Every particle of the air surrounding us is infused with salt and minerals. We can neither see nor smell a thing except for the thick residue of volcanic eruptions, fish, and fumes from the burning of second-rate gasoline. We hear flies humming in our ears, on top of a blurred, low-pitched noise of the air blasted with salt. In flashing visions, everything feels so firm from faraway. We take a few steps and it all crumbles under our feet. The air is getting heavier, we are sweating, connections are lost and navigation is almost impossible. Everything is restless yet it is as if time stands still and nothing is what it appears to be.
The location of this story is the island of Hormuz situated in the south of Iran, historically known as the “key” to the Persian Gulf. Hormuz is a 42-square-kilometer sedimentary island rich in Red soil, hence the red aesthetics. Red soil, the result of weathering of rocks, is not naturally arable unless thoroughly fertilized. The island has almost an estimated 7,000 population of indigenous people, and a mushrooming number of tourists, recorded as 300,000 for the year 2019. The local informal workforce engages in fishing, smuggling, tourist industries and craft making.
The history of the island is rich with diverse stories that go back centuries. Once Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled there, later it was compared to Venice, and further down the road it had a central and prominent position in international maritime trade. The island had been ruled by the Portuguese for more than one hundred years: remnants of their fortress are still in place. It was then recaptured by an Anglo-Persian joint force, nonetheless it lost its prominence during the Safavid era as the rulers could not trust the island given its prior occupation. This led to wide depopulation of the island, except for the fishermen who remained.
It was only in the 20th century that Hormuz regained some recognition, owed to the process of modernizing and formalizing Iran’s economy to a global standard that was initiated during Pahlavi’s reign. Modernization was focused on developing southern Iran in order to cater to global trade, commerce, industry and regional tourism. This had long been an enduring strategy for the role and futurity of the Iranian state in the Persian Gulf.
In the plight of modernization, Hormuz was transformed into a mini industrial complex, home to the red soil mining facility.
After the Iranian revolution, Hormuz was once again left alone and to some extent went arid. The island remained highly dependent on the mainland for sourcing produce and accessing infrastructures. Locals were deprived of potable water, electricity, communication, transport, educational, medical facilities and even entertainment on the island. The situation worsened after the Iran-Iraq war hit the country and shifted Iran’s priorities towards reparation of war-torn cities and infrastructures. Followed by a devastating flood that ruined the old town of Hormuz, impoverishment accelerated as the local population lost prominent economic prospects needed in order to care for itself. To this end, locals have since been mostly engaged in small-scale smuggling, artisanal fishing which was supplemented in the last two decades with a growing market for rural art crafts and seasonal tourism.
Smuggling marks the face of the cities and rural areas in the South of Iran, forming the maritime border of the country. Given the proximity of these cities to other Gulf states, smuggling has been always present in the everyday life of workers and experiences of people. Passing through the smaller cities in Hormozgan province, one can see stores selling products of non-Iranian origin; foreign labels and goods like kitchen appliances that cannot officially be imported into the country. Although the state has disrupted many of the smuggling routes and has made illicit trade a risky and high cost activity—which deters the availability of foreign, low-value goods—the black market is still omnipresent in the Hormozgan province. Currently, the most prominent and profitable smuggled goods of Hormozgan are diesel fuel and gasoline. In the case of Hormuz island, the harsh criminalization of smuggling and the economic prosperity brought by tourism has lowered the necessity of illegal trade. Most of the former Shooti (local word for runners or smugglers) are now in one way or another engaged in tourism related activities.
