Bonaire National Marine Park - KLEIN BONAIRE - HISTORY

Today when we see Klein Bonaire, a flat island with a white sandy beach and low growing vegetation, it may be difficult to visualize how large a role wood played in its history. The island had many big trees with trunks as thick as 12 inches (30 centimeters). Many species, including Brazil wood (locally called “Palu di brasil”, Haematoxylon brasiletto), West Indian satinwood (“Kalabarí”, Zanthoxylum flavum), lignum vitae (“Wayaká”, Guaiacum officinale), and coconut trees grew there. The wood was used to make charcoal, burn coral stones to lime, provide dye for paint color, for medicines, and to make pulleys for boats. These products were then exported. Large waves, resulting from a strong hurricane in 1859, wiped out the coconuts and many other big trees that were growing near the shore. The practice of cutting trees down in an unsustainable manner soon depleted all the large growth on the island. Klein Bonaire was also used for the keeping of goats for export to Curaçao, which further contributed to the deforestation. Keeping goats was the last commercial use of the island.

From 1849-1854 Klein Bonaire was used as a control post for cholera and a station of quarantine. All ships carrying fruits and vegetables to Bonaire needed to stop at Klein Bonaire first. If the captain of a ship did not stop or failed to report any cholera-related matters, he could face the death sentence. On the North West side of the island a small building was built for the government doctor. The ruins of this building can be seen today.

On September 1, 1868, the government sold the island of Bonaire in parcels in a public auction. Klein Bonaire, 600 ha. in size, was one of these parcels. It was described as ideal for keeping goats on a large scale since it had some fresh water wells and the goats were restricted by the natural boundaries.

The island has known many owners since then. The merchant Angel Jesserun was the first private owner of Klein Bonaire for which he paid fl. 8000. George Debrot bought it on the 21st of January 1890. On the 30th of August 1894, he sold it to Isaac Debrot who divided the island into two parts. He kept one part and the other part he sold to Cornelis Raven Debrot, called Sjon Bubuchi Debrot, on the 7th of October 1901.
Sjon Bubuchi Debrot did his utmost to benefit from the island. He contracted a group of men from the village of North Saliña to burn charcoal. These men stayed on the island from Monday morning till Saturday afternoon and were paid by percentage of what they produced. They took care of their own meals, preparing fish, turtles, iguana and ‘soldachi’ (crabs). A supervisor lived in the stone house on the east side of the island. Sjon Bubuchi’s ship, “Transvaal”, came to the island to collect the charcoal.

In 1922, after Sjon Bubuchi passed away, his family sold his half of the island to Jan Gerard Palm from Curaçao. In 1950 this half was sold to (another) Isaac Debrot. Twelve years later the entire island was bought by Margarita Gibson, the wife of John Bogart, who owned the Zeebad Hotel (now Flamingo Beach Hotel).

The last private owners of the island, the Development Corporation Klein Bonaire (represented by Maurice Neme), bought the island on the 31st of March 1970 with the sole purpose of development. However, every time they submitted a plan they were blocked by the Government and environmentalists, which prevented their receiving permits.

Around that same period, Bonaire began to become known for SCUBA diving. As Klein Bonaire was explored underwater, it became clear that the island has a wider range of biodiversity and coral coverage than Bonaire. Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, then called the Sea Turtle Club of Bonaire, began arranging for biology students from the Netherlands to do research on sea turtle nesting beaches. In 1980 Klein Bonaire became a Ramsar site.

The Development Corporation Klein Bonaire sent a letter to the Government on March 25, 1995, requesting permits to develop Klein Bonaire. A subsequent letter requested a meeting to discuss how they might "exploit" the island by obtaining a business license for a "hotel/resort and water sports" for their "own account or account of third parties". Alarm over these requests led Bart Snelder, a dive operations manager on the island, to write a letter to the English language newspaper, Port Call (now The Bonaire Reporter), in which he made a plea to save the island from development. Bart said, "We strongly believe that any development on Klein Bonaire will result in an ecological disaster for this extremely sensitive environment. Let's make sure that we save this little piece of the world for the generations to come."

The word was out. Naturalist Dee Scarr called a meeting of all concerned individuals. Knowing that development on Klein Bonaire would wreck the reefs, eliminate the turtle and waterfowl nesting grounds and kill many of the native plants and animals, a small group of Antilleans, Americans, and Dutch formed the Foundation Preservation Klein Bonaire (FPKB) in June of 1996. A worldwide campaign began to promote awareness and raise money to buy Klein Bonaire.

Geologist Gordon Younce did an extensive geological survey showing that any development would not only be costly but would destroy the reefs. A moving 20-minute video by U.S. director Matt Sellars captured the attention of the World Wildlife Fund who then produced a mini-telethon in The Netherlands featuring Klein Bonaire. With the help of Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine's online petition, thousands of people were reached worldwide. Signatures and donations started coming in. Bonaireans were kept informed by press releases, bumper stickers, receptions and an ethereal painting, "Preserve Klein Bonaire," by local artist Winfred Dania. The painting was made into posters, which were sold for $10. The local musical group Piedra Di Boneiru produced a CD, "Ban Kuide" which made it to the "top ten" on Bonaire.

After two independent appraisals, the FPKB made a $3 million offer to buy the island, but the development company rejected the offer. After the elections in 1999, a new government formed by a coalition of parties came into office. They decided that getting Klein Bonaire back for the people of Bonaire by the end of the year was a priority. The Commissioners travelled to The Netherlands and eventually were able to get most of the needed financial support. Although the developers were asking U.S $10 million, a price of 9 million guilders (U.S. $5 million) was agreed upon. On December 30, 1999, the purchase contract was signed between the Government of Bonaire and representatives of Development Corporation Klein Bonaire.

On the 21st November 2001 the Island Council finalized and approved a development plan for Klein Bonaire. The Island is designated as a protected area and became part of the Bonaire National Marine Park, managed by STINAPA Bonaire, as described in the Environmental Marine Ordinance (2001).

Text: television program ‘Herensia’ produced by Boy Antoin.