By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dressed in his traditional red shawl, Edward Loure was watching over a herd of cattle grazing on dew-laden grass when he heard that his efforts to protect land rights had earned him one of the world's most prestigious environmental prizes.
The 44-year-old Maasai community leader in Tanzania's northern Manyara region is among six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's largest award for grassroots campaigners, presented on Monday in San Francisco.
"I am very humbled to receive this honor, it's a great honor for the entire Maasai and Hadzabe community," Loure said of the prize which was also awarded to activists from Cambodia, Slovakia, Puerto Rico, the United States and Peru.
Seeing the indigenous people of northern Tanzania come under increasing pressure from commercial interests, Loure, who keeps more than 200 cattle, decided more than a decade ago to take action to protect his people's land and way of life.
"Some people call this land a 'conservation area', but for me and my family this is our home," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Semi-nomadic Maasai herders and hunter-gatherer Hadzabe communities in Tanzania's northern rangelands have lived side by side with wildlife for centuries, co-existing peacefully and safeguarding the region's fragile ecological balance.
However, rising numbers of large-scale land deals in Africa are pitting indigenous people against investors. Resource and tourism projects may have brought money and jobs but campaigners say marginalized communities face loss of land as well as the ability to practise traditional land management techniques.
For Loure, armed with both indigenous knowledge and a university degree in management, protecting his community and its ancient culture became his life's goal.
Working with the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT), a grassroots land rights group in northern Tanzania, he began to examine tenure documentation to fight for land security.
Knowing a lack of official titles would let outsiders grab land they considered to be unclaimed, Loure set about formalizing land rights for the Maasai and Hadzabe.
Loure and UCRT pioneered an approach that gives land titles to indigenous communities instead of individuals using a provision called the Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCRO) from the Tanzanian Village Land Act.
"I had what it takes to fight for the marginalized community's land rights to ensure that their territory is protected from land grabbers," he said.
"We identified specific areas for hunting, gathering and grazing. Then we prepared all the documents and through lobbying and advocacy, we finally achieved ownership of our land."
One of the oldest surviving cultures on earth, the Hadzabe have been living by hunting and gathering for some 40,000 years.
Although it was not common for a cattle-raising Maasai such as Loure to work on behalf of the Hadzabe people, he won their trust and a reputation for openness and fairness.
By 2013, after nearly a decade of work, Loure had secured more than 200,000 acres of land for the Maasai and Hadzabe using CCROs.
Loure also negotiated an agreement between the Hadzabe group and a non-profit environmental organization, Carbon Tanzania, so the local community could be paid for the carbon sequestered in their forests.
Securing land rights has assured the survival of the Hadzabe people and their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, while generating modest revenue from carbon credits and carefully managed cultural tourism.
"The Hadzabe have a very rich culture that will be lost if their land is taken away from them," said Loure.
"They are very clever and have expertise in animal tracking, making traditional weapons to hunt and gather fruits, roots and honey from the forest."
Born to a Maasai tribe, Loure grew up in the Simanjiro plains, where his family led a peaceful nomadic life, raising their cattle among wildlife such as wildebeest and zebra.
In 1970, the Tanzanian government sealed off part of their village land to create Tarangire National Park and forcibly evicted the Maasai living within the park's boundaries.
Since then the Maasai have lost more than 150,000 acres of rangeland across northern Tanzania. Population growth and commercial demands have put pressure on areas managed by the Maasai and Hadzabe, often perceived as 'empty', said David Gordon, Executive Director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Loure's success has inspired other indigenous groups to use the same strategy to protect land, and he is working to secure rights for communities to secure more than 970,000 acres of land, mostly in northern Tanzania.
"This work is challenging but all in all I love what I do: everything is done with the aim of seeing ways to help the pastoralists and the community," he said.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)