Curaçao agriculture

When a friend of mine was at school in Holland, he made a drawing showing hills, which he colored brown. When the teacher came by he scolded him, saying Hills are green!
Upon this, as the guy told me, he said to his immortal soul: Where I come from, hills are brown.

I must tell you right away here, in the last decennia my outlook on this subject
has changed completely.
Many disputes and outright quarrels have gone on about this subject, but they seem unresolvable. This is because, during my lifetime and long before, Curaçao island has been completely different from what it must have looked like when the Spaniards discovered it, complete with the Indians living on it; nobody had told them it had not been discovered yet.

But at that time, it must have been covered completely with vegetation. When the Dutch took over in 1634, they observed the island is covered with trees. They soon put an end to that: The woods were 'harvested' and shipped to Holland. This denudation is still going on. There still are people who go out and collect wood to burn carbon. There still are people who cut drown trees to improve their own view. There still are people who breed goats, introduced by the Spanish, in an extensive system where they are just left free to roam all day. This system guarantees virtually no renewal of vegetation can take place, as they have a preference for nibbling young shoots. Larger trees, as they die off, are not replaced and keep getting sparser. I always understood perfectly why the devil is preferably depicted as a goat.

Since Curaçao has become one of the most densely populated places in the world, vying with Holland and Japan, the goats have for the largest part disappeared. There are just too many guys driving around who love to catch roaming goats and slaughter them for a barbecue. It seems a contradiction but with 20-20 retrospect vision really is not so surprising, that this population growth has made the island greener right now than it has been for centuries. Hills are not brown any longer...
Now the wild black pigs are taking over and try and cause as much damage as they can by rooting around; which is a lot.
The most important trees growing here were wayaká/lignum vitae [Guaiacum officinalis] and brazía/brazil wood [Haematoxylum brasiletto]. The first because of its extraordinary woodworking properties; it now is a protected species all over the world as it has grown rare. (All sorts of medicinal properties are ascribed to it now, but I'm not so sure about that - these guys don't even manage to get the botanical name right.) The second, because it produced a highly valuable red dye. Many other trees, like indju/mesquite [Prosopis juliflora], also were popular candidates for eradication.
By the early 1900s, the only relatively large trees left over, maybe because even goats can't digest them without experiencing ill effects, were manzaliña [Hippomane mancinella], feared all over the region because it's highly poisonous. Ironically, this was the first Curaçao tree to get protected by law.
The fact that the island looks so different now makes it very hard for us to judge about its agricultural possibilities in the past. It is almost impossible to believe that the place could produce enough vegetables and fruit to supply its own population. Except for fish, a further supply of meat and stock foods like potatoes, beans, yams and grains must have been imported. Witness to this is the krioyo kitchen, where many recipes are based on salted meat and salted fish.
The many 'plantations' quite often were not in use for agriculture but, rather, were facilities to produce salt. This was Curaçao's most important export commodity. Other items were not grown here at all but, like 'Curaçao aloe', mostly on Aruba and Bonaire; still others were just shipped here from other places in transit to Europe.
This is less surprising when you consider that even on the English islands (like Jamaica, with rain a-plenty) there was not enough food for the needs of the plantation slaves. Which was why the English imported the bread fruit tree from Polynesia - remember captain Bligh's Bounty?
The Curassow bird almost certainly never lived on the island, and while peanuts (in Dutch sausemangelen, 'Curaçao almonds') may have been grown here, that most certainly can't have been sufficient for export. Even brazía is also known here as kampèshi, after the region of Yucatán from where it was transshipped here.
maishi chiki
Growing Maize

One of the first CPIM refinery directors complained that "As soon as it rains, the blacks run off to their fields for planting." The tradition is so strong, there are people still doing this. Birds, goats, iguanas and other beasties of the fields eat their entire crop if they don't cover the stalks with some form of paper bags. Then, after all, they are only left with millet - just about the most inferior sort of grain you can find: "Barley. Caffir-corn. Gierst. Kafferkoren." Just have a look at Akira Kurosawa's movie Seven Samurai and you'll understand why (along with plenty of other marvelous things.)

