Crystal Gold-The solar salt works of Bonaire, Part 2.

saltThe Cultural & Economic Impact

Drive south on the E.G.G. Boulevard on any given day and it is easy to see evidence of salt in the making. It is a simple, time-tested process that mixes seawater, wind and sun to produce mounds of pure white NaCl. But more than that, this iniquitous compound is a cultural thread, an inexplicable link that weaves back in island history for more than 350 years.

It was in 1636 when Holland rousted Bonaire away from the Spain after the Spaniards had cut off the supply of this essential mineral to the Lowlands. Once a Dutch fleet captured the ABC Islands, they gained control of Bonaire’s coveted salt deposits. Enter the Dutch West Indies Company, an aggressive, Amsterdam-based merchant monopoly that thrived in the slave trade and reaped the Caribbean’s natural resource wealth. These were the days before refrigeration, and salt was vital for preserving meat and fish. It was a fundamental commodity that allowed Mother Holland to safely feed the sailors of her enormous worldwide fleet.

Red Slave

Red Slave

During the 1600s the Dutch enslaved Africans and shipped them to Bonaire where they worked alongside Indians and convicts harvesting salt. Today, abandoned slave quarters along the coastal road are testament this oppressive time in the island’s history. Up to six workers would sleep in one of these rock huts after a grueling day of hard labor under the blazing sun. Gaze through a slave hut window to the tranquil blue sea and it is hard to imagine the agony these people endured for centuries.slave hutjpg

Over the next two hundred years Bonaire’s salt industry prospered, first under the Dutch West Indies Company, and later under direct governmental control.   Trading ships would moor outside the reef, and small boats were sent ashore to pick up the goods. Fires were burned to guide the sailors to one of four loading sites – Rode Pan (Red Pond), Witte Pan (White Pond), Blauwe Pan (Blue Pond), and Oranje Pan (Orange Pond). These names represented the colors of the Dutch flag and the Royal House of Orange.

Blue Pan

Blue Pan

Slide02Legend has it that women were the ones who transferred the salt to the boats. Two men would lift a heavy basket of salt and place it on top of a woman’s head. She would then balance the load while walking a plank to the end of a makeshift pier and place the salt in a small boat. Once full, four men would pull the boat on a long rope stretched between the pier and the trading ship waiting beyond the reef, and deliver the salt. Some captains of these ships described the women as ‘mermaids from the sea’. A working song, Man pa makutu di Maria or Give a hand to the basket of Maria documented their noble story of strength and labor. It was later sung as a lullaby to children of the island.  Slide01

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By the 1830s, Bonaire’s production had grown so large that obelisk towers were built near each of four salt ponds, thus replacing the need for shore fires. Flags were hoisted to the tops of these pointed pillars when a load was ready for pickup. Each obelisk took the symbolic color of its respective pond, but it also denoted where a specific grade of salt could be loaded. The coastal road is still dotted with these colorful, stone structures.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the salt industry fell on hard times. Slavery was finally abolished and international competition sharply reduced profits. In 1870, E.B.F. Hellmund purchased the island’s nine salt ponds from the government. Afterwards, the salt industry languished for nearly a century.

“You must remember, the original salt ponds were very primitive,” says Paulina “Popi’ Rodriguez, an administrative secretary at Cargill. “They were salt flats where the water simply dried up and then the salt was harvested. In our modern era, it is about guiding the flow of the water and getting a high quality salt. To get high purity, you must manage the water.”

In 1963 the Antilles International Salt Company, a subsidiary of the International Salt Company, bought the salt ponds. By 1972 they shipped their first load of Bonaire salt. Rodriguez, who has work at the salt works for nearly 35 years, remembers the first loading. “I was just a young girl, but everyone came down from Playa to watch. It was very exciting.”

The modern era experienced several setbacks in salt production. In 1988 Hurricane Joan brought excessive amounts of rain that washed out dikes, damaged pond floors and killed many flamingos. Eleven years later Hurricane Lenny roared toward Bonaire. “Lenny was scary for me because of the surge,” remembers Popi Rodriguez. “It was strange. There was no wind or rain like Joan, but the sea came all the way to the piles and collapsed them. It was devastating.”

Maintenance Crew

Maintenance Crew

Ownership of the salt works changed through the decades from the Antilles International Salt Company to Akzo, which eventually merged into Akzo Nobel. US-based Cargill Corporation bought the operation in 1997 and currently employs 46 people. That makes it one of the major employers on Bonaire and it contributes over $5 million annually to the local economy. “Roughly 60% of our employees are mechanics,” says plant manager Gary Rimmey. “These guys are gifted. They can rebuild anything, and I mean anything, without many resources. They are who allow us to produce the salt.”

