Early on Friday I board a boat to Klein Bonaire, Bonaire’s uninhabited offshore islet. At the helm is Elsmarie Beukenboom who works for the national park here, and 22 other passengers. They have names like Divi Divi and Watakeli. Actually, they all have one of those two names. The passengers are baby trees.
Elsmarie is spearheading an attempt to reforest Klein Bonaire. In the past 150 years the island has been denuded of its vegetation. Trees, often a foot thick in diameter, were systematically cut down. Some were used to produce fine, durable furniture. Brazil wood was taken for its red dye, used on Dutch sails as a determent to mold thus preserving the canvas. Lignum Vitae, locally called Palu Santu, was used for boat rudders due its strength or for blocks that held ropes to hoist sails. Lignum Vitae, because of its oily nature, lubricated itself. Other trees were cut down to produce charcoal. Once goats were introduced, what was left of the old forest had no chance of rejuvenation. Klein Bonaire became a scrub island and much of its fertile soil eroded into the sea.
We reach No Name Beach before 8:30 AM and the popular tourist destination is deserted. We moor the boat so that the stern is but a few feet from the shore. Then we unload the 22 potted trees on the beach. That takes the two of us at least ten minutes. I soon find out that this act of moving things from A to B is the theme of the day.
Elsmarie and I hike to the interior of the island and reach the base camp nicknamed Ecolodge. It is makeshift setup of camouflage screen, two plastic cisterns, a bucket-2×10 bench, and assorted tools. Amazingly, it is just 3 meters away from natural fresh water well. “I was out here one day and saw a feral cat rise up out of the ground,” say Elsmarie. “After walking over, I discovered this well. Before that, we were bringing water by the barrel from Bonaire by boat. That was a tremendous amount of extra work.” Beukenboom knew from scanning old maps of Klein Bonaire that three natural wells existed back in the day. Rediscovering this one was a stroke of good luck. Soon the base camp was established complete with a solar panel and a pump. Well water is now pumped through that system to the two plastic cisterns. Gravity allows the water to fill recycled 2-liter soda bottles, one at a time. These are then loaded in a wheelbarrow and taken to the newly planted seedlings. Once they are established, the tiny trees must adapt to the harsh, arid climate relying only on rainfall.
I spend much of my day dealing with the plastic bottles. The trees are planted along cleared pathways. Each tree seedling already had a water bottle placed next to it the day before. I walk along the path, open a bottle and let it drain on a tree. I repeat this for dozens of trees along the path. Time is of the essence. This has to be completed by 10:30 before the sun makes the bottled water too warm for the plants. After watering, I return with a mesh bag and pick up the empties and their caps. Back at base camp, I fill the bottles, cap them and then redistribute them to the seedlings along the path for the next day’s watering.
The project is also using the Waterboxx, a clever plastic device that collects nighttime condensation and feeds it to the plant. The box also protects the plant from sun and pests. This system allows Elsmarie and others to focus on other reforestation work. Plants protected by the Waterboxx are self sufficient. Currently, there are only 10 Waterboxxes on Klein, but having more would really help the effort. Each box costs about $23 and can be reused once a tree is established. If you would like to buy one or ten, contact Elsmarie with your donation. https://www.facebook.com/ebeukenboom
With lunch complete, we head to an inhospitable section of the island that is mostly coral rock. The Dutch marines who visited last month jackhammered nearly 100 holes in the hard coral, preparing future planting sites. We plant five divi divi trees in these holes adding soil and water. A cutoff water bottle is placed over each divi deep into the soil providing protection against hungry crabs. They have a passion for the seedlings’ tender leaves. Some simply chomp the plant in half and drag it away. Since all the goats have been removed from Klein Bonaire, it appears that crabs are the main pests these days.
Later, we plant the 16 watakeli seedlings, but in the sandy part of the island. Watakeli is also known as strongbark in other parts of the Caribbean. By 3:30 pm, our work is done. We load up and head back to the boat.
Over 800 native trees have been planted to date. In addition to divi divi and watakeli, there are sabal palms, a rare plant called Myrcia curassavica, black poisonwood, the evergreen Jacquinia, and boxwood. All these plants play a significant ecological role as a fruit or flower source for birds or other fauna. About one-out-of-five seedlings does not survive the transplant. That is far better than the 30% mortality rates at other reforestation sites with similar conditions.
As our Boston Whaler speeds back to Bonaire, I look back at Klein. In ten years, many of these baby trees will be over ten feet tall creating a lush habitat for parrots, parakeets and other birds. When I get home, I’m headed to the hammock with sweet dreams of the new Klein Bonaire, the one of the future that will soon enough resemble the island of the past.