A Stitch in Island Time

Island Notes 50

The following is a feature article I wrote for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire about my friend, Elsa Martis, who lives down the street from me.  Hettie and I both do in-water survey work for STCB as volunteers.  I also contribute some writing to the organization.  This article is distributed in English to The Bonaire Reporter and in Papiamentu to the Extra newspaper.

A Stitch In Island Time

By Patrick Holian

“This is the most difficult part of the job,” explains Elsa Martis as she deftly moves her fingers around the bill of the cap.  “It is difficult to hold flat, but I’ve learned to grab the cloth this way.”

With hat in hand, Martis continues to sew.  She is approaching the completion of her 100th hat for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire.  In order to raise funds for the not-for-profit organization, STCB sells hats and T-shirts through two retail stores on island.  This money helps fund research and conservation efforts for the sea turtles of Bonaire.  For her quality handwork, Elsa gets paid by the piece.

“This is my third job.  The money helps me pay for some of my expenses like gas for the car and phone cards.  It helps a lot.  I can sew one hat in about 15 minutes.  But I just do it poco poco.”

That steady pace allows Martis to concentrate on every stitch.  She rarely lets her mind wander, preferring to focus on the three patches that are applied to each hat.  The difficult one to sew is the STCB logo that goes on the front.  The other two are fastened to the side—a small turtle design and a metal tag with a number/letter code that is a replica of an actual tag attached to turtles for ID purposes during STCB’s annual water surveys.

“That metal tag gives hat buyers that sense of being tied to this animal that’s out there in the ocean,” states STCB board member Marlene Robinson.  “Buyers can actually go on to the STCB web site and search their turtle’s code.  They can then see the data of that specific turtle—where it was caught, how much it weighed, what size it was, and actually see a photo of that turtle.”

Customers are also buying products that represent  fair trade and fair labor practices.  Plus, all the clothing comes from organically grown cotton, a practice that adheres to the conservation values of which STCB subscribes.  The Beach Store at Harbour Village and the Mangrove Info Center near Lac Cai are the two stores that sell Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire clothing.  All money from the sales goes directly back to the organization.

“That donation of sacrificing their floor space in their stores, paying their employees—it costs them money to do this,” says Robinson. “They’re doing it because they support sea turtle conservation.  It’s important to them and their businesses.”

* * *

Bonaire women have a history in sewing clothes in order to make a living.  In the late 1940’s, Pierre Schunck, a Dutchman, came to Bonaire and set up a clothing manufacturing business.  At its height, Schunck’s Kledingindustrie had 110 employees, most of whom were women who made overalls, trousers and shirts.  Shell Oil bought these clothes for their refinery workers on Curacao.  The women also made uniforms for police and customs officials in the Dutch Antilles.  After a succession of owners, the factory finally closed its door in 1991 due to staff reduction in the refineries in Curacao and Aruba.  But Elsa Martis may be the one who leads the start of a mini sewing industry on Bonaire.

“I learned to sew when I was in school, says Martis.  “I haven’t done much since then until now, but it is all coming back to me.”  She looks up from her hat sewing and out to the sea that sparkles before her home on Kaya Playa Lechi.  Elsa smiles.  “Sometimes I see a large turtle right here.  He comes in the afternoon to get the scraps that the fishermen throw away at the end of the day.  But I don’t look too long.  I need to concentrate on my stitching.”

“Elsa has been so great for us,” says STCB’s Robinson. “It’s really important for conservation groups like Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire to be looking at not only the species that we are trying to protect, but the context within which we’re doing it—that humans are connected; that humans, animals and ecology are inseparable.  You can’t do successful conservation until you are doing it in harmony with the people in the community. It’s important that local people get economic gain from conservation.”

“This job has been very nice for me,” declares Martis.  “I feel real proud when I go to the store and see my hats. They are nice hats and they deserve good quality.  I think the customers like that it is handwork and not just made by a machine.”  Elsa look up one more time to the sea.  “If this job ends, that would hurt my heart.  I like staying busy.  The job means a lot to me.”