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Leeward Antilles : Bonaire


The Caribbean island of Bonaire  and the uninhabited islet of Klein Bonaire is a public body of the Netherlands situated approximately 80 km north of Venezuela. Together with Aruba and Curacao it forms a group referred to as the ABC islands of the Leeward Antilles, the southern island chain of the Lesser Antilles. From the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles on 10 October 2010, the BES islands - Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba - were given the status of public body (often referred to as "special municipality") within the Netherlands, while the islands of Curacao and St Maarten became autonomous countries within the Dutch Kingdom, joining Aruba, which gained the status in 1986.

Bonaire has a land area of 288 km2, while Klein Bonaire is a further 6 km2. It is on the brink of a deep trough in the ocean floor, thus separated from the South American mainland. Bonaire is a flat, dry and riverless island formed from ancient fossil reefs. The island has a network of caves with scant vegetation and negligible natural resources other than white sandy beaches and saltpans. Its tropical climate is moderated by constant trade winds from the Atlantic Ocean. The island population was reported as being 14,500 in 2009 with most of the inhabitants concentrated around the two towns, Kralendijk the capital, and Rincon.

Bonaire's earliest known inhabitants were the Caquetios Indians, a branch of the Arawak who came by canoe from Venezuela in about AD 1000. Archeological remains of Caquetio culture have been found at certain sites northeast of Kralendijk and near Lac Bay with their rock paintings and petroglyphs preserved in various caves around the island. The Caquetios were apparently a very tall people, for the Spanish name for the ABC islands was ‘las Islas de los Gigantes’ or ‘the islands of the giants’. The first Europeans came to Bonaire in 1499, when Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci arrived and claimed it for Spain. Finding little of commercial value and seeing no future for large-scale agriculture, the Spanish decided not to develop the island. Instead, they unceremoniously enslaved the Indians and moved them off to work in the plantations on the Island of Hispanolia, effectively leaving the island unpopulated.

The name Bonaire is thought to have originally come from the Caiquetio word 'Bonay', a name that meant low country. The early Spanish and Dutch modified its spelling to Bojnaj and also Bonaire. The French influence while present at various times never was strong enough to make the assumption that the name means 'good air'. Regardless of how the name came about, the island remained as a lonely outpost until 1526. It was in that year that cattle were brought to the island by then governor Juan de Ampues. Some of the Caiquetios were returned to act as laborers and in a few years, the island became a center for raising other animals such as sheep, goats, pigs, horses and donkeys.  Since they were being raised more for their skins and not their meat, they required little tending and were allowed to roam and fend for themselves. The result was large herds of animals that far outnumbered the population. Today, there are a number of wild donkeys that still inhabit the Kunuku (farms and plantations), but the majority now enjoy life at the Donkey Sanctuary where their needs are attended. Many goats can also be seen foraging in less populated areas of the island.

In 1633, the Dutch took possession of Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba. The largest island, Curacao, emerged as a center of the notorious slave trade. Bonaire then became a plantation island belonging to the Dutch West Indies Company. It was during those early years that the first African slaves were forced to work, cutting dyewood and cultivating maize and harvesting solar salt. By 1837, Bonaire was a thriving center of salt production. The government, who by then controlled the industry, built four obelisks, each painted a different color, red, white, blue and orange (the colors of the Dutch Flag and the Royal House of Orange). They were erected strategically near areas of the salt lake. The idea was to signal ships where to pick up their cargoes of salt. A flag of the corresponding color was raised atop a flagpole, thus signalling the ship's captain where to drop anchor.

During the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, Bonaire was a protectorate of Britain and the United States. The American army built an air force base. After Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, many Dutch and German citizens were interned in a camp on Bonaire for the duration of war. In 1944, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Eleanor Roosevelt visited the troops on Bonaire. After the war, the economy of Bonaire continued to develop. The airport was turned over to civilian use, and the former internment camp converted into the first hotel on Bonaire. The Dutch Schunck family built a clothing factory and salt production resumed in 1966.

The Bonaire Petroleum Corporation (BOPEC) terminal was opened in 1975 where tankers from Venezuela pump crude oil into storage tanks before it is taken to be refined on Aruba and Curacao. In September 2010 a lightning strike started a fire at this facility that raged out of control for two days sending black clouds billowing 10,000 feet over the island. There was resultant pollution on beaches and saltwater lagoons where oily rain and soot subsequently fell as shown in this video.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

Bonaire’s peak electricity demand is approximately 11MW. After its power plant burned down in 2004, the Government of Bonaire wanted to restore energy generation to the island from 100% renewable sources. While temporary diesel generators provided power for the short term, EcoPower Bonaire BV, a consortium of  Dutch-German companies comprised of Evelop,  part of the Econcern group, Enercon and MAN signed a contract in November 2007 with the Water and Energy Company of Bonaire (WEB NV) to build an energy system   comprising of an 11MW wind farm, 14MW biodiesel plant, 3MW battery storage backup and 10km of cable from wind farm to power station. A pilot 330kW wind turbine had been built earlier that year and performed beyond expectation. As a result, 12 more 900kW wind turbines  were installed on the northeast coast of the island and the new biodiesel power plant constructed at the northwest corner of Bonaire by the end of 2009. However, this plant is still burning fossil diesel as research to produce biodiesel from algae has not yet been completed. The cost of this project was approximately US$75 million and the return is expected to be $15 million per year from power. Part of this investment will be recovered by means of CO2 credits, which Econcern will sell to a Dutch airline.

