Development is certainly on the cards. Soqotra is part of Yemen, and the government there has long-standing plans for the island. But action has been delayed by a lack of financial and other resources. The country has also been involved in a year-long civil war. Now, however, there is a new government keen to improve conditions on the island. This time the Yemeni government has joined forces with the United Nations Development Programme and put together a five-year conservation programme. If it goes ahead, it will be the first step towards giving Soqotrans the development they want. First, however, Yemen must ratify the Convention on Biodiversity so that it can submit the programme to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an international organisation that helps finance environmental projects. Ratification is imminent and there is a good chance the programme will be accepted. Eventually, it could get backing from British Gas. The company, which is currently looking for hydrocarbons off the coast of Soqotra, has agreed to assist the conservation programme if exploration is successful. The programme is good news for plants because it proposes research into natural ways to regenerate endangered species and the establishment of a nursery where seedlings can be grown before reintroducing them into the wild. If the programme goes ahead there will also be a survey to see how widespread and effective traditional land management practices are, as well as research to assess how changes in vegetation might affect people and their livestock. Experiences elsewhere have shown that ethnobotanical knowledge is one of the first casualties of modern development, so Soqotra's programme is to include a plan to list local plant uses.
A common problem for conservationists is the lack of comprehensive and userfriendly information on the plants they are trying to save. So botanists familiar with Soqotra's flora are collaborating with Morris to prepare a field guide to plants and their traditional uses which they hope will serve as a model for conservation work elsewhere. At its centre is an illustrated plant identification key with cross-references to details on botany, ecology, and ethnobotany. The information will also be fed into a database, which will allow the project to analyse changing plant distributions and predict the impact of future development.
The GEF programme aims to build on the network of local village councils, and employ Soqotrans in every aspect of the project. Some will train as guide naturalists to provide tours for the increased number of Yemenis who want to study botany, ecology and conservation in the region. Local people may also be involved in efforts to bring healthcare to highland communities and to put traditional medicine on a firmer footing by opening a pharmacy in Hadiboh. Perhaps most importantly, the project will screen products from certain endemic species for possible commercialisation abroad, as dyes, resins, gums and medicines. With these plans comes renewed optimism for the future of Soqotra. Development seems inevitable, and a sensitive approach could raise living standards for the people while preserving the unique plants that are their most important natural resource. If the programme does work it will be a rare success story for island conservation. If it fails, uncontrolled development could turn this fragile environment into a desert within a few decades.