DSC_1901After spending a couple of days at Cargill, I soon found out that there is only one four-letter word beyond salt that is on everyone’s mind, rust. The corrosive nature of salt invades everything at the solar salt works—machinery, electronics, and cars, even people. Rust even dictates what kind of machinery is purchased to survive this brutal environment. “We rarely buy new equipment,” adds Rimmey. “We can bring a new piece here and it will rust out in 4 years. Or we can bring in cheaper used equipment and it will rust out in 3 years.   But with our maintenance staff, we keep the machinery going. We often look for old style engines that don’t have electronic ignitions and other bells and whistles because our climate just destroys those kinds of electronics.”

Most other workers at Cargill are involved in the production of salt. While the operation on Bonaire is not large compared to salt operations worldwide, the salt produced here is has an international reputation for its high quality and purity. “In my opinion, we make the best solar salt in the world so that gives us a bit of a competitive edge in the world marketplace,” claims Rimmey. “But we’re also competitive because of our workers here on Bonaire. We have a mature staff with a lot of experience. It’s a pleasure to work with these people. They are real professionals.”DSC_1941

In the next issue of the Bonaire Reporter, Part 3 of Crystal Gold examines the environmental importance of the salt works and concludes with the recent loading of the cargo ship, the Michael A, bound for the Dominican Republic with Bonaire salt.

 

 

Crystal Gold-the solar salt works of Bonaire. Part 1

DSC_1947The Process

This is Part I of a series that I wrote for the Bonaire Reporter…

I am standing on a platform 50-feet above a snow-white terrain deep in the tropics.  Below, massive front-end loaders dump tons of crystals upon a conveyor belt that are DSC_1927rapidly elevated to where I stand.  The material is then separated into what are called ‘sun gems’, large pieces that shuffle off to the right, and ‘screen coarse’, smaller particles, which move to the left.  Moments later both types cascade down to earth forming orderly, cone-shaped mountains.  Frenklin Pietersz, a Cargill production worker walks up and hands me a shiny clump and says in Papiamentu,  “This is the crystal gold of Bonaire!  Welcome to the salt works.”

Since 1997 Cargill has been operating the salt operation that occupies nearly 20% of the island. Forbes Magazine lists the corporation as the largest privately owned company in the United States.  In some ways their operation is very DSC_1920simple, producing a product by harnessing the power of the surrounding environmental elements—seawater, wind and sun.  Basically, salt water is pumped into the ponds (historically called pans) mostly by windmills but at times by mechanical pumps.  The sun then evaporates the seawater, and what is left behind is salt.  In the chemical world this residue is known as NaCl and Bonaire is known worldwide to have some of the purist, 99.6%.  In essence, that is what solar salt works is all about—moving water, controlling wind and producing salt.  But I soon discovered the process is actually a complex mix of art and science.

DSC_1936“We are like farmers,” claims Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s plant manager.  “You plant your crop—that’s the sea water.  Then we do everything we can to nurture that crop.  We move it around.  We manage our saline densities in all the ponds so we can maximize our crop.  And then we harvest it, clean it, process it and stack it.  Then hope we have a favorable market for it.” Rimmey started working for Cargill in 1977 immediately after graduating college.  He worked with soybeans for a decade and later with molasses.  That work took him to the Caribbean, as did his next position as environmental health and safety manager.  During that time he regularly visited Cargill’s salt works on Bonaire.  Since 2011, he has served as plant manager overseeing the entire operation.

“There is a lot of knowledge, wisdom and judgment that goes into making salt,” continues Rimmey.  “It takes a team and it’s complicated.  There is biology involved in it.  That’s what gives the ponds their pink color.  We like the pink because it absorbs more heat and that increases evaporation.  Managing water levels and monitoring the weather are other important functions.  I can teach you how to make salt in 15 minutes, but to get really good at it, it takes a lifetime.”DSC_1893

“The pink water is caused by a halophilic bacterium,” explains Cargill’s biologist, Daniel DeAnda.  “Halophilic literally means ‘salt loving’.  You don’t find it in the sea because the salinity is too low.  But the bacterium thrives here in the ponds due to the higher salinity. When we see that we have a nice pink color, that means that we have a healthy system for producing salt.”