The modern state laid the basis for accumulative exploitation of ecology, indigenous knowledge, natural resources and the economic independence of rural communities. In the case of Iran, this has been exacerbated by the fact that not only did the blueprints of modernization not evolve locally, but also those projected and exported by western states did not materialize as planned to. Communities, especially in rural places, underwent abrupt transformations without having access to legal protection and modern political representation, which would have allowed them to defend their rights, or enact ownership over established structures. Land enclosure acts, the establishment of documented private property and territorial divisions are examples of quick developments that were met with material, natural, structural and human frictions. Despite an effort to place blame on developing localities as incapable of “becoming modern”, the acclaimed failure of this approach was a result of the homogeneity of modernization that was indifferent to what has been happening on the ground. Thus, instead of the promise of universal liberal welfare, it was the contradiction of rising inequality alongside material wealth and the deskilling of the local workforce that was translated. The legacies of this intergenerational history can be traced to the contemporary policies imposed on the island. One instance is the attempts on formalizing the economy, understood as an inevitable necessity, that has instead contributed to further marginalization of the locals. These efforts fall short in comprehending the complexities of the local context, by reducing the problem to linear causality and setting up lopsided violent policies.
Formalizing the fishing economy on the island only added bureaucratic pressure to the multitude of regulations imposed on local fishermen in response to fuel smuggling and a dwindling supply of fish. In order to discourage smuggling and preserve marine life, regulation and monitoring of fishermen has taken the form of a limited fishing allowance and allocating a set amount of subsidized fuel per licensed boat. These regulations have been detrimental to artisanal fishermen, who now face the difficulty of sourcing cheap fuel, lest the formal fishing expenses overrun the profits from their now limited catch. The root cause of scarcity is not local fishing practices, but rather a consequence of large-scale international trade deals which saw the surrounding waters rented to Chinese enterprises to run their commercial fishing trawlers (operated by informal workers from South East Asia).
The licensing system which was implemented shows how the process of formalizing an economy also works to actualize the values of the ruling patriarchy. Initially fishing licenses were only issued to men and heads of families which deprived women of formal participation in the market, owning assets and ultimately financial independence. Only this year, after a long process initiated by the cooperative of women fishermen of Hengam island did they manage to negotiate the rights to obtain a license in pairs, meaning that if put in motion, all revenues and profits would still be split between two women as obligatory co-owners. All in all, the local fishermen on Hormuz earn less than what they used to and face the increased threat of criminalization and penalization due to tighter anti-smuggling legislation.
While modernization, initiated in the pre-revolution era, was once identified with industrial production, economic growth and ideological indoctrination, other extractive temporalities have superseded the former listed. The primary assets are no longer limited to the red soil minerals or a coherent future vision or plans for the region, laid down in the modernization period. On the microeconomic scale, these assets now include immaterial properties like the air and the untouched aura of Hormuz, a black market of leisure and tourism in Iran. The macroeconomic scale now involves the strategic geolocation of Hormuz, affording the imagined possibilities of the island becoming an artistic hub, a proxy location, or a SEZ.
These assets and their ensuing cultural, economic and political opportunities are activated, exploited and cashed out through the simultaneous involvement of the state, the private sector and small-scale initiatives and entrepreneurs.
The island’s increased notoriety is to some extent an upshot of emerging freelance and creative economies, and also a derivative of the global hype to rediscover rural locations. In Iran, the artificial scarcity of legal leisure created by the state amplifies the need for spatialities that bring forth another experience of time and space. Burnt out urbanites escape precarious lives to experience something beyond their everyday struggles. Hormuz has been one of the locations responding to this need by all its human and non-human capacities by supplying informal and carefree settings and unknown escapes. This encounter, in which the Sarhadi
(local term referring to non-locals) offloads pressure and the Hormuzi accommodates, has had multifold material and immaterial effects on the island, its inhabitants and its ecology. Besides the cultural clashes that this exchange forces upon the local youth to compare and assimilate a progressive identity, it has material impacts on the island’s ecology; greatly increasing waste and other forms of pollution. In a way this contact injects the logic of exodus and escaping Hormuz, physically and ideologically, into its future.
