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Travel Tales: The Salt Pyramids of Bonaire

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 27/03/2016 Joseph V. Micallef

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The salt pyramids of Bonaire
Bonaire is a tiny 112 square mile island in the Leeward Antilles of the central Caribbean. It lies about 60 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Along with its neighbors Curaçao and Aruba, it forms the "ABC" islands. Formerly part of the Netherland Antilles, it became a legal "municipality" of the Netherlands in 2010, when the Netherland Antilles was dissolved and Curaçao and Aruba became autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Two other uninhabited islands of the Leeward Antilles, Klein Bonaire (Little Bonaire) and Klein Curaçao (Little Curaçao), make up the rest of the island grouping.
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Bonaire and its region
The island of Bonaire consists of a core of volcanic rocks overlain by a mix of largely carbonate rocks and associated fringing coral reefs. The entire structure was uplifted approximately 90 million years ago, along with the rest of the Leeward Antilles and the Venezuelan Antilles, when volcanic activity caused by the Caribbean tectonic plate pressing against the South American plate forced the ancient seafloor to buckle and rise above the surface of the Caribbean Sea.
As the land steadily uplifted, coral reefs formed in the shallow waters that surrounded the slowly rising island. As those reefs broke the surface, newer reefs on the fringes of the island replaced them. Over millions of years these ancient reefs became part of the topography of the island. Vibrant coral reefs still ring the relatively shallow coastal waters on the Caribbean side of the island, making it a scuba diving mecca. Many of the reefs on the Caribbean side, especially on the southeast side of the island, are less than 50 feet from the shore.
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Coral reef off Kleine Bonaire
About 300,000 tourists come to Bonaire every year. Approximately 170,000 of those visitors come on cruise ships. The island is a popular stop on east Caribbean itineraries for a number of cruise companies. Week long scuba diving vacations are also a popular attraction. One of the most notable features that greet arriving visitors, both by sea and by air, are a distinctive line of white salt pyramids at the southeastern end of the island. Each pyramid, roughly 50-feet high, contains approximately 10,000 metric tons of 99.6% pure salt. Depending on the time of the year, there can be upwards of 200,000 metric tons of salt neatly stacked in long rows awaiting shipment.
The solar salt facility, one of the largest in the Caribbean, is today owned by Cargill, the Minneapolis, Minnesota based private company. The facility covers approximately 13 percent of the island, about 16 square miles of land, on the flat, southeast corner. The entire location is only a few feet above sea level.
The operation utilizes a series of 250-acre condenser ponds. Saltwater drawn directly from the Caribbean, at around 3.5 percent salinity, or from the adjoining brine lake, the Pekelmeer (Dutch for brine lake), at five percent salinity, moves through a succession of condenser ponds where the salinity of the brine is successively increased as the unrelenting sun and wind steadily evaporate the water.
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Kralendijk, capital of Bonaire.
When the brine reaches between 25 percent and 30 percent salinity it is moved into crystallizer ponds. As the evaporation of water increases the salinity beyond 37 percent the salt begins to crystallize and precipitate out of the brine solution. Eventually it will form an 8 to 10-inch layer of virtually pure salt. The entire process takes 10 to 12 months, depending on the prevailing temperature and wind, as well as the precipitation and the degree to which dust and other contaminants in the air provide the nuclei that spur the crystallization of the salt.
Once harvested, the salt is washed in sea water to eliminate the small quantities of calcium sulfate dihydrate, common gypsum, which is mixed in with the salt. The washed salt, more than 99.6 percent pure, is then stacked into Bonaire's iconic and unmistakable salt pyramids. This facility can produce between 300,000 and 500,000 metric tons of salt annually. It is exported all over the world in roughly equal portions to Europe, Asia and North America.
