Facing Pressure From Rights Groups, World Bank Suspends Funding for Tanzania Tourism Project

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) -- The World Bank has suspended funding for a tourism project in Tanzania that caused the suffering of tens of thousands of villagers, according to a U.S.-based rights group that has long urged the global lender to take such action.

The World Bank's decision to suspend the $150 million project, which aims to improve the management of natural resources and tourism assets in a remote part of southern Tanzanian, was "long overdue," the Oakland Institute said in a statement Tuesday, charging that the bank's "failure to take immediate action resulted in serious harms for the local communities."

At least $100 million has already been disbursed for the project, which started in 2017. The suspension of World Bank financing took effect April 18.

The Oakland Institute, a California-based rights watchdog whose work focuses on marginalized communities, for years led calls for the World Bank to stop funding the project known by the acronym REGROW, documenting serious rights abuses suffered by Indigenous communities in the area.

The group in a report released in November accused the World Bank of failing to hold Tanzanian authorities accountable for extrajudicial killings and sexual assaults relating to the expansion of Ruaha National Park.

The report said the Tanzanian government's tactics to force communities away and increase tourism in Ruaha National Park, a goal of the REGROW project, were "inextricably tied to its financing by the World Bank."

The World Bank said at the time that it "has zero tolerance for violence in the projects it finances," adding that a panel of inspectors was reviewing a complaint related to REGROW "to determine whether a compliance audit into the concerns raised is warranted."

In recent correspondence between the World Bank and the Oakland Institute seen by The Associated Press, the lender confirmed the suspension of further disbursements to REGROW "until we are confident that the project is upholding our environmental and social standards."

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, said the World Bank's decision to suspend funding for "a dangerous project" is a victory for marginalized communities in the East African country.

"It sends a resounding message to the Tanzanian government that there are consequences for its rampant rights abuses taking place across the country to boost tourism," Mittal said. "The days of impunity are finally coming to an end."

It was not immediately possible to obtain a comment from Tanzanian authorities.

The Oakland Institute documented at least 12 disappearances or extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by rangers, in addition to multiple sexual assaults of women. Government agencies allegedly seized and auctioned large numbers of cattle, imposing a heavy financial strain aimed at pressuring herders to leave.

"During the first months of 2024, rangers illegally seized and auctioned off thousands of cattle from herders while preventing farmers from cultivating their land -– devastating countless livelihoods as a result," it said in its statement Tuesday.

Tanzania relies heavily on tourism to finance its budget, and the country has long been trying to develop its extensive national parks to attract more visitors.

Tens of thousands of communities in other parts of Tanzania have been caught up in the efforts, putting local authorities under the spotlight over civilian abuses. These efforts, cited by Amnesty International and others, include the violent eviction of 70,000 Maasai from grazing lands in the Loliondo area to clear vast tracts of land for trophy hunting.