My point here is, look at the trouble you have to take to grow even an inferior crop like that.
Cooled Hothouses
This was one more bright idea of Jacob Gelt Dekker. While in Holland all hothouses have gradually, steadily - slowly but surely - been taken out of service for many years because energy costs were higher than air transport of the produce for import, he thought it would be a good idea to build hothouses here and cool them to grow strawberries—for export. Nobody seemed to have considered the hard fact that cooling tends to be much more expensive than heating.
First reports on project Desert Green Houses were highly optimistic; only, the strawberries were too expensive for local consumption. Omzetbelasting (sales tax) was blamed for that (5%, which importers pay as well.) After six months the project had to be stopped. Cooling generators consumed much more diesel fuel than bargained for, and insulation was ineffective. Later, tomatoes and salad were tried.
The project then stopped, waiting for more money—€250K added to €1.8M subsidized already. It had been waiting for some years by 30 May 2008, when it was auctioned. A group of investors seemed to want to continue the now bankrupt project, but I don't know if they will.
As far as I can ascertain, they never did.

The Dams
Around 1910, right before the arrival of CPIM and Isla refinery, there was a large-scale attempt to stop run-off and further erosion on the denuded island by building large water-catching dams. It was, in fact, the reason why the first decent maps of the island were made by Werbata. For once, the project was actually finished. By the time the dams were in place and working, Oil spread its magic wings of soot over the island and agriculture lost all economic importance. Very ironic.
Even more ironic, the refinery itself needed enormous amounts of fresh water for cooling purposes. "Water plantations" were bought and pumped dry; enormous dams were added and all vegetation was just wiped out there as those "trees used up water." (Cas Grandi, Brievengat, Juan Hato. This was around 1950.)
The truth is, this sort of water catching is a very crude and unsatisfactory way of doing it. As frater Arnoldo makes clear in his book on reforestation, the trick is to create an infinite amount of miniature dams, so the water infiltrates the soil where it falls leaving no run-off to be caught at all.
I have witnessed this in my own garden, which was completely denuded by goats the former owner kept. After a couple of years, the wild vegetation had grown back sufficiently to stop all run-off, causing little brooks to run on long after the rainy season.
Very close by are three old dams which I had repaired. Now that the goats have gone with vegetation starting a come-back, these hardly catch any water anymore - run-off has as good as stopped.
Shell was later blamed for having caused low water levels all over the island, which is totally impossible as it consists of hundreds of separate water catchment areas.
With the enormous legal and illegal building all over the island (the latter has been large-scale for many decennia now) it's just a pipe dream to talk about restoring dams. As is the case all over the world, the best agricultural areas have been the first to be urbanized. For much the same reason, we can forget about agriculture of any economic substance at all. We may also forget about legendary prosperous agriculture in the past. It's impossible. I concede there have been market gardens supplying a much smaller population with vegetables - and there it stops.

Strong Interest
In spite of all that, there is and always has been a strong interest in agriculture among part of the population. These days, Foundation Tera Awa Simia Bándabou (TAS) [Earth Water Seed] organizes workshops of 8 days with two hours of theory and two of practice. They are now, May 2009, at their 3rd workshop (with the 4th being planned) with a total of 100 participators.
Rainwater versus Dew
Dutch entrepeneur Pieter Hoff appeared here with a contraption called Waterboxx. Well aware of the Curaçao megalomania, he tried to sell his idea for reforestation as it would make us famous all over the world. For a price, you have to contact Aquaproholland. This apparatus seems superfluous here as it's not really a desert. Also, it looks much more expensive than a similar but simpler Israeli Tal-Ya solution which is primarily meant to collect dew (which we haven't) but works as well for rainwater.

waterboxx    TalYa
Waterboxx and Tal-Ya

Another factor that all enthusiastic promoters of agriculture consistently and conveniently forget: Even with dams, the water supply is just too irreliable. Every so many years, inevitably one (or more) comes along that is too dry for growing anything, and a farmer will be wiped out. As all ground water inevitably flowns down to sea, in years like that even deep wells run dry.

