Speech by Island Governor Rijna at World Conservation Congress

Speech by Island Governor Rijna at World Conservation Congress of IUCN

Kralendijk – The following is a Speech made by Island Governor, Edison Rijna, he gave a presentation on Bonaire’s nature policy and its ambitions to become a Blue Destination during the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Nature Protection IUCN in Marseille.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What a fantastic initiative by The International Union for Conservation of Nature to organize a conference like this every four years, where political leaders, policy makers, scientists, entrepreneurs and conservationists from around the world come together to discuss the importance of nature conservation.

As Island Governor of Bonaire, I am proud that my island can contribute to this program. Bonaire measures less than 300 square kilometers and has fewer than 22,000 inhabitants. We have been a special municipality of the Netherlands since 2010. Today is an official holiday for us, Dia di Boneiru, this is the day we celebrate the discovery of our island in 1499. Unfortunately I will have to miss the festivities, but on the other hand, it is also a very suitable day to speak to you about just how special Bonaire is.

Bonaire has been richly endowed by nature. Together with our Caribbean sister islands, we are the most biodiverse part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. As small as we are, we are home to multiple ecosystems. In addition to our worldfamous coral reefs, we also have mangrove forests, sea grass beds, brine lakes and tropical dry forest. These systems are home to a huge variety of animals, from sea turtles and flamingos to iguanas and bats.

For now… I must add, because from the perspective of many animal species, the threats they are facing are literally as large as life. The ’30×30 initiative’ to make sure that at least 30% of all terrestrial and marine ecosystems in the world will be legally protected by 2030 is therefore an absolute necessity. I hope that all countries will do everything in their power to meet that standard in no later than 9 years.

Ladies and gentlemen, laws and regulations alone will not save the planet. It’s excellent that so many professionals who have a warm heart for nature are gathered here in Marseille, but that by itself is not enough. In order to turn the tide, we must also convince those other 7 billion and more people, who are not present here, that we really have to change our attitude towards our earth and specifically towards nature.

We have to make sure that it becomes part of the DNA of the entire world population. Let Bonaire be a source of inspiration to this end. Bonaire may be a tiny speck in the Caribbean Sea, but we don’t feel too small for big ambitions when it comes to nature conservation. Beginning with our earliest ancestors, our people have always lived with nature and have learned to respect it. We grow up with nature and it has become an integral part of our genetic makeup from generation to generation.

This explains why we were one of the first islands in the Caribbean to take active measures to protect nature. In 1969 we started to protect all sea turtles. That year we also designated several former colonial-era plantations as Washington Slagbaai National Park. In 1979 we declared all reefs around the island a protected area, which became the Bonaire National Marine Park.

All in all, our nature reserves cover more than 30% of our island. So when it comes to the 30×30 initiative, we have already done our duty. But we are not going to sit back and just watch the rest of the world while they reach that same standard.

Because, I must admit that on Bonaire nature is still under pressure. Wastewater threatens the fragile corals in our marine park. The plastic that is brought to us by the oceans threatens the lives of the sea turtles that lay their eggs on our beaches.

And then there are the effects of climate change that will have disastrous consequences for our nature if we do not take drastic measures. I am more concerned about this than about the risk that we will not be able to keep our feet dry due to the predicted rise in sea level. After all, the Dutch know how to handle a rising sea… Together we can ensure that global warming is slowed down and, preferably, halted.

Bonaire can’t just blame climate change for the pressure on our island’s nature, as it is also partly due to tourism. As such, we are happy that people like to visit our island, because this contributes to our prosperity and thus the well-being of our population. It also generates income, which we may use to protect nature.

A few years ago we realized that we needed to shift the focus of tourism from quantity to quality. Not more and more tourists, but different tourists: tourists who will come to Bonaire not only to lie on the beach in the sun, but also to appreciate our unique nature. In the context of the transition from mass to quality tourism, we also chose to adjust the number of cruise ships to be more in keeping with what our island is able to accommodate. This may initially cost us some income, but continuing as we have done previously will ultimately turn out to be much more expensive.

I dare say that on Bonaire we were already working on sustainability long before the word was commonly established. We have translated it into what we call the Blue Destination concept. This sets out the ambition to realize a circular economy. Companies including hotels are encouraged to pursue an active sustainability policy; a ban on single-use plastics will soon be introduced; we strive for a society without waste; we have banned components of sunscreen that are harmful to coral; our energy company plans to make electricity production 80% greener within two years; we will actively encourage electric transport, both on land, in the air and on the water. And last but not least, we are considering bringing new areas of natural value under legal protection.

One of the challenges we face, however, protecting our nature is stray goats. We have 30,000 of those on the island. They literally eat up nature and by doing so cause erosion. This is why the island government is actively trying to solve the problem and we are taking the first steps in this direction in Washington Slagbaai Park. One of our biologists, Roxanne Francisca, will tell you more about this shortly.

Protecting nature is hard work, but sometimes it comes naturally. Nature may also emerge by accident. Since 2011 we have had a waste water treatment plant, which was funded by the EU. This is the first big step towards solving the problem of waste water on the island. The recovery of our coral reefs depends on it. The purified wastewater is made available to our farmers, but at the moment the amount of treated water exceeds demand, so the surplus of gray water is pumped away to a remote corner of the site.

And behind the scenes, a wetland has formed in just a few years, which turned out to be a great habitat for birds. There are even species we have not seen on Bonaire before. Currently we are looking at how to protect this area in such a way that it will remain accessible to bird watchers and scientific research.

In my opinion, this accessibility – in an ecologically responsible way of course – is vital because it causes the public to support investment in nature conservation. This would not be possible should we put nature entirely under lock and key. Our marine park is an example of how the protection of corals goes hand in hand with diving tourism. The fee that divers pay is used to fund a coral restoration program.

We do all these things in collaboration with a number of committed organizations, such as Stinapa and the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), which are achieving great successes on Bonaire. They will also be addressing you today and I am proud of the program they have organized for you.

You may think: that little island of Bonaire has nailed it, but you will not hear me say that. Okay, we’re well on our way, but our goal is still a long way off. And let’s be honest, we cannot do it alone. Within the small community that we are, we do not have all the necessary expertise, the power to implement and the financial resources to realize our mission of becoming a Blue Destination. This is why I would like to invite you to visit me later or to e-mail me so we can discuss this further.

And to those who want to see it before they believe it, I say: you are more than welcome to come and visit Bonaire.

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