The rural locality becomes a thing to be consumed by the cultural elite, hence a potential arbitrary asset; while at a similar pace, its value deteriorates as the lure of the island is directly linked to its exoticism and mystical scarcity. The encompassing access and commodification of landscapes contradict the need for the discovery of unknown mystique on the island. Now traveling around the island in a rickshaw takes less than an hour on the newly built ring road. The tarmacked ring was among the first contemporary infrastructure projects that appeared on the island, giving access to all the remote areas to an influx of tourists. Thus, the mystical becomes generic. In this sense, the attraction to the island could have a rather short life span and an expiry date approaching.
The collateral influx of tourists is exacerbated by the state, who has also taken interest in this emerging market. This has been manifest in rural development plans, carried out in the past five years by state subsidiary organizations and semi-private contractors who cater to the rural population yet serve the state’s sociopolitical and economic motives. For the state, tourism could help fight smuggling, by creating ‘decent’ opportunities, and consequently decelerate depopulation. And as a must-do, controlling infrastructures equals having access to logistics, hence the future possible profits. Beneficiaries of the leisure industry include non-state clients, private sector, real estate developers, architectural firms and small scale entrepreneurs. Non-locals tap into this receptive market to gain profits, or to hold precedent and monopoly or to invest and speculate in the future by getting hold of assets and lands or deals to execute special projects. Influential actors equally influence state written political and market policies to gatekeep exclusive access to resources, opportunities and permits. This makes it more alluring for speculators and investors to shape market–interventions, for instance in the realty market. It is widely said that to this point over 80 percent of lands—excluding the homes of locals—have been sold to non-locals, with higher prices than what locals have traded their lands for. Unsurprisingly, this has dramatically contributed to rural gentrification, inflation and (uncontrolled) soaring land and rent prices.
The mushrooming of non-locally owned hostels and eco-retreats in remote and preserved areas—previously known as common lands—speaks to this market exploitation. While these projects greenwash their intervention under the motto of sustainable development and community engagement, they simultaneously underpin the creation of credit, and introduce the well rehearsed concept of surplus value on land and asset economy on the island. Ironically, these seemingly emancipatory projects are stated to be empowering locals who are not even able to afford running a business as such from the get-go or living the eco-friendly life. In fact, reducing ‘eco’ to rhetoric is somewhat irrelevant to the locals, who, for instance, build their houses out of concrete and cement imported from the mainland. If anything, islanders wish to be something more than rural victims or subjected to romanticization. Pivotal to this is to improve their living conditions, increase purchase power and broaden their truly ecologically sustainable future rather than solely practicing a lifestyle. The eco-entrepreneurs dismiss the local knowledge, agency and awareness of their conditions. Instead, the extent to which locals have been engaged with these projects hardly goes beyond maintaining services i.e. transportation, cooking or supplying prohibited goods. Thus, by deskilling locals and accustoming them to service work, the ecological, cultural and economic disempowerment accelerates unless core issues such as ownership, shareholding and access to resources can be thoroughly addressed. These instances figure the island as a flat landscape that could be cultivated with almost any profitable or desired monoculture. In doing so, the island is erased/deprived of a history or memory of its own or an imagination of the future that could exist outside market oriented practices and maximization of profits. Despite the liberal welfare promises, the indigenous population and ecology are absent in this speculation. Thus, the current operation of tourism on the island mimics the extractive temporalities of mining.
Although tourism is extractive and unreliable, it has brought immediate profits, slightly improved infrastructures and a shared sense of prosperity to the island that had been left in an underdeveloped state. While development is necessary, for the islanders to gain access to social welfare and a stable future, the applied quasi development plans fall short in working towards sustainability beyond fulfilling the representational aesthetics. The material limits of the island— finite resources, rising sea levels, problems with garbage management and pollution, seasonal markets and most importantly land grabs and gentrification on the rise imply that the future could easily equal the displacement of the local population to other underdeveloped locations or the prospect of enormous debt. The issue with tourism currently, as a means to sustain the local economy, is that it works through the politics of survival. This means that the leisure market has to cover and compensate for all the structural shortcomings, and the livelihood of the hosting population becomes solely dependent on the continuity of the tourist influx. As proven since the start of the pandemic, the local economy has become deeply dependent on this market, to the extent that during lockdowns locals demanded that the visitors be allowed entry. The tragedy of Banana Republics outlines how economies reliant on limited resources usually pan out if let to the goodwill of the free market. This brings forth the paradox of sustainable development, as is the slogan of many private projects, being a faux presumption, as sustainability equally necessitates degrowth, rather than progression and exploitation of one resource at the cost of others.
