Book reviews

Book Review: Nathalie Peutz’s Islands of Heritage

Nathalie Peutz’s Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen is a sweeping account of life at the intersection of conservation projects, international development, national politics, and globalization on the largest island of Yemen’s Soqotra Archipelago. Soqotra is a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site renowned for its vast collection of unique plant and animal species, which makes it one of the most biodiverse places in the world. According to UNESCO, Soqotra is “of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna.” As Peutz shows, however, Soqotra’s designation as a natural World Heritage Site and the related burst of attention to its ostensibly universal natural value has effectively marginalized both Soqotra’s historical and its contemporary cultural heritage. While Soqotra was transformed from a generally undisturbed island community to the focus of large European-funded conservation programs oriented towards environmental protection, the waves of researchers, conservationists, and organizations that flocked to the island disregarded the fact that, in addition to its natural biodiversity, Soqotra is home to the rich cultural heritage of the Soqotran people, including the endangered Soqotri language. As the island has faced the onslaught of development, rapidly changing climate conditions, and now a civil war, the people of Soqotra have turned to this heritage as a tool to advocate for their political and cultural rights. Peutz situates this challenge to the status quo, what she calls “a heritagial revolution,” within a geopolitical and historical context where cultural heritage has long been the stage of anti-imperialist struggles for sovereignty. Here, Peutz argues that environmental protection and development are neither neutral nor apolitical, but part of a tradition of using the language of protection and conservation to facilitate the imperial ambitions of western powers. It is with this attention to nuance and history that she is able to show how heritage, in both its discursive and material forms, has become a force to be reckoned with in emerging struggles for political, social, and cultural empowerment in Yemen.