The Tanzanian government appears to be pushing forward with plans to evict up to 48,000 Maasai pastoralists from their ancestral homelands to make way for a game reserve, after an identical controversy last year drove authorities to pledge not to go ahead with the plans.

The Maasai, who have reportedly been told to leave by the end of the year, insist the sale of the land will not only rob them of their heritage, but also affect the livelihoods of 80,000 people, as the area is used for the grazing of livestock on which the nomadic Maasai depend.

Last year, the government gave activists cause to celebrate when it appeared to back down over the proposed 1,500km2 “wildlife corridor” bordering the Serengeti national park.

However, it is now offering compensation of one billion Kenyan Shillings ($578,000) for use in socio-economic development projects for the Maasai: a deal they have roundly dismissed.

The deal is with Ortelo Business Corporation (OBC), a luxury safari company that according to the Guardian newspaper was set up by a UAE official with ties to the royal family – though the clientele of the 20-year-old company reportedly also include the UK’s Prince Andrew.

Samwel Nangiria, the coordinator for the local Ngonett civil society group, told the Guardian’s David Smith, that he never thought the government had considered cancelling the deal, but instead had sought to fool the international press into believing they might.

“I feel betrayed,” he said. “One billion is very little and you cannot compare that with land. It’s inherited. Their mothers and grandmothers are buried in that land. There’s nothing you can compare with it.” He added that those opposing the plans have also been threatened.

“I will fight for my community. I’m more energetic than I was,” said Nangiria. “The Maasai would like to ask the prime minister about the promise. What happened to the promise? Was it a one-year promise or forever? Perhaps he should put the promise in writing.”

He added that this would be the last time the Maasai settle for talks before pursuing methods such as requesting a court injunction. In a threat of his own to the government, he noted that the community could be an influential voting bloc in next year’s elections.

Over the last week, a petition on Avaaz.org entitled, “Stop the Serengeti Sell-off”, which notes that “experts say the Tanzanian President’s approval of the deal may be imminent, but if we act now, we can stop this sell-off of the Serengeti,” has received 2.2 million signatures.

Alex Wilks, campaign director for Avaaz, commented: “The Maasai stare out from every tourism poster, but Tanzania’s government wants to kick them off their land. Treating the Maasai as the great unwanted would be a disaster for Tanzania’s reputation.”

Drawing a distinction

The Tanzanian government’s plans represent but one example of a raft of land deals currently playing out across Africa, ranging from fairly arranged exchanges between investors and landowners to those where little attention has been paid to the population.

By way of contrast, the UAE’s Al Dahra Agriculture has been involved very positively with agricultural investment in both Namibia and southern Egypt, where it has provided significant investment to irrigate land that was previously unused and unsuitable for farming: a clear net gain for the country.

Al Dahra Agriculture targets 300,000-tonne wheat crop in S. Egypt

Meanwhile, in Tanzania three-quarters the population are farmers, but only 6% of the country’s budget in 2012 went to agriculture. So there is no doubt that foreign investment is required in the farming sector, as well as in others — and game reserves are one such model.

However, Oxfam notes land deals are also being driven purely by outside speculators with short-term interests, facilitated by corrupt officials and an absence of rigorous regulation.

When thousands of individuals face dispossession, it would seem like the latter may be the case.