The consortium will need 10,000 tonnes of algae per year to run the generators and whilst the plant currently can source algae in industrial-scale quantities from the salt flats, the consortium needs to figure out optimal biofuel-producing configurations. Abundant algae growth is an unintentional byproduct of the relentless sunlight on the shallow pools of evaporating seawater. To farm algae for oil production, it is necessary to control the salinity, acidity and other factors in similar pools to ensure ideal growth for the desired species. Harvesting would entail skimming the water for algae, after which it would be pressed for oil in a process comparable to making olive oil. Some algae species are up to 50% oil and preliminary analysis of several of the native species in the salt flats has been promising. In theory it should be possible to produce all the fuel needed by the power plant in less than 200 hectares of land. However, some residents and environmental groups are sceptical that biofuel will ever be used, given both the unproven nature of producing oil from algae and the location of the diesel generators close to the BOPEC oil terminal.  The placement of the diesel plant itself was also controversial having been built without an environmental impact assessment in the buffer zone of a flamingo breeding ground designated as a wetlands of international importance and bordering Bonaire’s marine reserve.

Evelop, besides operating in Bonaire, was the first company to develop a Seawater Air Conditioning (SWAC) project in the Caribbean on nearby Curacao. This system uses water from the ocean depths as a coolant for air conditioning in buildings, thereby saving 90% of energy and 20-30% on the current energy costs for cooling. A pipeline will be installed off the coast of Curacao that will extend 6 km out to sea, reaching a depth of approximately 850 metres. The cold seawater is then pumped to a special water station on land. The cool temperature of the seawater is transferred to the installation water that runs through the air conditioning in the hotels and companies located along the seashore. The SWAC system, which has a design life of twenty years, will be used to cool five large buildings in Curacao and should break even after ten years.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

For over a decade local environmentalists and radio have highlighted through various videos  the problems and the solutions needed to improve the landfill site on Bonaire run by Selibon. Their concerns ranged from the fact the landfill site had no impermeable membrane present to prevent possible groundwater contamination by toxic waste; fires breaking out on numerous occasions when gases emitted from organic waste and other combustibles spontaneously ignited; and little attempt being made to separate and recycle waste materials. However, things are gradually improving. A waste reduction campaign launched by STINAPA led to some hotels providing special yellow containers for glass at all their garbage collection points; Selibon distributing receptacles to all dive centres for old batteries that are then sent to the US for recycling; and numerous establishments encouraging visitors to fill reusable water bottles with tap water instead of purchasing bottled water and disposing of empty plastic bottles in Bonaire’s landfill.

After earlier work instigated by Recycling Foundation Bonaire like introducing bottle banks, the Keep Bonaire Clean Foundation now organise annual cleanup and recycling activities around the island including an underwater cleanup dive  sponsored by Dive Friends. Local residents are now also being encouraged to bring a re-usable bag when grocery shopping as such a practice will help eliminate the need for the importation of plastic bags. In 2008 Bonaire hosted an Earthship Biotecture summer expedition that built a house made from tyres and bottles filled with soil to demonstrate how it is possible to construct an ecologically sound dwelling using only waste materials and solar energy.

Water Management & Security

The Water and Energy Company Bonaire is responsible for the supply of drinking water from a desalination plant on the island. In 2010 it started receiving complaints on water quality and blamed the problems of brown water on old water pipes. The company acknowledge the whole pipe system is in need of modernization but have lacked the finance for the substantial investment required.

