Modern Maasai Man

August 2, 2016

Ahead of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples next week, Program Officer Myriah remembers her first meeting with land rights pioneer Edward Loure. In the rangelands of Northern Tanzania, she experienced first-hand how this remarkable activist is empowering the country’s traditional communities to manage their land:

“Ore engulukoni aang naa engishui yang.”

Edward closed his Goldman Environmental Prize acceptance speech with this simple but powerful Maasai proverb: “Our land is our life.” Standing in front of the packed San Francisco Opera House Edward told the story of the Maasai struggle — one faced by indigenous communities around the world — to secure official recognition of their traditional lands.

He told us all a startling fact: “Two and a half billion people – that’s a third of our global population – are at risk of losing their land to more powerful interests.”

I later learned that this number includes 370 million indigenous people who, despite living on half the world’s surface, only have recognized rights to 10 percent of the land.

This makes Edward’s achievement, securing more than 200,000 acres of land for people including the Maasai, all the more critical. How did he go about formalizing their right to their land?

When I visited Edward I observed how adept the Maasai are at adopting what is useful — particularly motorcycles and cell phones — while retaining the core of their pastoral way of life. Nearby the Maasai villages, I heard the whirl of engines as Maasai in brightly colored shukas (Maasai traditional dress) zipped by on motorcycles.

“2.5 billion people are at risk of losing their land to more powerful interests.”

Bridging Tradition and Bureaucracy 

While traveling with Edward, I observed his integration of Maasai and western ways of working. We stopped by his grazing lands in Simanjiro so he could tend to his goat herd; a much needed break from both his demanding duties hosting the Prize film crew and Maasai council meetings. He took time to look after his family’s 200 goats before the film crew started up again, capturing his pastoral way of life.

Maasai kids and film crew

Maasai kids get up close to the action with the film crew! (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

With his traditional staff in one hand and his cell phone in the other, Edward simultaneously attended to his duties as a Maasai man taking care of his herd while calling his colleagues at the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT) to discuss business. Throughout our time together, I watched Edward balance both the demands of NGO administration in the city of Arusha with countless hours in remote villages discussing the benefits of securing communal land titles.

Edward balances living his Maasai culture and validating this culture to state authorities. He must establish himself as a credible partner to the indigenous peoples of northern Tanzania, working with them to map and build consensus around their land claims. At the same time, he must be recognized as a legitimate representative to the state authorities, navigating the complexities of land title law in Tanzania to stake those claims. This is no easy feat, but Edward does this balancing act with grace and humor. His good spirits radiated over all of us even after a long hot day of driving, meetings, and trying to capture the perfect film shot.

Taking On Challenges with a Smile

His laughter and gentle teasing — like suggesting our Ugandan sound technician skip the hassle of immigration by traveling back home like a pastoralist (i.e. by walking a distance of over 600 miles!) — helped us all remember that the seriousness of the work can be coupled with lightheartedness and joy.

Myriah and Edward

Edward and I show off our ‘power poses’ while we take a break on set! (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Edward’s spirit reminds us that the seriousness of the work can be coupled with lightheartedness and joy.

Right now, Edward and UCRT are hard at work aiming to protect 300,000 hectares of land through communally held land titles. With these land titles, the indigenous peoples of northern Tanzania can fend off agricultural incursions into their grazing areas and keep unscrupulous safari companies from seizing their land. At the same time, this protects important wildlife corridors and traditional communities’ way of life. As Edward said, land is life.

Celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples by watching UCRT’s short video below, and see how you can help here.

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