DSC_1899As DeAnda takes me on a tour of the salt works by truck, I learn that the aqua green colored water is called ‘new water’ freshly pumped in from the sea.  Cargill brings in seawater from both the east and west coasts.  The brown or rust-colored water is concentrated brine that is added to the crystallizer ponds.  We soon arrive at such a pond glutted with salt crystals shining like diamonds in the sun. It is harvest day and two busy front end loaders jockey for position to fill an enormous truck that can hold 45 metric tons of salt.  That is enough to fill over 1.5 million four-once salt shakers.

DSC_1874Watching this mechanical dance for a few minutes makes me realize that much of salt making involves moving materials.  It starts with seawater being repeatedly pumped through a series of condenser ponds where most of the evaporation occurs.  These are the largest ponds in the operation.  The water is then moved through a series of crystallizer ponds like the one that I now stand upon.  It takes about two months before the brine begins to turn into salt.  The pond’s hard, black surface resembles the thick black ice of a frozen lake in winter.  This compressed salt top easily supports the weight of the harvest machinery.  It also provides a relatively clean surface that keeps the salt free of sand and vegetation.  The front-end loader operators deftly position their blades to scoop up only the newly formed salt.DSC_1857

“Our salt is very white and it’s naturally white,” continues DeAnda.  “We don’t add anything to make it white.  We only rinse it with salt water and that’s where this load is headed now.  Some of our salt is exported for de-icing roads in North America, but because of its larger size, it’s used for many other things. It’s used for water conditioning, for water softeners in homes and swimming pools.  Others use it to make chlorine.   It is also used in dyes for the textile industry and the petroleum industry uses it in their processing.”

By day’s end I return to the plant manager’s office.  I mention to Gary Rimmey how Daniel DeAnda says he is obsessed with following the rainfall by monitoring the ten weather stations strategically placed around the salt works.  I soon learn that that concern is well founded.  “Heavy rains are really bad for us. If these ponds fill up with rain, we lose our dikes and our salt floors and we’re wiped out.  We try to maintain our levels so this doe not happen.  We’re unlike farmers in that respect.  Usually, we are hoping that it doesn’t rain.”

Rimmey pauses and then smiles while looking out his office window.  In the distance, harvested salt continues to drop from the conveyor belts high in the sky.  Several cone-shaped mountains have formed since this morning.  That salt now awaits shipment.  “I never get tired of watching the salt fall from that machine,” say Rimmey.  “It’s a beautiful business.”DSC_1945

North Wind Returns

DSCN0236another Island Note adventure…

DSCN0249About a year ago, I wrote a story about a young woman, Shelley Burggraaff, who arrived on Bonaire after solo sailing her 29-foot boat, North Wind, from Holland.  A couple of weeks ago while bicycling down Kaya Playa Lechi, I saw Shelley again.  Yes, she had flown back to Bonaire after leaving her boat on the island.  And yes, North Wind was back in the water serving as her residence for a few months while the cold northern European winter stormed on.  I asked about crewing on her boat if she planned to sail locally.  Four weeks later, I got a call.

Joining us were my friends Suuz and Eunan, local dive masters and just generally great people.  The wind was blowing hard, 24 knots gusting to 28.  No matter.  After Shelley picked us up from the Cha Cha Beach dock with her dingy, we set about putting a deep reef into the main sail.  For you land lubbers, this means that we reduced the size of the boat’s biggest sail.  It’s a lot like taking your foot off the gas. Time to cast off.

Suuz!

Suuz!

Eunan!

Eunan!

And we did.  We sailed for north along the coast of Bonaire until the waves were breaking heavily over the bow.  Everyone was fairly wet so we reefed the main sail again and tacked back in the direction from where we started.  As we approached Cha Cha Beach, Shelley mentioned that the day was still young, only 4 pm, and that we should sail on.DSCN0235

And we did—south to Punt Vierkant, and further south still to the salt pier. By this time, the sun was streaking toward the horizon.  We pointed North Wind north and headed back to Cha Cha Beach.  Back on the mooring, we drank some beer and watched a dripping sunset.  Shelley mentioned she needs to head back to Holland to make more money so that she can continue to sail the Caribbean and points beyond.  I had wondered how long the young captain would last back in the mainstream when she left a year ago.  The tug of the sea is mighty.  While it rages at times, it gives so much back for those of us that capture the wind on its beautiful, undulating surface. Shelley leaves in a couple of weeks.  I am sure I will see her again soon, back down island.DSCN0245