Many of the hotels, restaurants and apartments on Bonaire are not yet connected to a closed sewerage system. The current practice for dealing with wastewater is to truck it inland to a designated site once a septic tank/cesspit is full. Here the wastewater is deposited in ditches where it percolates freely into the underlying soils. After many years of environmental lobbying  and reports the government finally announced in 2010 that a new, albeit temporary, wastewater purification plant would be constructed and begin functioning in 2011. Because of the volcanic and limestone nature of Bonaire’s geology, the island is riddled with caves, underground streams and tunnels forming a connection for contaminated groundwater to leach into the sea causing eutrophication through nutrient loading and hence suffocating the reefs. In the future trucks will collect wastewater from hotels and deliver it to the new facility where after treatment it will then be used to irrigate agricultural land.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

In the past, the Dutch cultivated aloe vera on their plantations alongside divi divi trees (the pods were used to extract tannin for turning animal hides into leather), produced charcoal from mesquite trees and raised cattle and goats. The aloe was not being harvested for the gel, but rather for the resin that can be taken from the outer layers of the leaf and is famous for its bitter taste and strong laxative effect. This resin, also known as aloine, was boiled until if became a black solid substance, which was subsequently shipped to Europe and the US. Today, the Onima  plantations grow and harvest aloe vera only for extracting the pure gel to prepare a range of natural beauty and health products. Other local specialities include those made from Bonaire sea salt,  the Cadushy cactus liquer and Semper Kontentu organic goat cheese. These and other natural wares can now be purchased at the new Go Green shop  that is organizing a monthly farmers’ market. Traditional agriculture has not been neglected with the KibraHacha Foundation running a project whereby young people work on a farm learning to grow their own fruit and vegetables.


There is no ferry service of any kind between Bonaire and Aruba, Curacao or Venezuela. Flamingo Airport   is currently served by a variety of both domestic and international airlines. KLM offers five weekly non-stop service from Amsterdam to Bonaire on the way to Quito. American Eagle also offers daily non-stop flights from San Juan to and from Bonaire and other major U.S cities. In December 2005, Continental Airlines launched weekly non-stop flights from Newark and offer connections in Houston. Delta Airlines offers weekly flights between Bonaire and Atlanta on Saturdays. Several smaller airlines connect Bonaire with the neighbouring islands including Dutch Airlines Express and Arkefly.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

Today, the island attracts 100,000 tourists annually and mainly caters to scuba divers and snorkelers, as there are few sandy beaches, while the surrounding reefs start right at the waterline and extend to 300 meters from the coast. Wind surfers also make a strong group of island visitors, as the east side of the island (facing the Caribbean Sea) has the large waves and wind gusts needed for the sport. Locals Taty and Tonky Frans in 2004 were ranked in the top five of the world's freestyle windsurfing professionals. Atlantis Beach, on the western part of the island, is the local kitesurfing spot. Lac Bay, in the south east, is shallow, yet windy, and hence is considered an excellent place for intermediate sailors to improve their skills. Tourism infrastructure in Bonaire is contemporary based on oceanfront resorts and condominiums with most having an on-site dive shop. There are a few small inns and guesthouses as well as many restaurants offering quite a varied cuisine. Traditional foods that may be found on the menu include conch, cacti, wahoo and rock lobster. Much of the fish is caught locally by line fishermen in season. Though traditionally eaten, iguana is not generally served in restaurants.

In an effort to improve the sustainability of tourism in Bonaire and Curacao, TUI Netherland, the market leader in the Dutch travel industry began an  ‘Environmentally Aware Tourism’ project  in 1999. The implementation and benefits derived from this project undoubtedly helped Bonaire becoming recipient of the Islands Magazine/Caribbean Tourism Organization 2008 Sustainable Tourism Award and continuing to be recognized as one of the top diving destinations worldwide. Further detailed information about accommodation and all these outdoor pursuits can be obtained through the Bonaire Tourism Corporation  and Hotel & Tourism Association  as well as the CIEE Research Station and Outdoor Bonaire whose owner also runs the Auriga Ecolodge. The butterfly farm and mangrove information centre  are popular attractions and Uncommon Bonaire details the not so well known. Bonaire also has a lively art & cultural scene including the annual Heineken Jazz Festival.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

Most of the natural areas on Bonaire are sparsely vegetated with just columnar cactus scrub that can grow up to six metres tall. The dominant cacti species flower and fruit profusely during the dry season, and provide critical food resources for a variety of bats, birds, lizards and the iguana. Also characteristic of the area is the windswept divi divi tree, the branches of which grow at a 90 degree angle to the trunk. There is only one endemic plant species on Bonaire. Nevertheless, the floral community comprises about 340 species and it is rather peculiar because many of the plant families (about 40%) are represented by a single species only. According to the most recent data, 203 species of birds have been observed on the island, many of which are rare. The endangered yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot is subject to a conservation and research programme. The breeding grounds of the Caribbean flamingo are protected by a special sanctuary. The coral reefs around Bonaire are home to almost every kind of hard and soft coral found in the Caribbean.  More than 340 species live here, making it the healthiest and most developed coral reefs in the whole region. The shallow bay of Lac contains Bonaire’s only significant mangrove and seagrass ecosystems vital for sea turtle conservation  and are subject to long term monitoring and research.

Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire (STINAPA Bonaire)  is a non-governmental, not for profit foundation commissioned by the island government to manage the two protected areas of Bonaire. The Washington Slagbaai National Park, founded in 1969, is the oldest and largest protected area in the Dutch Caribbean. The Bonaire National Marine Park (BNMP)  was established in 1979 and includes 27 km ² of fringing coral reef, seagrass and mangroves. Klein Bonaire, the neighboring uninhabited island off the west coast of Bonaire, remained in private hands until 1999. Then it was purchased for US$5 million by the government of Bonaire, the World Nature Fund, and the Foundation to Preserve Klein Bonaire.  It is now part of the BNMP and every thing between the high water mark and 200 feet/60 meters deep is protected, and, therefore, may not be touched. The park includes more than 90 dedicated scuba diving sites and more than 40 mooring buoys along the coast. It is forbidden to drop anchor anywhere in the park. Every diver must pay a mandatory entrance fee of US $25.00, valid throughout the calendar year, and a tag must be visibly worn whilst diving. It also provides complimentary admission into Washington Slagbaai National Park. The fee for other users of the BNMP is US $10.00. Environmental education and effective communication are fundamental goals of STINAPA. Therefore, the BNMP developed a ‘Reef Ranger’ program to maximize active support for coral reef conservation by providing standardized training for dive staff. A five-year communication campaign titled ‘Nature is our livelihood’ was also introduced to provide knowledge and change attitudes about conservation issues.

Aside from the potential impacts of climate change, Bonaire is still threatened by overfishing, coastal development, pollution and growth in tourism activities. To address the documented decline in predator fishes like groupers, grunts and snappers, the BNMP started lobbying the government and different stakeholders in 2004 to create fish protected areas (FPAs). After intensive negotiations including exchange visits to and from St. Lucia to learn about their experience, two FPAs were established on the leeward side of Bonaire. Other regulations regarding the full protection of parrotfish and appropriate fishing techniques are under consideration to improve the resilience of the reefs. To minimize the impact of rapid coastal development, the BNMP developed a booklet of Construction Guidelines and also ran an intensive nutrient monitoring program covering the entire leeside of Bonaire and all around Klein Bonaire. Preliminary data showed that the levels of dissolved nitrogen were high and that the most probable cause was due to sewage and unsustainable irrigation practices in the coastal zone. To mitigate this sewage water input to the sea, the BNMP is working together with resort operators to establish ‘water balances’, and to improve fresh water and waste water management.

More recently, a workgroup of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) and the tropical team at IMARES based in Den Helder have been asked to study the coastal waters around the BES islands.  For example, there is concern about the vitality of mangrove forest and seagrass beds in the 8 sq km lagoon of Lac Bay on Bonaire. It is a natural process for the mangroves on the landward side of the forest to die out since most of the sediment sinks down so that the trees end up hardly standing in water and cease growing. By way of compensation, though, the mangroves on the seaward side gradually expand into the lagoon. But on Bonaire there is a problem with both these processes. Erosion is causing a lot of the island’s soil to be drained into the forest, accelerating the deterioration of the trees’ habitat and this process is reinforced by the manure and the grazing from illegally roaming donkeys, goats and sheep. And on the seaward side, the forest is threatening the seagrass beds essential for the island’s turtles. If allowed to continue, the trees will eventually be at the mouth of the bay and they cannot grow beyond that because of the rougher waters. A pilot project will therefore be undertaken to dredge up sediment at two places to regenerate the forest and erecting a fence to keep livestock out.

The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA)   is based in Kralendijk, Bonaire and STINAPA forms part of this Alliance along with the Arikok National Park Foundation in Aruba, Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI)  foundation in Curacao, Saba Conservation FoundationSt Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA)   and Nature Foundation St Maarten. The Department of Environment & Nature (MINA)  of the Netherlands Antilles helped to establish the DCNA but its main function is to implement the requirements and obligations flowing from multilateral environmental agreements.  Both DCNA and MINA work with the Netherlands Antilles Coral Reef Initiative (NACRI)Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network  and the NET-BIOME project.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

A report commissioned by the Dutch Government in 2010 states climate change poses a severe threat for the marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the BES islands and the totality of benefits and services residents derive from these ecosystems. Bonaire has been affected by bleaching and hurricane events in the past. Only mild bleaching occurred in association with the 1998 El Nino, resulting in good recovery. In 1999, Hurricane Lenny affected the shallow reefs of the leeward side of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. Nevertheless recovery was similarly high with recruitment rates 3.5 times better than the rest of the Caribbean and good survival rates. Most recently, the 2005 and 2006 bleaching events resulted in bleaching of approximately 9% and 10% respectively. However, in both events the recovery rate after the thermal stress subsided was almost 100% and scientists  are now examining why Bonaire’s reefs are seemingly more resilient and why they have escaped the devastation that has wiped out 85% of the Caribbean’s corals since the 1970s.