Strategizing for the near future is a trait of informal economies, being in many ways innovative and requiring adaptability to hostile and shifting conditions. While thinking and expecting profits in immediate terms is inevitable due to the perpetual uncertainties and instabilities in the region and the level of access to resources in time, the logic of profit is also a remnant of the colonial and extractive histories in this geopolitics. The drive to demand more, or to imagine an impersonal future, has been oppressed to the point that the durational prosperity brought forth through tourism seems to have become an end unto itself. The shortsightedness and focus on the present, however tacitly unsustainable, has been boosted by the active non-local parties on the island. The empowerment projects or aid-work speak of short term assistance that could only enhance the situation in immediate terms and rely on logic of trickle-down economics. The persisting question is: Who owns these businesses? If the owners are non-local private persons, who will be most vulnerable in the present or near-future? Given the ecological and economic deterioration, how can this prosperity be lengthened and channeled into longer term infrastructural projects, welfare development and ecological preservation and restoration?
The industrial model centered around the red soil mine turned into informal smuggling and now has experienced a shift to the informal service industry in the tourism market. This implies that tourism has gained a central position to different actors and towards the realization of future horizons, even though it leaves this locality in a vulnerable position and further solidifies low waged labor. As a result, it appears that the only way out could be through pursuing entrepreneurial individual venture, i.e. running a hostel or a café as non-locals do, even when it is less likely for the locals to have the financial and cultural capital, a broad network and also previous knowledge about running businesses as such. If informality is the main mode of economic participation on the island and if entrepreneurship is a market opening, then how can the locality actively afford this situation (capitalism, neoliberalism, financialization, asset economy, ecological destruction) with the tools it has access to? How can the synthesis of the two, the informal economy and entrepreneurship for the commons, mount to collective ownership and local governance? Even though the tourism market falls short in providing sustainability and infrastructural development, it has the opportunity to be exploited by the locals, while at its peak. This is a task that is most manageable when departing from the local scale and learning from informal formations on the island that have the capacity to tweak markets and impose demands. For instance, locals hold power over transportation on the island, available through rickshaws. A few years back, electric cars were introduced on the island and the informal community, although not a formal trade union, protested and sanctioned these cars, as the ownership of the cars would have remained in the hands of the private owner, at least for quite some time.
Informality is thus in tight connection with land, territory and geography in infiltrating and forging novel routes when all formal and legal channels are blocked. To reiterate, the collectivization of non-individual informality and the informal workers could channel the capacities of entrepreneurial activities to collectively redistribute and own island assets, lands and shares on activities. This calls on collective deliberation and self-reliance, borrowing from the long present histories of council management and operations of informal local councils. It also recalls further research on fixes that diverge from either state supported formalization and regulations providing competitive opportunities or the privately exploited tourism market and its trickle-down economy. These fixes thus need to comprehend that immediacy and short term planning are deeply enmeshed in the political economy and economic structures of the region, and then to think about the ways that immediacy can emerge with longer term plans.
To say that social and economic progress is not a faux promise is to dislodge progress from exponential growth and production-based value. Progress thus is measured by restoring Hormuz to the diversity and various scales of actions as Anna Tsing describes in The Mushrooms at the End of the World which are determined by the possibilities of the island, with its human and non-human agents. This assumes that locals do not need to be empowered or indoctrinated, instead reciprocal relations need to be established that correspond to local definitions of time and value while providing common infrastructures and granting leverage to each individual.