Soqotra's inaccessibility is one factor. Until recently there were just two weekly flights from Yemen to the airstrip outside Hadiboh-now even these have been suspended. Without an influx of people and technologies the Soqotrans have had to use and protect their natural resources. They live by fishing, herding livestock, date cultivation and gathering plant products-a lifestyle that has changed little since the first settlers arrived over 2000 years ago. There are no ports, proper roads, or sewerage facilities on the island, and Hadiboh has electricity for only a few hours a day.
With very little in the way of modern building materials and medicines, wild plant products are crucial to the survival of the Soqotran people. So much so that they have developed a system for preventing over-exploitation of the island flora. These rules are enforced by a network of tribal elders who control, for example, the cutting of live trees and shrubs. The tribal elders also ensure that livestock are moved from one area to another to prevent overgrazing.
But just because the flora has survived until now, doesn't mean there is any room for complacency. Even with builtin safeguards, the balance between islanders and their environment is precarious. The problem is that Soqotra's people are increasingly calling for the benefits that development would bring. Famine used to claim many lives during each summer drought-imports of milk powder, flour, cooking oil and rice, which began in the early 1970s, have largely put an end to that. But malaria and tuberculosis are still widespread and the infant mortality rate is 131 per 1000-one of the highest in the world.
Miranda Morris, an ethnographer from St Andrews in Scotland, is one of a handful of Westerners to speak Soqotran. She has visited the island several times to research its culture, and confirms that Soqotrans want development. Many have relatives enjoying a better life in the Arabian Gulf. They say they want improved communications with the mainland, better healthcare and water distribution and imports of subsidised building materials to conserve trees on the island. Most importantly, they want a harbour that can be used in all weathers and freezer facilities so that they can earn a proper living from their fishing. The waters around the Soqotran archipelago contain some of the richest fish stocks in the Indian Ocean. But Soqotrans also recognise the dangers of uncontrolled development, particularly overgrazing. The people, says Morris, have "a clear understanding of the value to them of preserving the equilibrium between human and livestock numbers on the one hand, and the vegetation on the other". But is it possible to meet the needs of the islanders and still preserve Soqotra's unique botanical heritage?