by Milton Ponson, President, Rainbow Warriors International

Beach erosion, reef destruction, pollution, the depletion of natural resources, habitat loss and decline in scenic amenities are but a few aspects of environmental degradation which can seriously affect the economic development of small island nations dependent on tourism.

In the last decade the island of Aruba has experienced all of the above problems when, after the closure of the refinery in 1985, the economy was revived by a massive tourism expansion program which resulted in the local industry tripling its room capacity.

However, a first wave of environmental awareness surged in 1991 when grass roots organizations in Aruba started tackling a wide range of issues. The second wave followed in 1994 with environmental stewardship of hoteliers through the Aruba Hotel and Tourism Association.

Beach cleanups, waste management programs, children's programs, nature walks and community environmental efforts are now commonplace in Aruba.

Waste Management

One major environmental problem is waste because the twenty plus resorts and 90,000 inhabitants in Aruba produce large amounts of it. As a result the management of waste is top priority in Aruba.

A combined recycling program for Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles was recently signed. A new landfill with waste separation facilities and incinerator for disposal of some types of waste will become operational in the future.

Fundacion Aruba Limpi (Clean Aruba Foundation), a private sector initiative, operational for several years now, manages a fleet of trucks and personnel that periodically remove roadside litter along a large number of designated routes in Aruba.

The Aruba Hotel and Tourism Association through its "Sponsor-a-Mile" campaign regularly cleans the beaches. Operational manuals for green activities within hotels are now found in most hotels in Aruba.

In 1994 the first annual Perrier Reef Care and Cleanup was organized. The program aims to raise the awareness about the marine environment and features an underwater reef cleanup. The principal contributors are the local dive operators who voluntarily participate and provide diving equipment for cleanup participants.

Coastal and Marine Resources

Sustainable development in small island developing states depends largely on coastal and marine resources.

Coral reefs and related ecosystems such as coastal lagoons, sea grass beds, mangroves, and barrier islands, are currently addressed through the International Year of the Reef 1997 program of the Ocean and Coastal Ecology Work Group of Rainbow Warriors International, an international organization headquartered in Aruba. This program calls for preserving coral reefs and related ecosystems through public education and action.

Some of the issues addressed in this International Year of the Reef program are over-exploitation and destructive fishing practices, land-based airborne solid and liquid industrial waste, pollution from industry and agriculture, untreated sewage disposal into the sea, and oil pollution.

In Aruba conches, coral fish species and turtles are protected by law. Four species of sea turtles, the loggerhead, hawksbill, green and leatherback are subject of preservation efforts by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network. They focus on establishing turtle conservation programs through local country coordinators, interested citizens, scientific research and monitoring.

The so called catch and release game fish tournaments in which the fish are returned for conservation purposes as specified by the International Game Fish Association have been accepted and embraced by local aficionados.

Agriculture and Fisheries

In Aruba approximately 100 farmers raise livestock consisting mainly of goats and sheep.

Agriculture and horticulture in Aruba are severely limited by the arid climate, with very little precipitation throughout the year. Under such adverse conditions the cultivation of crops is only possible during the short rainy season or through irrigation which in Aruba is not a viable option due to the prohibitively high cost of water. The crops planted are usually sorghum, several other varieties of corn, peanuts, water melon and various types of beans. Vegetables are grown locally by among others the Chinese farmers, who harvest year round by employing irrigation with rain water stored in local reservoirs or using tap water. Horticulturists produce tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, green peppers, hot chili peppers and numerous tropical fruits. There are approximately 150 green farmers in Aruba. Currently most fresh produce is imported to meet demand.

For more than a century aloe vera was cultivated for aloin production, mainly used as an ingredient for pharmaceutical products. Aruba became the main exporter of aloe-products in the world, and is still known as the “aloe island”. But cultivation decreased in the past decades, leaving many aloe fields neglected and abandoned. Efforts are now being taken to preserve and develop former aloe fields to show the younger generation and visitors of the island the important role the aloe cultivation played in the Aruban history.