"Virtual Water"
In countries like Jordan, water is so scarce that it is seen as a waste to use it to grow crops. Such a valuable article can be put to better uses, and by importing foods you import the "virtual water" that was used to grow them. Looks like a position very similar to ours.

"Water Banks"
Using lakes to store collected rain-water is a very primitive way of doing it. Most of the water evaporates before you can use it, especially in our hot windy climate. In the USA, use is made of underground "water banks". For this you need a suitable location, like large underground caves. Frankly, I suspect these do not exist here. There is one to the west of Hato airport; I do not even know if that one contains fresh water. However, it is not very large and far removed from good agricultural grounds. Here, again, it would be more opportune to use that source for other purposes.

diepe put
"very deep empty well"
detail of Werbata map

Ironically enough, the hofjes around Brakkeput were kept alive and lush by ballast water pumped out of tankers arriving here. Even more ironical, some plantations have been known to get wiped out by heavy rains (like Padiki/St. Patrick in the 1970s.)
To be sure, the water produced by sewage processing plants could supply a number of market gardens. In the mad dash for tourism (and, so goes the suspicious rumor, maybe for some extra pocket money), our politicians have seen fit to give it all away to golf courses. Apart from the fact that this product water is twice as expensive as elsewhere - for some reason, the plants have turned out to be twice as expensive. Then, one of them stopped working after a few years because heavy rainfall demolished the containing walls. (Have to check one of these days what's going on there - knowing our Selikor, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find the shit just flowing out freely.)

Just leaving alone all the extra local problems with wind and high temperatures we have here, let us look (something I'm sure our politicians never did) at how much food we theoretically can produce under the best circumstances.
You need 32374 liters of water/hectare/day to grow food. Now corn has about the highest yield per area of all crops. The USA corn production of 9.4 ton/ha is the highest in the world, that's 0.29m3/day/ton. (Production has gone up with more CO2 in the atmosphere.) It is not clear to me if the amount of water is spread out over the year, but let us assume it is only needed during the actual growing season of (Southern USA) 150 days. You need more than 43m3 to produce 1 ton of corn, or 43 liters to produce 1 kilo. In Ireland yearly consumption of wheat, rye and rice combined is 93.5kg per head; which means we'd need about 14,025,000kg here; for which we need 196,350m3 of water and an area of 14,025ha. All of Curaçao is 47,200ha. For the most productive crop you can find we need one third of the island. If it could all be used...
Looking at it from the water angle, you'd need 603,075m3 of water for that. Total yearly rainfall on the island, assuming there's no run-off or other loss at all, is (at 575mm average precipitation) 271,400,000m3. Yes, that is 1350 times as much, but it's completely irrealistic to think so much is available. And I haven't even mentioned here how the portion that does make it to the groundwater runs away to the surrounding sea all the time (and that we'd all rather drink it in the first place; the population uses over 3,558,750m3 in their households).

Anyway, from the fertilizer angle things look even worse. For corn, you need 168kg of nitrogen/ha (let alone other stuff). Surprise: That's pure energy, which has to be imported, in total 2,352 tons of it - to produce 14,000 tons of corn. And don't forget transport costs...

When you start to talk about egg or meat production, it gets downright insane. An egg costs 183 grams of feed per day. Even discounting growing the chickens from pullets (takes 5 months of feed): An egg will cost 3.3 times as much on transportation costs (of feed) alone than buying the egg elsewhere (if you forget about cooling.)

It seems of very little use to invest in expanding agriculture.
The same goes for
Curaçao fish
Fishing & Fish Farming

Handleiding tot het gebruik van inheemse en ingevoerde planten op Aruba, Bonaire en Curaçao
Frater M. Arnoldo Broeders, Curaçao 1967

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