One of the characteristic features of salt produced by solar dehydration is the size of the resulting salt crystals. Unlike "rock salt" from sub-surface mines, or salt obtained from brine solutions created by injecting hot water into underground salt deposits, salt obtained from "natural" processes like solar dehydration produces much larger crystals of salt. Nicknamed "sun gems," these large crystals are particularly prized for use in water softeners and swimming pools. Bonaire salt finds a myriad of other uses, from the dinner table, to a variety of industrial processes, including the production of chlorine gas for water treatment to the more prosaic use to de-ice roads in winter.
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Bonaire's colorful salt pans. Picture J Micallef
What is even more remarkable is that the solar salt facility also houses the largest pink flamingo sanctuary in North America. As the salinity of the salt ponds increase they each produce a distinctive ecology. Various kinds of primitive, unicellular algae known as dinoflagellates and Halobacteria, an archaic precursor to bacteria, thrive in the super salty water giving the ponds their distinctive pinkish coloration. Different levels of salinity create different floras of algae and bacteria and in turn different colors in the saltpans. These organisms use the pigment bacteriorhodopsin, rather than chlorophyll, to create energy from sunlight in a chemical process unrelated to conventional photosynthesis.
Brine shrimp thrive on the algae and bacteria and the flamingoes in turn thrive on the brine shrimp. The rhodopsin pigment in the bacteria is concentrated in the brine shrimp, and is in turn absorbed by the flamingoes, resulting in their brilliant pink plumage. This is the same phenomenon that is found in the pink flamingoes in the briny lakes of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. Cargill is to be complemented for successfully managing the complex ecology of a world-class nature reserve in the middle of an equally sophisticated, world-class, industrial-sized solar salt facility.
While the salt pyramids of Bonaire and their equally picturesque pastel colored salt ponds are unmistakable to the visiting tourist, what is less appreciated is that these salt works are just the most recent manifestation of the Caribbean's centuries-old salt trade. Salt, one of the most common minerals on earth and by weight among its least expensive, was, historically, at the center of a complex web of trade relations, especially from the mid-sixteenth century through the early nineteenth century, which had a profound effect on the history of the Caribbean and indirectly, even on the history of the original 13 colonies that would eventually form the nascent United States.
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Bonaire Flamingo Sanctuary
The Spanish arrived on Bonaire in 1499. The discovery was a result of the "Andalusían Voyages" carried out between 1499 and 1502 by Alonso de Ojeda along the coast of Venezuela and Panama. Ojeda had accompanied Columbus on his second journey to the New World. The voyages were named for the fact that a large portion of the ship's company came from the Spanish province of Andalucía in the southeast portion of Spain. That northwest corner of South America would eventually become the Spanish province of Nueva Andalucía.
There is an interesting sidebar to that particular voyage. Among the ship's company were two cartographers, Juan de las Cosas, who had accompanied Christopher Columbus on his first and second expeditions to the New World, and a little known Italian cartographer named Amerigo Vespucci. Cosas was the owner and captain of the Santa Maria, Columbus's flagship on his first journey.
It was Vespucci, who, as the expedition sailed along the northern coast of South America, realized that what he was seeing was not, as Columbus had believed, another large island but the coastline of a new continent. That insight, described in a series of letters that Vespucci dispatched back to Europe, would lead another cartographer, the German Martin Waldseemuller, to use the Latinized form of Amerigo to designate the new continent when he published a world map that showed the New World in 1507.
In Latin, the masculine form of Amerigo was Americus. The feminine form was America. The convention among geographers at the time was to name continents using the Latinized, female form of names. In Latin, the feminine form of nouns end with an "a," hence Amerigo became immortalized forever as America. That is also the reason why all of the names of the continents in Latin end with the letter a (Australia, Europa, Antarctica, Asia, Africa). Initially, the entire western land mass was designated America. Gerard Mercator, a Flemish cartographer, divided the land mass into North and South America in his 1538 world map.