In the semi-arid climate of Aruba, aloe vera is one of the few crops that withstands the long and severe periods of drought. Although not endemic, the plant had (and still has) a great influence on the natural and cultural heritage as well as the economy of the island. It contributes to the characteristic landscape, plays a role in the protection of the soil against erosion, and its potential as an active ingredient in natural health-care products is unprecedented. A second product from the aloe plant, the aloe gel, is now used as an ingredient for cosmetics.

Fisheries in Aruba are mostly small-scale and many of the fishermen are engaged on a part-time basis. In 1993 a fishing fleet of 261 vessels was recorded. It is estimated that there are no more than 20 full-time fishermen engaged in commercial fishing. The length of fishing craft ranges from 15 to 30 feet. Most are of simple open-deck design, manned by two crew (including skipper) and powered by one or two outboard engines. Fishing trips rarely exceed twelve hours. The fishing methods used in almost all the boats are demersal handlining and/or trawling. The other methods used include long seining and to a minor extent fishtrapping. Spearfishing has been prohibited by law in Aruba.

In the absence of a fisheries statistics system, it is not possible to know the fishing effort or quantities of fish landed. Nevertheless from observations and interviews an average of 20-40 kilos for an average of 30 boats on any particular day was arrived at, thus constituting an annual catch by the Aruban fleet between about 200 and 500 tons. In 1992, 1760 tons of fish were consumed in Aruba of which 1510 tons were imported and only 250 tons caught locally. A mentionable note is that part-time fishermen are responsible for about 90% of this yearly catch. Typical fish caught in Aruba are snapper, amberjack, groupers, wahoo, king mackerel, barracuda, common dolphinfish, atlantic bonito and bigeye scad.

The fish stocks in Aruba have been over-exploited and present catches do not justify additional investments in gear and boats. Venezuelan fishermen who illegally enter Aruban territorial waters using longlines, trawls and fishtraps are mainly to blame and have been intercepted regularly by the Aruban coast guard. Furthermore, it looks as if the movement of fishermen away from full-time fishing because of better paid employment elsewhere in the local tourism oriented economy, does not permit fishing in Aruba to fully develop its potential.

Land Use and Nature Conservation

Over the past decade the demand for land for housing, tourism and recreation in Aruba has increased considerably. This has emphasized the need for adequate land-use planning in which development of rural and natural areas is predetermined.

In 1994 the Department of Agriculture, Husbandry and Fisheries initiated the research program PUDRENA in conjunction with the Wageningen Agricultural University in The Netherlands. With scientists, students and local experts, the program concentrated on four main areas: erosion prevention, development of green zones, aloe fields, evaluation and planning of land use in Aruba.

Government policy on zoning and physical development has focused on first determining current land use and a global inventory of natural areas, species and habitats.

In 1995 the Nature Conservation Act was passed in Aruba, providing comprehensive legislation for the protection of wildlife, habitats and the institution of natural parks.

In May 1996 the Directorate of Housing, Physical Development and Environment and the Aruban Department of Agriculture, Husbandry and Fisheries presented their “Structuur Nota Natuur en Landschap” to the Aruban Council of Ministers. This official policy document provides a detailed outline of species, habitats, natural landscapes, geological formations with recommendations for the conservation of such and park management.

Only three natural areas in Aruba are currently designated as protected: the Spanish Lagoon wetland, the Arikok National Park, and the San Nicolas Bay Keys opposite the refinery complex at the southernmost part of the island. These keys are an important breeding place for the Cayenne Tern, eight more species of terns and other marine birds.

Another area deserving protection is the Bubali Bird Sanctuary, comprising two interconnected man made lakes and surrounding vegetation, into which the treated water from the adjacent sewage treatment plant runs. This is a resting and breeding area for migratory bird species like herons, egrets, terns, gulls, ospreys, coots, cormorants and ducks.

In 1995 the Government of Aruba commissioned Sasaki Associates, Inc. from the USA with a study of the eastern side of the island.

