Our recent legal action against Thomson Safaris is not only ERI’s first foray into challenging the phenomenon of “conservation refugees,” it is also a case that has great personal meaning for me.

Ten years ago, before I went to law school, I traveled to a remote Northwest region of Tanzania near Serengeti National park to study the balance between conservation efforts and indigenous peoples. In the Loliondo Division, the low line where the blue sky meets the ground is broken only by the bright red shuka of a Maasai warrior.  We were unmistakably in the heart of Tanzania.  I turned on my local phone.  First message: Welcome to the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s the OBC people. They have brought their cellphone towers here,” explained a local Maasai guide. The “OBC people” were big-game hunters from the UAE who had government permission to hunt on ancestral Maasai land—land that generations of Maasai relied on for sustenance.  Permission was allegedly given without the consent of the Maasai themselves.

That was only the beginning. During my time there, I became familiar with the threats faced by the Maasai communities of SoitSambu, Monorosi and Sukenya were facing to their customary rights to use and occupy their traditional land. The irony: many of those threats came with words like “conservation” and “eco-tourism.”

According to the government of Tanzania, at least 40% of the land in Tanzania comes under some form of environmental protection. But few people realize that the world famous Serengeti National Park was established at a high cost: the eviction of the Maasai and their animals into the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the late 1950s. In the ensuing years, as increasing numbers of Westerners flock to Northwestern Tanzania on luxury safaris and tours, the Maasai herders have had to fight not to become conservation refugees several times over.

“Conservation refugees,” explains Mark Dowie, who has written extensively on the subject, are people who are removed from their lands involuntarily, either forcibly or through a variety of less coercive measures in the name of conservation. And eco-tourism.

Thomson Safaris is a Boston-based luxury safari operator. In 2013 it was named one of the Top Safari Outfitters in the World in the Travel and Leisure Magazine. Its “Enashiva Nature Refuge” in Loliondo Division is one of the exclusive destinations it offers its clients on luxury “eco-tourism” safaris.  But the Maasai paid the highest price for this luxury.

In a case they have filed in the High Court of Tanzania, the Maasai villagers of SoitSambu, Mondorosi and Sukenya claim that employees of Thomson have unlawfully beaten local villagers and denied them access to their traditional land and water sources—all in the name of luxury “eco-tourism”.

Allegations in legal documents submitted by the villagers include unlawfully occupying the disputed land, destroying their homes, and beating, harassing and arresting “trespassers”—villagers who continue to bring their cattle to graze on the land. Thomson claims it properly purchased a 96-year lease to the land from the Tanzanian government in 2006. The villagers claim the acquisition of the land was illegal, and done without their consent. ERI’s action in federal court in Massachusetts requests information from Thomson Safaris to assist the villagers in their legal action in Tanzania.

As I helped pull together the legal documents and affidavits recounting experiences of the villagers in preparation for the filing, I remembered the clear blue days that I spent living in SoitSambu back in 2004. I remembered the stories the villagers told me. Those stories turned the terms “conservation”, “poachers”, “eco-tourism”, and even “environmentalism” on their heads. Since then, I have come to see the ironic barbarity that comes with the Western notion of an East African savannah that is full of animals – but devoid of people. That dream, of course, is a figment of Western imagination (and animated Disney movies). But as conservation and eco-tourism initiatives continue to disregard the rights of the indigenous peoples who call the savannah home, that dream is becoming tragically real.