- In a report released last week, the US-based advocacy group The Oakland Institute accused the World Bank of complicity in what it said were serious human rights abuses committed by rangers at the Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania.
- Rangers at Ruaha have received support from the bank through a program meant to boost tourism to the park.
- Human rights advocates and community leaders from the region who spoke to Mongabay said that rangers had carried out extrajudicial killings, sexual assaults, and livestock theft.
- The accusations are the latest in an ongoing clash over the rights of Indigenous peoples living in and near wildlife reserves in Tanzania, which draw billions of dollars per year in tourism revenue.
Farmers and herders in southern Tanzania say rangers at Ruaha National Park have committed extrajudicial killings and livestock theft in a bid to drive them off their land to make way for tourists.
The allegations form the basis of a complaint submitted to the Inspection Panel of the World Bank, which is providing financial support to Ruaha and its Tanzanian National Parks Authority (TANAPA) rangers through a $150 million grant. Last week, the U.S.-based advocacy group The Oakland Institute released a report accusing the bank of violating its internal safeguards by turning a blind eye to human rights abuses it said TANAPA has committed.
According to the report, TANAPA rangers are responsible for a number of deaths in and around Ruaha in recent years, including during a single day in April 2021 when they killed a fisherman and two herders, one of whom was just 14 years old.
“TANAPA have been doing so many massacres and brutalizing villagers, capturing their cattle and killing them,” one community leader who requested anonymity told Mongabay in a phone interview.
The report said that in 2008, tens of thousands of Maasai, Datoga and Sangu residents of Mbari district, where Ruaha is located, suddenly found themselves living inside the park’s boundaries when its size was doubled by an edict from the Tanzanian government. Late last year, officials announced plans to resettle more than 20,000 of them from five villages in the park without their consultation.
The eviction notice is currently being challenged in court in a case that was brought by 852 community plaintiffs.
Ruaha is home to populations of elephant, cheetah, lion, giraffe and other large mammals, as well as 540 species of birds. A decade ago, the Ruaha-Rungwa landscape was a hotspot for poaching in Tanzania. The elephant population there dropped from 34,600 to 8,272 between 2010 and 2015, but in recent years their numbers have begun to recover as poaching rates have dropped overall. Now, with the help of the World Bank the Tanzanian government wants to entice more travelers to come to Ruaha, thereby increasing the park’s revenue.
“Most tourists to Tanzania head to Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater in the north. So the idea is to really boost tourism for economic growth in the south,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. “And Ruaha National Park is the one which is really targeted for expansion, which would basically double its size.”
Where are World Bank safeguards?
The World Bank’s support for Ruaha comes via its Resilient Natural Resource Management for Tourism and Growth (REGROW) project, a $150 million project that runs through 2025. Through the project, the bank is helping to build new infrastructure for the expanded park, training residents who live around it to be tour guides, and providing equipment to TANAPA rangers.
But in the complaint submitted to the bank’s Inspection Panel, two anonymous community members accused it of disregarding its own policies on Indigenous rights.
Sangu pastoralists have grazed their cattle in the Ruaha River Basin since Tanzania’s precolonial era. But documents filed by the panel suggest that World Bank managers decided some of its internal safeguards didn’t apply to communities in the region.
“Management stated that it conducted a screening and determined that there are no Indigenous Peoples with collective attachment to land,” it wrote in its initial notice about the complaint.
Meanwhile, the government has been steadily escalating pressure on residents. In addition to killings and sexual assaults the Oakland Institute claims were carried out by TANAPA rangers, the group said they were also destroying pastoralist livelihoods through cattle seizures. In one operation described in the report, Ruaha park administrators confiscated 12,758 head of cattle they said were encroaching on the park, raking in nearly half a million dollars in fines.
One Tanzanian human rights activist who has visited the region and spoke to Mongabay on condition of anonymity said the seizures were part of a pattern of intimidation and harassment by TANAPA rangers.
“I have met many people who have become completely bankrupt because their livestock was confiscated by the rangers and then sold off,” he said in a phone interview.
TANAPA did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Tourism is a major driver of Tanzania’s economy, equivalent to around 5%-10% of the country’s GDP in an average year. After a COVID-related dip, the Bank of Tanzania reported that tourism revenues leapt to $3 billion in 2021 from more than 1.6 million visitors, most of them from the U.S. and Europe. The Tanzanian government says it wants to up that number to 5 million per year.
But that focus on tourism has made the country into a flash point for disputes over how to balance Indigenous rights with wildlife protection and conservation. Maasai herdsmen in the northern Ngorongoro park say that heavy-handed restrictions on agriculture and grazing were designed to push them off their land. And last year police opened fire on protesters there, killing at least one person and injuring 15 more, according to Mongabay’s sources.
Mittal from the Oakland Institute, who authored the group’s report, said the incidents are part of a pattern.
“Wildlife rangers are acting with impunity under the direction of the Tanzanian government and its violent campaign that it has unleashed against the Indigenous, all for promoting safari tourism and hunting blocks,” she said.
While the REGROW project states that boosting local livelihoods is one of its core objectives, a community leader from the region told Mongabay that cattle seizures and planned evictions by TANAPA are having the opposite effect.
“We see that the money that’s being provided by the World Bank isn’t coming to help us, but to make people poor by taking our land and farms,” said the leader, who asked to remain anonymous.
According to the Oakland Institute, when the group brought the allegations to the World Bank’s attention, bank officials wrote that they weren’t responsible for “overseeing the conduct of Member countries’ government agencies or … intervening in the event of alleged wrongdoing unrelated to a World Bank-financed project.”
The Ruaha residents’ complaint to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel is likely to fuel debate over what’s often referred to as “fortress conservation,” the model of securing wildlife reserves through armed enforcement. In 2020, the U.S. government suspended some funding to WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society in the wake of a scandal over human rights abuses by rangers at parks in the Congo Basin.
In a statement emailed to Mongabay, the bank said it couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
“The Panel’s recommendation on the REGROW Project is under consideration by the Board of Executive Directors and remains confidential until the Board completes this process,” it wrote.
The Tanzanian government has not officially commented on the Oakland Institute’s report or the Inspection Panel complaint. But on Oct. 4, the TANAPA commissioner was dismissed from her post. No reason was given for the move.