Today when we see Klein Bonaire, a flat island with a magnificent long, 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 30 centimeters. Many species including Haematoxylon brasiletto (Palu di brasil), Zanthoxylum flavum (Kalabarí) and Guaiacum officinale (Wayaká) 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. The island also had many coconut trees. Large waves, resulting from a strong hurricane in 1859, wiped out these 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 goat was also the last commercial use of the island.
Over time, Klein Bonaire has had a large list of owners, each one with a plan to make the most of the island until a movement was started for the purchase of the island by the people of Bonaire. Finally, in November of 2001 Klein Bonaire came under the protection of the Bonaire National Marine Park and managed by STINAPA Bonaire.
From 1849-1854 the island was used as a control post for cholera. It became a station of quarantine. All ships carrying fruits and vegetables needed to stop at Klein Bonaire first. If the captain of the ship did not stop or failed to report any cholera related matters he could face the maximum penalty which was 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 still be seen today.
On September 1, 1868 the government sold the island of Bonaire in parcels in a public auction. Klein Bonaire was one of these parcels. In the presentation that the government made to promote the sale of this property it was described as a place ideal for keeping goats on a large scale since it has some wells with fresh water and the goats were restricted by the natural boundaries.
The island knew 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 or known as Sjon Bubuchi Debrot on the 7th of October 1901.
Sjon Bubuchi Debrot did his utmost to get the most benefits out of the island. At the beginning of the last century he contracted a group of men from the village of nort ‘i saliña to burn charcoal on the island. 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 consisting of fish, turtles, iguana and ‘soldachi’. Sjon Bubuchi Debrot also had a Vito (supervisor) who lived in the stone house at 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. On the 13th of October 1950 this half is sold to another Isaac Debrot. On the 25th of September 1962 the entire island is sold to Margarita Gibson, the wife of John Bogart, who owned the Zeebad Hotel at that time.
The last private owners of the island were called Development Corporation Klein Bonaire represented by Maurice Neme. They bought the island on the 31st of March 1970. This group bought the island with the sole purpose of developing it. Every time they came with a plan they encountered problems with the government and the environmentalists which made it difficult to get permits. Around that same period, Bonaire starts to become known for SCUBA diving. Researchers start exploring the island underwater. It soon becomes known that the island has a wider range of biodiversity and coral coverage than the main island. Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, then called the Sea Turtle Club of Bonaire, starts bringing students from the Netherlands to do research on sea turtle nesting beaches. Soon it becomes apparent that Klein Bonaire nesting is producing the most sea turtle eggs in the Caribbean. In 1971 Klein Bonaire becomes a Ramsar site.
Development Corporation Klein Bonaire were rather inactive until, a letter, dated March 25, 1995, requesting permits to develop Klein Bonaire was sent to the Government. A subsequent letter requested a meeting to discuss how they might “exploit” the island by obtaining a business license for a “hotel/resort and watersports” 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 being sold for $ 10. The local musical group, Piedra Di Boneiru, produced a CD, “Ban Kuide” which made it to the “top ten” on Bonaire. Officials in the previous Island Government had been able to block the developers, using old laws and Klein’s Ramsar Site status. After 2 independent appraisals, the FPKB made a $3 million offer to buy the island, but the offer was rejected by the development company. 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 a development plan for Klein Bonaire. The Island is designated as a protected area and becomes part of Bonaire National Marine Park managed by STINAPA Bonaire, as described in the Environmental Marine Ordinance (2001).
Text: television program ‘Herensia’ produced by Boy Antoin.