Making salt in paradise

Cargill helps protect the natural beauty that drives the economy on the Caribbean island of Bonaire

By Mark Klein May 18, 2016

Beautiful. That’s one word to describe the small Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire, which lies some 50 miles north of the Venezuelan coast and is home to the Solar Salt Works of Bonaire.
The clean, blue waters and pristine coral reefs attract tourists from around the world for scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, windsurfing, kite boarding, sea kayaking and sailing. The hilly northern part of Bonaire appeals to hikers, mountain bikers and birdwatchers.

More than half of all the businesses on Bonaire are linked to tourism, which in turn depends on the preservation and protection of the island’s natural beauty. Cargill has operated on Bonaire since 1997, producing some of the purest salt in the world. With just over 40 employees, Cargill has a major role in protecting the environment.

“We are a big part of the island,” said Cargill production manager Daniel DeAnda Jr., adding that the land Cargill leases for salt production accounts for about 13 percent of the 115-square-mile island and the bulk of the narrow, sea-level southern end. “People on the island are happy we are here,” he said. “We have developed a reputation for protecting nature.”

Cargill, the tourist attraction

Cargill Bonaire may be the only location in the company that includes multiple tourist attractions. TripAdvisor®, one of the world’s leading travel websites, lists a half dozen “top things to do” on Bonaire that are on or near the Cargill property.

There’s No. 28 on TripAdvisor’s list, the salt flats themselves, which include the expansive network of huge ponds used for salt production. Using the sun, wind and time, Cargill turns seawater into salt. On the wide road outside Cargill’s gate, tour guides dispense camera-wielding vacationers to take selfies in front of the long, high piles of snow-white salt.

Then there is No. 24, the flamingo sanctuary, one of the most important breeding grounds for the southern Caribbean flamingo, which Cargill helps maintain. While there are more than 210 species of birds on the island, the pink-colored flamingo is Bonaire’s signature bird. The airport is even called Flamingo International.

Or there is No. 12, the salt pier, which juts out into the Caribbean and delivers salt from the piles to oceangoing boats that carry the product around the world. Sponges and coral live underwater around the base of the pier, making it a favorite spot for divers and one of the reasons Scuba Diving® magazine has for two decades designated Bonaire as the best shore diving destination for the region.

Supplier to the world

Bonaire is famous for particular salt crystals, or “sun gems,” that are long, dense and heavy. Because the crystals are as big as a fist, they can be transformed into several grades to meet different customer needs. The salt produced on the island is used in multiple ways, including home water softeners, dyes for the textile industry and processing in the petroleum industry.

Manufacturers also use the salt to produce chlorine used to purify drinking water. A third of the salt is shipped to customers in the Caribbean, a third to North America and the rest to Europe and Africa. The plant also ships salt to Haiti, where the essential nutrient is medicated to help Haitians ward off disease.

Clean water and clean air are what Bonaireans say make their salt so good, with the sun, arid climate and gentle trade winds making the process relatively fast. It takes only two to three months from the time the seawater enters the salt flats until the salt crystals are ready for harvest.

A strong partner

When rebuilding its pier last year, Cargill was able to bring together at one meeting all the stakeholders who needed to have a say on the permits rather than going to each separately. 

“People on Bonaire are willing to collaborate with Cargill because they know Cargill will collaborate with them,” said Jose Aulacio, a Cargill Environment, Health & Safety professional. One of the groups that collaborates with Cargill is STINAPA Bonaire — a Dutch acronym for Stichting Nationale Parken. Bonaireans have been preserving the natural treasures of their environment for decades, with the origins of STINAPA Bonaire dating to 1962.

STINAPA manages the Bonaire Marine Park, which protects the coral reef around the island to a depth of 200 feet, and the inland Washington Slagbaai National Park. STINAPA’s slogan is “nature is our livelihood,” reflecting the need to protect the island’s natural beauty.

For Anouschka van de Ven, communications coordinator for the non-profit foundation, the reasons for protecting the environment are more personal than economic.

“I have a daughter who is five years old,” she said. “I would like her to see something in the ocean when she is old enough and not just algae.”

Among other activities, Cargill Bonaire has been a supporter of STINAPA’s Junior Ranger program — providing funding to assist in the continued education of the youth of the island regarding the environment. Recently, Cargill funded a video that provides education on migratory birds, filmed at Tern Island on Cargill’s property. About 35 to 45 islanders, aged 13-18, are in the Junior Ranger program at any one time.

“We want to plant the seed for the next generation of decision makers on the island,” said Desiree Croes, who leads nature and environment education for STINAPA and has been involved with Junior Rangers since the beginning in 2009. “It’s an awakening of the natural resources we have on Bonaire, and understanding that a lot of what we get here comes from nature.”

Bonaire is also home to three of the world’s seven species of sea turtles. Green turtles can weigh up to 500 pounds and hawksbill up to 185, though the ones found around Bonaire are mainly juveniles and seen only during nesting season. The loggerheads, which can weigh up to 440 pounds, are mostly adults and found year-round on Bonaire.

