Rare Earth

I wrote this article for the Bonaire Reporter, published October 25, 2011

This past June, Sabadeco residents Dennis & Tamara Brown were taking their daily hike when they came upon what the couple thought were wild orchids.  The blooms were visible due to a new road that was being cut through the development.  Afterwards, the Browns spoke with Sabadeco neighbor and local plant enthusiast, Marlene Robinson.  “I wasn’t convinced they were actually orchids so I waited for two weeks before I went,” confesses Marlene. “When I finally did go I saw the first orchids in a tree and then noticed all these bromeliads.”

The law under Bonaire’s Island Nature Ordinance protects two of the species Robinson observed, the Humboldt’s orchid and the bromeliad, Tillandsia flexuosa.   The other bromeliad, Tillandsia balbisiana, does not have protected status since this was the first time it had been observed on the island.

“I was happy just seeing that first tree with orchids,” continues Robinson. “And then when I walked and saw the bromeliads, that was really thrilling.  Later that morning, I located over 15 large trees populated with orchids.  If there are these three incredible finds in this place, what else is here? And what does it mean about this place?”

This bromeliad is a new variety of Tillandsia balbisiana discovered for the first time on Bonaire in Summer 2011 by Marlene Robinson.

Part of the answer has to do with island biogeography, the concept that explains why islands have such richness of species due to their geographic isolation.  “Bonaire has been out of touch with continental land masses since it was first created,” explains Kalli De Meyer, executive director of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance.  “What that means is that you can expect to find species, subspecies or varieties that don’t occur anywhere else on the planet.  We have over 200 endemic species on Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao alone that occur here and nowhere else on the planet.  And now, we just found a new variety.”

Humboldt’s orchid in bloom. Photo-Marlene Robinson.

Another reason why these rare plants exist is that Bonaire offers unique micro-environments where interdependent relations between organisms exist.  For example, the Humboldt’s orchid on the rugged Sabadeco hillside has specific relationships with ants for pollination and with fungi for nutritional transfer.  Few habitats support these relationships, which may be part of the reason for the rarity of these species on Bonaire. While the Humboldt’s orchid can be found in a few private gardens, its presence in the Bonaire wilds is unusual and diminishing.  Ecologist Dolfi Debrot from the Dutch research institute, IMARES, concurs. “Humboldt’s orchids are quite endangered on Bonaire largely due to overgrazing by goats. The best option is to draw property lines to avoid the plants.  However, unless that area remains ecologically connected to a more expansive and suitable natural habitat, just bulldozing around them will be only a stopgap measure. The plants will not be able to reproduce or expand much from a small fragment of natural habitat.”

Humboldt’s orchid in a catus.

Debrot is talking about the effects of habitat fragmentation, how checkerboard development can rapidly alter an environment resulting in species elimination.  Marlene Robinson realized this too and alerted DROB, the RNC and STINAPA about the rare plants at risk in this soon-to-be developed area of Sabadeco. After discussions, DROB recommended to Sabadeco (the Santa Barbara Development Company) that a comprehensive plant survey was needed to ascertain what is at stake.  Botanist John de Freitas from CARMABI, the biological research station in Curacao, conducted a survey that was completed last month. Results will be released this November, and thereafter, orchid and bromeliad experts will advise on the next step.

One scenario could be the establishment of a nature reserve within Sabadeco that would protect the rare orchid and bromeliad species from grazing goats and further development.  This would be beneficial to the entire community. Sabadeco would gain community goodwill and status as a champion of Bonaire’s natural assets in return for relinquishing potential development within the rare plant habitat. Value would be added to surrounding lots and neighborhood property values would increase by having an on-site rare plant sanctuary.  Sabadeco residents would have a nature reserve at their doorsteps to enjoy.  Local children could learn about ecology, botany and biology through organized school field trips.  Senior citizens like the “Sixty-Plus-ers” could take pleasure in leisurely strolls through the reserve when the plants are in bloom.

A Humboldt’s orchid in bloom. Photo-Marlene Robinson.

“People need to know what is there and outreach is important,” concludes Kalli de Meyer of DCNA.  “It has always been the ethos of our islands to protect and preserve, and live in harmony with nature and culture.  But if you don’t know that these rare plants are there in the first place, it’s just another hillside covered in ‘green stuff’.  That changes once you understand the specialness of the place and the fact that there is at least one variety that occurs there and nowhere else in the world.”

While a nature reserve would benefit many people, the rare plants in question would be the immediate beneficiaries. These botanical wonders are just a small, but incredibly important part of what makes Bonaire so unique.  Perhaps Marlene Robinson sums it up best; “There is just this incredible feeling of happiness to see something so special and new on Bonaire. No matter how long you live here, there is this sense that because we have a small island, maybe there is not much going on.  But the more you know about Bonaire’s natural world, the more you realize it’s extremely complex. It’s just this amazing, happy accident of circumstances and it’s obviously quite rare.”

One thing is certain.  The fate of this unique, biological community lies in a committed and creative partnership between the public and private sector.  Time is of the essence.   If that partnership happens, than this biological hot spot of rare earth will be enjoyed for generations.

Photo-Marlene Robinson.

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2 thoughts on “Rare Earth

  1. Pingback: David and Goliath: Cruise Ships in Kralendijk « Julia B Whitmore's Blog

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