Maasai tribesmen cover their faces from a sand storm at a village on the outskirts of Serengeti, northern Tanzania., Aug. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Maasai tribesmen cover their faces from a sandstorm at a village on the outskirts of Serengeti, northern Tanzania., on Aug. 12, 2013. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

The government of Tanzania is contemplating selling a large tract of protected land to a private firm that would turn it into a zone for commercial hunting and luxury safaris. According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, Tanzanian officials are still in talks to sell 1,500 square kilometers near the famed Serengeti national park to a private company connected to the royal family in Dubai, the wealthy Gulf city-state that's part of the United Arab Emirates.

The proposed deal, which attracted headlines last year, would force tens of thousands of local Maasai tribesmen to abandon ancestral pastures and grave sites. An international campaign to protect the Maasai land was backed by nearly two million signatures online, led to protest marches and forced the Tanzanian government to drop its eviction plans this March.

But, the Guardian reports, authorities are still keen on going ahead with the purchase and have now offered locals compensation worth less than $600,000 to move away from what would become a designated "wildlife corridor."

"I feel betrayed," one local activist told the Guardian. "[The government] had to pretend they were dropping the agenda to fool the international press."

Representatives of the Maasai are due to meet the Tanzanian prime minister Tuesday to express their outrage.

The Masai, a traditionally nomadic people, appear on cliched tourism posters for this part of Africa, perhaps set against a backdrop of the Serengeti's incredible wildlife. But they claim that eco-tourism has been a curse for their communities, with government attempts to cordon off certain lands for well-heeled safari goers endangering their heritage.

"The British moved us 50 years ago from what is now the Serengeti park, and subsequent governments have consistently restricted our grazing rights," a Maasai elder, Lekakui Kanduli, told CNN last year. "The government uses our faces on tourism posters and brochures for Tanzania, yet President Kikwete has said that our way of life is a thing of the past and we should live in the modern world. But without our land and our traditions, what are we?"

The little-known company said to be involved in the purchase of this new hunting ground is owned by Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abdulrahim al Ali, the deputy defense minister of the U.A.E., according to the Associated Press.

The case is eye-catching for the cast of characters involved, but is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to overseas firms buying up land in Africa. Between 2000 and 2012, some 5 percent of all of Africa's agricultural land has been leased by outside investors. According to a 2011 report by the rights group Oxfam, international investors have bought, sold or leased some 227 million hectares of land in Africa — a figure equivalent to a good chunk of   Western Europe.

Since the global financial crisis in 2008 spurred chaos in global food markets, Africa's supposedly under-used arable land became a coveted asset for governments and firms elsewhere. As The Post's Stephanie McCrummen documented in 2009, a host of governments are out-sourcing food production in parts of Africa, and not just Western ones. A graphic from the Christian Science Monitor illustrates some of the investments:

(Christian Science Monitor)
(Christian Science Monitor)

Tanzania itself is a petri dish for outside investment in its agricultural lands. It is a signatory to a scheme endorsed by President Obama at the 2012 G8 Summit that aims to bring in foreign multinationals to help improve food cultivation and security in a number of African countries. Many argue this is vital: Three-quarters of Tanzania's population are small-scale farmers, reports the Guardian, but only 6 percent of the country's budget in 2012 was spent on agriculture.

But critics fear all sorts of abuse. Some of the land acquisitions elsewhere in Africa, as Oxfam notes, are driven purely by outside speculators with short-term interests and enabled by corrupt local officials and an absence of rigorous regulation. The people living and working on the land lose out, says Oxfam, and face "dispossession, deception, violation of human rights, and destruction of livelihoods."

Though the Maasai's lands won't be handed over for agribusiness, they say they are fighting a similar fate.