Sukenya farm” was safe, when at the time of writing we still have Thomson Safaris claiming ownership to this piece of Maasai land.

The book also gives me a somewhat clearer picture of the usually sketchily described Operation Imparnati – misguided, but did not radically alter Maasai life in Loliondo, according to Parkipuny - and the Serengeti Regional Conservation Strategy, that helped with surveying Loliondo village land in the late 1980s, but that had intentions for the land that were quite opposed to those of the Maasai.

Gardner mentions a little known aspect of Thomson’s early days in Loliondo: Peter Jones of Tanzania Film and Safari Outfitters - who has his own Ndarakwai Ranch on Maasai land in West Kilimanjaro where the tourist accommodation was burnt down by the Maasai in November 2014 - was their first project manager at “Enashiva”. All I’ve known was that Jones’s company prepared a plan for the land that’s found at the district headquarters and he figured in the press in 2006 saying that the land belonged to Thomson (TCL), after he had ordered the burning of all structures on it. Gardner says that Jones already had a reputation for his ego and aggressive tactics. I’d say that birds of feather flock together.

The use of pseudonyms in the book is somewhat confusing and at points made me jump thinking I’d completely missed some key person. Even some names of semi-public people who have featured in international media have been changed, but this is probably not the writer’s fault, and harassment on the ground is very real.

Curiously, regarding OBC, is that Gardner mentions another group from the UAE, led by a man known as Malala, that would initially had shown interest in the hunting block and worked more closely and openly with local leaders. I have not been able to find anyone at all with information about this, but the former UAE ambassador Maj. General Mallallah Mubarak is sometimes mentioned as the person behind some projects that are attributed to OBC. Could he have been interested in the hunting block?

Most frustrating is that the book isn’t any help at all in putting stop to the belief in the fabricated British news about Loliondo that appeared in November 2014. It could be due to that the book was sent off for publishing around the same time as those “news” appeared that Gardner writes that, “In 2013 the government backed down from its plans to create the wildlife corridor only to put it back in place in November 2014”. The Maasai first felt they had defeated the government in February 2011 when they rejected the district land use plan proposing the “wildlife corridor”, then when in 2013 Kagasheki lied in statements saying that the Maasai were “landless”, as another attempt at taking the “corridor”, this was finally revoked by the PM in a speech later the same year, and the government was defeated again. After this, there hasn’t been any public statement at all from the government about taking the “corridor”, and much less an “eviction notice” as the one reported by British press in November 2014 (not directly mentioned by Gardner, even if the article link is in a footnote), but that absolutely nobody in Loliondo had heard about. What had happened was that then Minister Nyalandu months earlier had allegedly, in closed meetings, said that the “corridor” was inevitable, and tried to buy off local leaders. Nyalandu, and also president Kikwete did vehemently deny the reports by the British press, while adding their own lies about recent history.

Also confusing is the way the book claims that Thomson would have “allowed” the Maasai grazing with minimal interference from the beginning of 2013 (which could be a misprint). Activists have at several times, like when the court case was filed, or the Stop Thomson Safaris website launched, claimed some success when the tour operator would have become more quiet – but harassment has always resumed. In 2014 – the book was apparently finished late the same year – harassment was severe. Warriors twice wanted to burn down Thomson’s camp – in January when several herders were beaten and cows detained in a short space of time, and in July when Olunjai Timan was shot by a policeman working for the Thomson. Only after that latest shooting were Thomson asked, by the DC and district officials, to allow grazing – and have then been quiet, ignoring herders, for a longer time.

Another problem is that the book does not make it clear that not only Thomson, but also OBC, use ethnic division, being close to certain groups, to gain legitimacy, and to a large extent the same individuals are targeted by the “friendship” of the two companies. The book hardly mentions anything about the different local leaders that have been used, and have, for their own purposes whatever those are, used the investors that don’t respect land rights. Politics, and getting leaders that won’t engage in this kind of behaviour, seem to be a far bigger topic among Loliondo Maasai, than are the different “investors”.

Back in 2008 I thought I’d have to wait a decade, or so, to read about what exactly was going on, in some expensive academic book that would have me as the only reader. Meanwhile, I’ve found many people from Loliondo, asked them questions, and View from the Termite Mound has become the by far best – not least because nobody else even tries - online resource for correct information about OBC’s and Thomson Safaris’ threat to land rights in Loliondo. Now the book about the “investors” in Loliondo is here, and I’m glad for that, even if this blog strangely isn't mentioned even in a footnote. I’ve got some new information, and even if the book is not perfect, I hope that it will make some “investors” very unhappy. It would be a proof of quality. Though the best hope is that those that believe the “discourse is innocent” will become better informed. The title could attract a variety of people.

Selling the Serengeti: The Cultural Politics of Safari Tourism
By Ben Gardner
The University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 978-0-8203-4508-6
ISBN: 978-0-8203-4507-9
E-book available.

Susanna Nordlund

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