The Spanish collected the naturally occurring salt deposits that were found along the low-lying southern shore of the island--using the salt to preserve beef. It was the Dutch, however, who would begin the Caribbean's salt industry, dominating the trade in salt for the better part of two centuries.
At the time Spain was one of the largest producer of salt in the world, utilizing both saltpans along the Mediterranean coast and, in particular, a huge deposit of rock salt, called the Muntanya de Sal (Mountain of Salt) in Cardona, in Catalonia. According to Mark Kurlansky, in his book Salt: A World History, the theoretical value of Spain's salt deposits in the fifteenth century exceeded the entire value of its gold and silver reserves.
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Pyramids of refined salt awaiting export. Picture J Micallef
The Dutch were extensive users of salt due to their commercial interest in the Baltic herring and the North Sea cod fisheries. Both activities required large quantities of salt to preserve the fish catch. The revolt of the seven "northern provinces" and their organization into the Dutch republic under William of Orange in 1581 precipitated 80 years of warfare between the Dutch and the Spanish and cut Dutch merchants from their traditional supplies of Spanish salt.
Looking for new sources of inexpensive salt, the Dutch found a veritable bonanza of salt in the Caribbean. They would go on to produce salt on all three of the Leeward Antilles as well as on St. Martin and the other Dutch islands in the Lesser Antilles further east. It was Bonaire, however, that would be the center of the Dutch trade in salt. From the very beginning, Caribbean salt would be exported all over North America as well as back to Europe.
From the mid-sixteenth through the early nineteenth century, Caribbean salt flowed north to the massive cod fisheries of Newfoundland's Grand Banks and those of New England. Those fisheries, the single largest new source of protein in the world from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, consumed enormous quantities of salt. Salted cod was in turn the cheapest form of protein available and came to play a prominent role in the diet of slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations, especially during the West Indies sugar boom from the mid-seventeenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth century.
To this day, salted cod features prominently in the national cuisines of the islands of the West Indies even though cod is not native to the Caribbean and the closest cod fishery is 1,000 miles to the north of the West Indies. Dishes like Green Fig and Salt Fish, the national dish of St. Lucia, or Salted Cod Fish Cake in Barbados, have long been staples of local diets. Indeed, what was once dismissed as being of little value except for "slave food" is now at the center of a Caribbean nouvelle cuisine that looks to integrate traditional, "slave food based" West Indies cuisine, with a modern "culinary fusion" inspired menu.
In turn molasses, an important byproduct of the production of sugar, flowed north to New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies of British North America. There it was converted into rum where it formed a critical branch in the "triangular trade" between North America, West Africa and the Caribbean.
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Bonaire travel map
At the time of the Revolutionary War, New England was one of the world's leading centers of rum distillation and the industry was among the regions largest. Rum exports represented approximately 80 percent of the value of New England's foreign trade. By 1750, Massachusetts had 63 distilleries with an annual production of 700,000 gallons of rum. Rhode Island had another 33 distilleries producing 500,000 gallons of rum. The rum industry in turn drove other industries like cooperage and iron working. The distillers required over 20,000 barrels a year just to hold each year's production.
Rum from New England flowed back across the Atlantic to the "slave coast" of West Africa where it was traded for newly captured slaves. In turn those slaves were transported across the Atlantic in the notorious middle passage to the Caribbean where they were traded for salt and molasses, a process that repeated itself like clockwork for the better part of almost two centuries. At the center of this complex web of trade relations was none other than the Caribbean's ubiquitous salt and at the center of that salt trade were Bonaire's historic salt lagoons.
Today, the trade in West African slaves has, thankfully, long since been abolished. New England is no longer a major producer of the world's rum, although new artisan distilleries are once again making the region famous for its rum. The Caribbean salt trade, however, perseveres and Bonaire's central role at the heart of the region's salt industry remains unchanged.
I am indebted to the Cargill Company and to Gary Rimmey, the General Manager of Salt Bonaire, B.V., for very generously allowing me to visit their facility.

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