Protecting Land Rights

Stolen Land, Pollution, and the Maasai

The Maasai people

The Maasai people lived for hundreds of years in an area that stretched from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean. The Maasai are pastoralists, moving their herds of cattle, sheep, and goats to give the land a chance to regenerate, and in order to find fresh water. Although the image of the Maasai- tall and red-robed- is iconic, the Maasai and their culture are at risk today, struggling to find ways to preserve their traditions while balancing the needs of their children in the modern world.

Few visitors to Kenya today realize that the area inhabited by the vast majority of the 400,000-strong Maasai is one to which their parents and grandparents were driven against their will a century ago. The increasing impoverishment and marginalization of the Maasai is now widely seen as part of a process that began with the Maasai’s loss of their lands in the infamous 1904 and 1911 treaties with the British.

The British come to East Africa

In 1895, the British established a Protectorate over the territory that is now Kenya. At that time, the Maasai occupied much of the fertile grasslands of the Rift Valley, an area of great interest to the newly arrived settlers. It thus became necessary for the British to find ways to relocate the Maasai from these prime lands (the “Northern Preserve”) to the more arid South Rift Valley. To do this, the Protectorate decided to enter into “agreements” with the Maasai, rather than attempt outright conquest.

Under these so-called “treaties” of 1904 and 1911, the Maasai “of their own free will” agreed that “their removal to definite and final reserves was for the undoubted good of the Maasai race.” In other words, the Maasai supposedly concluded that it was in their own best interest to give up the best-watered and most productive lands, and move to lands they knew to be arid, unproductive, and unfavorable to their way of life. All told, the British took roughly sixty per cent of the land the Maasai had once used.


From independence to now

Following independence, the country became more politically stable and attractive to development projects and tourism. The Maasai were continually left out of the processes of development, and their land claims continued to be ignored. One of the more promising developments came with the enactment of a new national Constitution in 2011. Article 67 of that Constitution created a National Land Commission, one duty of which is to “initiate investigations, on its own initiative or on a complaint, into present or historical land injustices, and recommend appropriate redress.”

The Magadi mine

For many years, EDLC has been working with Maasai leaders and organizations promoting land rights claims. EDLC engaged a highly respected English law firm to obtain justice for the Maasai in a case regarding use of Maasai lands by the English company that owns the Magadi soda mine in Kenya. The Maasai believe they own the land where the mine has operated for a hundred years, and they have suffered pollution from the mine. A case in England is under consideration.

Additional Cases