Dr. Sue Willis, project coordinator for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, started as a volunteer and said she now has a “dream” job.

“[Sea turtles] are charismatic. You can get close to them,” Willis said. “Yet they have this mysterious element in that they leave here and we really don’t know what happens next before they show up on another island.”

Cargill not only helped fund the signs developed by Willis and her group to place on beaches and scuba diving sites to alert fun seekers to not disrupt or damage turtle nests, but also places boulders around the turtles’ nesting grounds so they are not disturbed. “We feel we have a strong partner in Cargill to help protect the sea turtle,” Willis said.

A protected wetland

Salt has been produced on Bonaire for centuries. The Spanish landed on the island in 1499 and were attracted to the local salt for its use in preserving fish and meat.

In the 1960s, the Antilles International Salt Company, a subsidiary of the International Salt Company, began plans for a modern system of ponds. By the early 1970s, International Salt shipped its first load from Bonaire. The business was later bought by Akzo Nobel, which in 1997 was sold along with a number of other sites to Cargill.

Bonaire means “low lying” in the language of the Caquetio, the island’s original settlers. The southern part of the island is flat and basically at sea level. Windmills, powered by the trade winds from the east, pump sea water inland.

The seawater first flows through the Pekelmeer, which covers nearly 400 hectares. The Pekelmeer (“salty lake” in Dutch) is designated as a wetland of “significant international importance” under the Ramsar Convention. Named after the city of Ramsar, Iran, where the convention was held in 1971, Ramsar produced an international treaty that protects more than 2,200 wetlands around the world. Pekelmeer is one of five Ramsar sites registered by the Dutch Caribbean. (Cargill’s joint venture salt business in Venezuela, Los Olivitos, contains another Ramsar site.)

Adjacent to the Pekelmeer is the flamingo sanctuary. Because International Salt was changing the landscape and bird habitat when building new ponds in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the company worked with the Audubon Society and others to develop the flamingo sanctuary and protect the birds.

“We still respect that contract from the ‘70s,” Cargill’s DeAnda said. Admittance to the sanctuary is prohibited, as flamingos are sensitive to disturbances. Born gray when they hatch, the Caribbean flamingos are pink because of a diet rich in crustaceans and flies that thrive in the salty water and contain red-orange pigments.

As part of its lease agreement with the local government, Cargill keeps on eye on the area and reports trespassers to authorities. Cargill also counts the birds monthly, and on a day in January 2016 there were 1,360 — though there can be as many as 3,000. They are joined by terns, egrets, pelicans and other birds making the saltworks a seasonal home.

“You don’t have to be a bird lover to enjoy watching them,” DeAnda said.

From the Pekelmeer, the seawater goes into a series of condenser ponds, most of which are more than 100 hectares each. These ponds begin the process of concentrating the salinity of the water. Next are the crystallizer ponds — about 16 hectares each. As the name implies, the crystallizer ponds are where the salt takes shape, with each pond being harvested about once a year.

Tern Island

The sprawling saltworks contains miles of roads around the massive system of ponds. Pickup trucks regularly patrol the narrow lanes, as employees measure the salinity of the ponds and regulate the water levels.

A couple of years ago, several birdwatchers noticed that terns nesting along the roads were being disturbed by the trucks. When it comes to human disturbance, terns have low tolerance levels: they’ll abandon their nests and their young in the face of prolonged disruption. Concerned, the birdwatchers contacted Cargill.

The business worked out a plan with STINAPA and experts from IMARES (the Institute for Marine Resources & Ecosystems Studies). For the first season, truck traffic was diverted away from key nesting areas. For the next year, wooden tern decoys were placed to keep the birds away from the roads and onto a nesting area specially built on one of the ponds. Dubbed “Tern Island,” the secluded spot also protects the nesting terns from feral cats and rats.

“We compromised for the near term, and then we developed a better solution for the long term,” DeAnda said.

And so it goes that salt production, nature and tourism co-exist today on the paradise of Bonaire. Gary Rimmey, who is the overall manager at Bonaire, joined Cargill in 1977, and in that time he’s worked for the company in many places around the world.

“Bonaire is the most colorful, beautiful place of anywhere I’ve been at Cargill. I never get tired of this view,” he said, looking out the window of his office. “When I leave, I will cry.”

The pure white salt produced in Bonaire is gathered into huge piles before being shipped to customers in the Caribbean, North America, Europe and Africa.

Sea water canal feeding the salt ponds.

Cargill in Bonaire helps maintain one of the most important breeding grounds for the southern Caribbean flamingo.

After the ponds have evaporated, the salt is harvested and piled in large "hills".

Bonaire is known for its large crystals of salt, or “sun gems.”

Bags of salt from Cargill's facility in Bonaire.

Bonaire salt ponds.

Cargill worker overlooking the Bonaire salt mounds.

A tractor harvests salt from one of the many salt mounds.

A Cargill Bonaire employee.