While Cargill’s salt operations can be viewed as a rare center of industry on Bonaire, beyond the pink water lays island nature in its best. Along the southern boundary of the salt works is Pekelmeer, which means ‘salty lake’ in Dutch. The saline water, along with its abundant pink crustaceans and brine flies, makes it an ideal place for Caribbean flamingoes to thrive and nest. This is a breeding hotspot for the birds, one of the four largest in the entire Caribbean basin. The sanctuary is also a designated Ramsar site, a wetland of significant international importance. Cargill has a lease on this land from the island government and with that comes custodial responsibilities.
“Part of our contract with the island is that we maintain the Flamingo Sanctuary for the birds,” says Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s plant manager. “We do monthly bird counts and share that data with STINAPA (the island’s national park) and DROB (the regional planning and management department). At any given time there are between 700-1200 flamingoes on the property. We also maintain the water level so that the birds have the mud for the nesting and also so they have a food source.”
Additionally Cargill reports any disturbances in the Pekelmeer to the authorities. “As the lease owner, it’s our job to protect the Flamingo Sanctuary. Believe it or not, we’ve had kite surfers in Pekelmeer waters. And pet owners sometimes let their dogs wander unleashed. The public may not realize it but one kite surfer or one unleashed dog can ruin an entire breeding season for the flamingoes. Our workers take great pride in these birds. They are part of Bonaire’s national identity.”
But beyond lease agreements, Cargill appears to be proactive in other areas of conservation. They plot and monitor all the sabal palms on the property. Sabal palms are a rare sub species endemic to Bonaire. Occasionally they assist Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire with managing the turtle nesting beaches located on Cargill’s leased land. They are also currently working with STINAPA and DROB to develop a tern island where these skittish water birds can nest undisturbed. “The problem is that we have terns nesting on our harvest roads,” explains Rimmey. “There was some concern that we were interrupting the nesting cycle at times with our operations. So we are currently working with the conservation groups to build a tern island. We’re going to put tern decoys out there, some vegetation and a rock landscape that will attract the terns. It will be completed by April in time for the nesting season. Once the birds are on the island they will be safe from feral cats well as Cargill traffic. Our hope is that if STINAPA’s study shows that this first island is successful, we will build one a year. Our goal is to co-exist with the terns.”
In addition to conservation, Cargill opens their leased land, which runs the entire coast from Trans World Radio to the Willemstoren lighthouse, to recreation. They have a formal agreement with kite surfer groups to use the beach at Atlantis for kite surfing. Cargill allows shore diving along these shores that sport some of the best reefs on Bonaire. That includes the Salt Pier when ships are not present. Plus, the public is allowed access to Pink Beach, a lovely stretch of coastline that Cargill owns outright.
For Gary Rimmey, Cargill’s position on this land use is pragmatic and straightforward. “Part of our lease with the government dictates that we manage the Flamingo Sanctuary. But with concerns to our other conservation work we view the wildlife on the southern end of the island—the fauna and flora—as a treasure. We want to help preserve it. It’s as simple as that.”
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The Michael A, a 288-foot cargo vessel, is docked and slowly moving up and down with the surge of the sea. I look below to the ship while standing next to a chute where 3500 metric tons of Bonaire salt are about to fall into the vessel’s holds (compartments). It is shipment day. “This ship will be taking our salt to the Dominican Republic,” say cargo dock master, Rudy Sint Jago. “The Michael A has five holds. I just spoke with the ship’s captain and we worked out this plan.”
Sint Jago show me a diagram that indicates how many tons will be delivered to each of the holds. Numbers 5 & 4 toward the front of the ship will be filled first. Then the ship will move forward to fill numbers 3 and 2. The vessel will move forward one final time to fill the last hold. The crew maintains the balance of the ship during loading by releasing water held inside as ballast. “It should take about six hours to fill all five holds,” say Rudy. “This is a small ship for us. Some of the larger freighters take up to five days to fill.”
When I spoke with Sint Jago in his office I asked him about a crown that sat on his desk. “Yeah, last November we loaded 150,000 metric tons of salt in 40 days. It was a new record for Bonaire.” Rudy laughs. “They gave me this crown and called me the ‘vessel king’. A big part of that salt went in the bulk carrier, GENCO Languedoc. She sailed away with over 52,000 metric tons.”
Ships are loaded throughout the year and Bonaire salt is transported to many Caribbean islands and countries that border the Caribbean Sea. Other ports are located in the USA, Europe and Africa. Less than one percent of the island’s salt is used to de-ice roads. Most is purchased for industrial use in the production of textiles, petroleum or for water softening. A portion is used as table salt after additional processing.
As the Michael A casts off and steams north to the Dominican Republic, I ask Sint Jago how he feels watching a filled freighter leave port. “I have mixed emotions,” says the veteran dock master. “On one hand, it is good. Every time a ship leaves we make money that pays for our operation. That is what we are here for. On the other hand, it is like watching a good friend leave. We work hard to make that salt. I have a kind of sentimental attachment to it. It is part of our island.”