SOCOTRA, Yemen – Evolution has run riot on Yemen’s windy isles of Socotra, whose dizzying cliffs, jagged peaks and exotic plants entice the imagination to do the same.
Here be dragons, or at least Dragon’s Blood trees, prized for their red medicinal sap. Fearsome gales blow beaches up hillsides. People speak an obscure language older than Arabic.
The ancients cherished Socotra as a source of frankincense, myrhh and aloe, and until just a few years ago these islands off the Horn of Africa were all but cut off from the modern world.
Yemen is now asking UNESCO to recognise its remote Arabian Sea archipelago, with its spectacular green mountains and white beaches, as a world natural heritage site for its biodiversity and natural beauty. The U.N. agency is to decide in early July.
Its long isolation eroded, Socotra now faces the challenge of how to conserve its natural treasures while carefully opening up to tourism and improving life for its 50,000 people, many of whom still subsist on fish, dates and goats in a harsh climate.
“The islanders aspire for what other people have,” Yemen’s Environment Minister Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani told Reuters.
“In the past they didn’t know of anything except what they had. They thought the whole world was like theirs. The pressure is now very strong. Socio-economic change has been very fast.”
In Irsal, on the northeastern tip of Socotra, deputy village headman Matar Abdullah recalled bygone times when he used to catch sharks for a living with lines from a wooden rowing boat.
“Now we have motor boats, but the sharks have gone far out to sea. There are too many fishermen, with big ships from (the Yemeni mainland ports of) Mukalla and Hodeida, or Pakistan,” said the 45-year-old with gold teeth and grey hair.
Abdullah said the road being built between Irsal and the island capital, Hadibo, had made it easier for the 400 villagers to make occasional trips to buy food or get medical help. They also appreciated their new school and clinic, but needed jobs.
Conservationists trying to preserve Socotra, which rivals the Galapagos and Mauritius for endemic plant species, realise they cannot ignore the material interests of the islanders.
But they challenge government decisions that have endowed Socotra with Yemen’s longest airport runway, roads as broad as some mainland highways, and schools and hospitals built with little thought for how to staff, equip and maintain them.
“The problem is you are getting roads up to eight metres wide in areas where there are hardly any communities,” said Paul Scholte, a U.N. expert who works as chief technical adviser to the Socotra Conservation and Development Programme (SCDP).
“Irsal has approximately 400 people and four or five cars. The road leading there…is the same width as the one between Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, and Hodeida, the main port.”
Scholte said highways like this — and others which bypass villages rather than connect them — were eyesores hugely damaging to the environment and to Socotra’s tourist potential.
“For example, the road to the northeast goes through a very narrow coastal plain, destroying the dune landscape and a couple of very nice camping sites that attract hundreds of tourists. So you are killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Not many tourists find their way to Socotra, which has only basic guest houses and campsites, but 3,000 are expected this year, up from 2,500 in 2007 and 1,600 the previous year.
Iryani, the environment minister, ruled out mass tourism on an island in mid-ocean that has little water and no respite from seasonal winds that batter its shores from May to September.
“It can be an eco-tourism destination, if managed well, for people interested in biodiversity, culture, flora,” he said.
Iryani is among the conservationists fighting other ministries over road plans for Socotra — in principle no new ones can now be built without meeting environmental criteria.
“These roads are motivated by contracts, not the needs of the people. This is part of the corruption we are fighting in Yemen,” Iryani said of plans for a ring road around Socotra.
The island’s myriad goats pose another environmental threat to Socotra’s 900 plant species, a third of which are endemic.
“A lot of species are vulnerable or endangered, mostly due to lack of regeneration,” said Nadim Taleb, SCDP’s site manager. “Goats are eating the young trees, except the poisonous ones.”
OLD WAYS UNDER PRESSURE
Socotra’s traditional way of life is crumbling under the onslaught of modernity kept largely at bay until north and south Yemen united in 1990 and the new airport was built in 1999.
Schools teach only in Arabic, not Socotri, an unwritten tongue. Mobile telephones and satellite television dishes are spreading, fuelling unrealistic demand for consumer goods. Many Socotris have acquired a qat habit — qat is a mild stimulant drug popular in mainland Yemen, but new to Socotra.
In Homhill, Abdullah Ali manages a campsite in a protected area in rugged mountains where villagers peddle dried Dragon’s Blood sap and frankincense to occasional foreign visitors.
“Some changes have improved the lives of locals who act as guides or sell handicrafts and incense. We are used to a poor life, looking after livestock far from the market in the city.
“The government has built a school and I hope my children will be teachers or doctors to help the community,” said the father of two, sitting cross-legged in a matting shelter.
Ali, whose livelihood is now linked to tourism, is wary of the idea that foreigners might want to visit Socotri villages.
“A guide should tell them the rules, not to take photos of our women. We can’t let people go to the village because of our traditions. Anyway our women can’t speak English or Arabic.”
Some tourists on Socotra seemed keener on beach frolics than biodiversity, posing a dilemma for locals — they are affronted by bikini-clad Westerners ignoring Muslim dresscodes, but are aware of the cash to be earned from them.
So far friction has been minimal and Socotra remains a hospitable place, seemingly insulated from the violence of Islamist militants whose attacks on tourists in mainland Yemen have prompted Western travel warnings. But tensions exist.
“Things are changing for the worse,” warned Mukhtar al-Hinkasi, a youthful preacher teaching Islam to a group of teenagers in a spring-watered date palm grove near Qalensiya, Socotra’s second biggest town.
He said tourists must respect local customs and Islamic traditions: “Some respect Islam, some don’t,” the bearded 26-year-old added.
“Some bring bad things like alcohol, Christmas and New Year (celebrations), dancing, makeup and women wearing bad clothes. The government should make rules against this.”