Including the community of San Nicolas and the Arikok National Park, the San Nicolas Master Plan presents a comprehensive land use plan for the southern end of the island that seeks to balance the demand for housing and other uses with the goal of efficiently utilizing Aruba’s limited land resources.

The Arikok National Park Master Plan

The Arikok area covers about 35 sq km (almost 20% of the island’s land mass) and contains a unique landscape, including a desert like vegetation, dry land forests, rocks of the Aruba Lava Formation, limestone terraces and caves, and rough coastlines. The area has a relatively high level of terrestrial biodiversity and it harbors highly endangered and threatened species, such as the endemic Aruban rattlesnake, Crotalus durissus unicolor, and the endemic burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia arubensis.

Since the 17th century, the natural area of the Arikok park has been significantly affected by human interference. Former deforestation, earth moving, and overgrazing by roaming goats have created a fragile ecosystem with low vegetative cover, accelerated erosion and flora and fauna loss.

A government task force, the Commission for Arikok National Park, is planning the protection and enhancement of the park, focusing foremost on developing a long-term strategy for preserving and stabilizing the natural, historical and cultural resources of the area.

The result is a master plan which seeks to develop a limited area of the park for guided and controlled recreation and sight-seeing purposes while reserving other areas for the preservation of indigenous flora and fauna.

The park area is divided into a Central Zone, the North Preservation Zone, the South Preservation Zone and a Transition Zone, extending one kilometer from the park boundaries to control the land uses directly adjacent to the park. The Spanish Lagoon wetland area, located outside the park boundaries is conceived as a separate park site.

The long-term vision for the Arikok National Park will be implemented in two phases over the next ten years. Phase I will focus on the Central Zone, concentrating visitor facilities in that area and also on completing parliamentary and legal processes necessary to establish the National Park and legally define its boundaries.

This will include the establishment of the proposed Nature and Landscape Management Trust (the Trust), of which a key member will be the park manager. The Trust is proposed to be a private, semi-autonomous government corporation which will be responsible for the development, management and operation of not only the Arikok National Park, but other preservation areas such as the Coastal Preservation Zone on the north and south coasts of the island, the Spanish Lagoon wetland and a marine park.

In Phase II, the Trust will focus on park operations, development of educational and research activities, and the development of strategies for completing the restoration and preservation projects identified for the North and South Preservation Zones.

In addition, the Trust will be responsible for developing solutions and strategies for addressing a series of development issues within the park which primarily involve existing activities. These include:

  • the resolution of land ownership within the proposed boundaries;
  • a strategy for phasing out existing quarry operations in the park;
  • a strategy for controlling the access of four-wheel drive vehicles in sensitive areas of the park;
  • a plan for rehabilitation of damaged landscapes;
  • a strategy for halting the herding of goats which causes significant damage to the park landscape and habitat of indigenous wildlife;
  • the development of an erosion control strategy; and
  • a plan for rehabilitating damaged areas of the park landscape, in general.

Sustainable Development Priorities in Aruba

Government macro-economic policy in Aruba does not adequately address socio-economic factors and does not recognize the necessity of limits to growth, which is essential to sustainable development.

As sustainable development is not feasible without democracy, an impartial and autonomous judiciary to guarantee proper functioning of the trias politica in the parliamentary democracy of Aruba is sine qua non.

National environmental policy in Aruba should recognize tourism as the mainstay of the Aruban economy and set a limit to growth by instituting a ceiling for the receptive capacity (number of hotel rooms and number of annual visitors), allow community participation in decision making, stress long term planning, institute environmental restoration and protection, and emphasize quality over quantity. It should also target less damaging ways to raise net tourist revenue in national strategic tourism marketing plans.

Properly managed, tourism is a strong argument for the protection of the coral reefs, beaches and natural landscapes that people come to see. Ecotourism is heralded as the trend in tourism most suited to catalyze sustainable tourism. Although a marketing concept, it can be redefined to reflect the true principles of sustainable development.