The first film I was able to catch at this year’s One World Human Rights Film Festival was A Place Without People documenting the expulsion of the Maasai from the Serengeti in Tanzania. “Can’t at least we preserve the Serengeti for the animals and the people who come after us,” exclaimed Bernhard Grzimek, a German conservationist/zooligist famous for inspiring the creation of the Serengeti National Park. By this statement I presume he meant preserve it for other colonialists and not the Maasai, the parks original inhabitants. From British rule up to the country’s present day independent government, those in power have failed to recognize the tribe’s place in the park’s ecosystem and their role in preserving its balance for centuries.
Sentiments parallel to those of Grzimek have been used throughout the colonial world: expel/exterminate native peoples in the name of wilderness preservation. Using archival footage throughout the film Director Andreas Apostolides shows how the creation of uninhabited parks in the U.S. lead to similar actions in Tanzania. In 1877 approximately 300 Native Americans were killed in Yellowstone to make way for a park without people for white tourists. Afterward, Roosevelt traveled abroad to countries such as Tanzania pollinating these ideas.
Even after Tanzania gained independence from British colonial rule, its government continues to bar the Maasai from the park, which happens to be the size of Belgium. Like those in the West, Tanzania’s government uses “wildlife preservation” to justify upholding such policies. To further validate their stance they argued the Maasai were burning and ruining the land. The tribe was actually using controlled burns to replenish soil nutrients and prevent widespread fires during the dry season, a tactic eventually adopted by the government when finally realizing its effectiveness.
The Serengeti, regarded as a model for wilderness preservation, proves Western notions of conservation and tourism have negative impacts on original inhabitants and, in this case, the actual preservation of the land. Its first tourists were poachers, but since certain animal populations saw their numbers cut in half or more, the government has made these acts illegal (except, of course, for rich tourists who can pay 60K per rhino or 90K per elephant). Now the majority of tourists are armed with cameras instead and try to snap shots of the dwindling elephant herds or the Maasai who’ve been ushered into cultural bombas (fake villages set up by the govt. where a main source of income for the tribe includes dancing for tourists).
The Tanzanian government says tourist cash is needed to upkeep a park like this, but what they really mean is the money is needed to upkeep the facilities and tourism industry. Is this really necessary or sustainable? The resorts will eventually deplete all of the area’s groundwater. Should rich outsiders be invited to enjoy the land’s beauty and use its resources when its original inhabitants can’t step foot in it? The Maasai were able to maintain the area’s ecological balance with no outside aid or income. A Place Without People reminds us that these places need their original people.
This film played at One World Film Festival in Prague last week. Be on the look out for it at others to come. For more info or to order a screener, visit the producer’s site.