An unusual lawsuit accuses a well-known Watertown safari company of illegally obtaining a large tract of land in Tanzania, beating villagers, and burning down their homes — all charges the tour operator maintains are outrageous lies by three Maasai village councils that are being manipulated by another party that wanted the land.
The case, pending in the High Court of Tanzania in Arusha, took its turn in Boston late last week when the US District Court ordered the local company, Thomson Safaris, to turn over testimony and documents related to the disputed land and alleged violence.
“Allegations of land grabbing and violent conflict over land ownership is on the rise in Tanzania,” Rashid Salim Rashid, one of the lawyers representing the village councils, said in an e-mail. “This suit speaks to the marginalization of the Maasai people and other disenfranchised rural communities who are vulnerable to land alienation.”
Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland, the Watertown couple who own 33-year-old Thomson Safaris, vehemently deny the charges. An affiliated company owned by the couple, Tanzania Conservation Ltd., legally bought the 12,617 acres in northern Tanzania in a public auction to create the Enashiva Nature Refuge, where Thomson operates wildlife tours, they say.
“If we were to have done any of these things, you’d think that Rick and I would be in jail by now,” Wineland said. “Rick and I invested our lives in Tanzania and its people, and it’s just disheartening to be accused of these terrible things.”
They say the allegations of abuse started with an organization supporting Maasai women that wanted the land for itself and kept the conflict going to attract more donations.
The allegations have spread quickly on the Internet and become something of a cause celebre among human rights groups, making Thomson Safaris the target of harsh criticism. One group, EarthRights International, helped the village councils bring their case to US courts. Marissa Vahlsing, a staff lawyer at EarthRights, said the group is concerned that initiatives like Thomson’s Enashiva refuge, aimed at well-heeled eco-tourists, drive indigenous peoples from traditional lands and make them “conservation refugees.”
The safari operator found the assertions of one website, stopthomsonsafaris.weebly.com, so egregious it is suing the group behind it.
Thomson Safaris organizes a few hundred trips a year to Tanzania, with groups ranging from two to 15 people. Some of the tours include a few nights’ stay in tents at the disputed nature reserve to observe giraffes, gazelles, and other wildlife — as well as let tourists interact with Maasai warriors, jewelry makers, and schoolchildren. A two-week “rustic luxury” safari with solar lighting and hot showers, but no electricity or fixed plumbing, includes meals, lodging, guides, and domestic airfare for around $7,000.
The Tanzanian court recently ruled that Thomson had the right to remain on the land during the case. The next tour is scheduled for the end of May, after the rainy season ends.
The safari company is well known, in part, because it is a WBUR-FM underwriter and has donated trips for the public radio station’s pledge drives. It has 20 employees in Watertown and about 100 in Tanzania.
The owners, along with several safari clients, started a nonprofit called Focus on Tanzanian Communities, which has raised more than $1 million from Thomson guests to build schools, boreholes to access ground water, and a mill to grind maize.
“We’re the stewards of this land,” said Wineland, noting that the refuge was meant to promote a symbiotic relationship between tourists, wildlife, and the Maasai people. “Our goal is for us to give back to the community.”
Thomson Safaris has won several awards from the Tanzanian Tourist Board , including one for conservation in 2009 and another for humanitarian work in 2005.
The Maasai are a nomadic people, traveling with herds of cattle, goats, and sheep that they graze on lands straddling Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa. Within the traditional Maasai territory are several popular wildlife refuges such as Serengeti National Park that restrict the Maasai’s access to water and pastures.
The lawsuit asserts that in 2006 the government-owned Tanzania Breweries illegally sold a piece of land to Tanzania Conservation. The land, originally given to the brewing company to grow barley and other crops, was abandoned in 1987 by the brewery, which never honored its agreement to compensate and relocate the Maasai clans living there, according to court documents.
After Tanzania Conservation took possession of the property, the suit alleges, the conservation group “forcefully evicted” villagers and burned down their homes. Villagers say that they were beaten by the company’s security guards, arrested for trespassing when they crossed the property, and denied access to grazing land and water for their cattle.
“The Maasai of Loliondo believe that their culture is under threat and without the land they will not be able to survive,” said Rashid, their lawyer. “They want to get back the ownership of the land for the benefit of the communities.”
Thomson and Wineland said brewery employees were the only occupants of the land when they bought it, and the structures that were burned were unused cattle enclosures made of thorn brush.
“It’s just cooked-up stories,” Thomson said.
A Tanzanian government official who works for the Ngorongoro District Council, representing the area east of Serengeti National Park where the refuge is located, rebutted the charges by the Maasai villagers. The district council is named in the lawsuit, along with the Tanzanian land commissioner and attorney general, and the brewery company.
“Said allegations about Thomson Co. are not true and nobody would have tolerated them in the Maasai land,” legal officer Magdalena Oleseiyai John wrote in a series of text messages. “It could have gone contrary to the laws and that could have necessitated a legal action against it.”Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.