December 8, 2023

The World Bank is investigating allegations of killings, rape and forced evictions made by villagers living near the site of a proposed tourism project it is funding in Tanzania.

The bank has been accused of “enabling” alleged violence by the Tanzanian government to make way for a $150m (£123m) project ministers say will protect the environment and attract more tourists to Ruaha national park.

The “resilient natural resource management for tourism and growth” (Regrow) project will almost double the size of the park, which is 130km (80 miles) from the city of Iringa.

Villagers living near Ruaha told researchers at the Oakland Institute thinktank that rangers had killed and beaten cattle herders and fishers, had raped women and confiscated thousands of head of cattle, under the premise that they had encroached on the national park.

In April 2021, rangers reportedly shot and killed William Nundu, a fisher, and allegedly killed two herders, Sandu Masanja, and Ngusa Salawa, who was only 14 years old. The regional police commander claimed that they were killed by wild animals while illegally entering the park, according to a report published by the institute on Thursday.

More than 21,000 people from dozens of villages around Ruaha are also facing eviction by the government, it claimed.

Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, said: “[The] Regrow project is not about protecting wildlife or conservation. Instead, the bank is financing an oppressive and violent economic growth model based on boosting tourism revenues.”

Mittal said the World Bank should have scrutinised the Tanzanian government’s record on human rights before financing it. The government authorised evictions close to the same area in 2006 and has been criticised for its handling of forced evictions in northern Tanzania, which “should have triggered internal alarm before the bank decided to finance the project”, added Mittal. “Instead, it looked the other way and continues to do so. It should be held accountable.”

The institute said villagers were told in October 2022 they would have to leave their land despite holding title deeds, which the government has cancelled, claiming the property fell within the boundaries of the national park.

More than 850 villagers have challenged the evictions in Tanzania’s high court.

A man with a dressed wound on his back
A Maasai man in Loliondo – 1,000km away from Ruaha – who claims he was was shot in the back by Tanzanian security forces. Critics say the violence there ‘should’ve triggered internal alarm’ at the World Bank before financing the Regrow project. Photograph: Daniel Irungu/EPA

Two community members, with the help of Oakland, have also submitted a complaint to the World Bank saying they had not been consulted about the evictions or provided adequate resettlement plans for the projects, which were causing “harm to their identity, culture and rights”.

A community leader who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity called the government’s actions “heavy-handed and unlawful”. He said communities in more than 40 villages will lose ancestral and lawfully owned land.

“Many farmers were barred from cultivating their farms this year causing hunger and poverty. Many of the residents of the villages in question face an uncertain future and psychological pain,” he said.

“I want the World Bank to immediately halt the project and conduct forensic investigation on the allegations of gross violation of human rights in the project area.”

Roland Ebole, an Amnesty International researcher focusing on Tanzania and Uganda, said abuses around the park have been reported since 2008 when the government first began to scope out plans for its expansion.

“We find villagers being accused of herding inside areas they have been restricted from and they are told to pay fines of high amounts or have their cattle confiscated. I know villagers who have been willing to pay fines but officials hold them in custody for days,” said Ebole.

He said tourism, much of it linked to trophy hunting, has driven a need for the government to take land, even at the expense of the people living there and often without their consent.

“You find them going to the most rural areas with the assumption the people are ignorant and most times they fail to consult them on issues regarding their land, sometimes ancestral land, and issue ultimatums to move,” said Ebole.

A World Bank spokesperson said: “The World Bank takes the allegations very seriously, and we are looking into them, working with the bank’s inspection panel. If a project doesn’t adhere to the social and environmental standards, we want to know about it and more importantly we want to improve it.”

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