Last Stand in the Kunuku
One Woman’s Battle to Save Her Island’s Plants and Culture
“This is the lòki lòki. It is a nice plant. When you have very much sun, it will close the leaves and make its own shade. We put a small bit behind the ear to help against headache.”
So explains Dinah Veeris, a local curiosa or herbalist on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a Dutch territory. Veeris speaks English to me, but when identifying plant species, she uses her island’s traditional language, Papiamentu. Today she is collecting wild plants that will be made into teas, salves, and lotions. These traditional medicines, used since the time of slavery, have been passed down for generations.
“The slaves, you know, brought seeds with them from Africa,” Veeris says. “They also learned about the new plants on the island since the Dutch colonists had them work the plantations.”
She leads me down a narrow, winding track through the kunuku, the wild, arid countryside of Curaçao. This is not the verdant Caribbean-postcard landscape that many envision. Rather, it is packed with towering cacti, thorned trees dramatically bent over by constant trade winds, and knife-sharp ridges of uplifted limestone and ancient coral reef that make simple walking hazardous. Veeris hikes effortlessly with open sandals along the kunuku path. Soon, we reach a group of trees under a sheer cliff. Hanging within the branches are strange-looking, tangled balls of what appears to be dried-out Spanish moss.
“This is Marí di palu or barba di kadushi. It is the husband of the tree. I like that a plant holds the other one so it doesn’t fall. It is like a good relationship. I like to see this.”
Veeris picks several of the dry, nest-like spheres and puts them in her basket. “We use Marí di palu when people have gallbladder problems. We have enough plants gathered now. It’s time to go to the garden.”
The garden she speaks of is Den Paradera, a single acre packed with more than 300 plant species that form a green oasis in the middle of this parched island. Curaçao receives only 20 inches of rain annually, making it a semi-arid environment. In spite of the challenges of creating a garden in such a demanding climate, Veeris started the garden more than 15 years ago at the urging of elder curiosos who were wise in the use of medicinal plants. She learned from these herbal healers that many plants were disappearing, and bit by bit, so too were many of Curaçao’s traditions. Following the elders’ advice, she scoured the countryside to find as many medicinal plants as she could. For plant varieties that were extinct on Curaçao, she visited the neighboring islands of Aruba and Bonaire to complete the collection. In the process, she wrote Green Remedies and Golden Customs of Our Ancestors, a book chronicling the time-tested knowledge of the island’s aging traditional healers.
Dark Clouds on the Horizon
Aside from the environmental pressures of tourism and unplanned development, the people of Curaçao are also struggling with the effects of living alongside one of the largest oil refineries in the Caribbean – the Isla plant, which is now leased to the Venezuelan national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela. From the protected slopes of Mount Christoffel, dark plumes often cloud nearby Schottegat Bay.
Shell Oil built the facility in 1914. Its prime location on Schottegat, the deepest port in the Caribbean, allowed it to be competitive in the modern age of oil supertankers. From World War II until the 1970s, the refinery boomed. At its height, the Isla Refinery employed a staff of 12,000 and accounted for 10,000 related jobs. But Curaçao was hard hit by the oil crisis of the 1970s, and Shell Oil ceased operations in 1985. Today, Petroleos de Venezuela employs about 900 workers, a decrease due to automation and downscaled production. But even as the refinery’s economic output shrinks, many believe that the air pollution from the antiquated facility is increasing at a dangerous rate.
“It affects one eighth of Curaçao’s population, about 20,000 people, many in the poor neighborhood of Cas Chikitu downwind of the refinery,” explains Herbert George, founder and president of the local NGO Humane Health Foundation. “Approximately 7,800 people experience health damage annually, either acute or chronic health effects. And we have 18 premature deaths per year due to the air pollution. What we also see from the scientific studies conducted is that we have coral reef degradation, polluting of the sea, and an asphalt lake created by refinery dumping. You have problems with bird and plant species. Their existence is threatened. And there’s a whole range of damage inflicted on the subsoil and water around the refinery. It’s a serious, complex problem.”
In 2001, residents downwind of the refinery approached George to see if he could help. They told him how the local government ignored residents’ complaints of severe respiratory problems. According to George, excessive emissions from Isla – including sulfur dioxide – have been linked to bronchitis, birth defects, and mental defects or delayed development in children. Adults who live downwind from the refinery tend to die earlier than normal, and have cancer or chronic lung ailments. Children in the area experience higher than average rates of asthma.
In the Cas Chikitu neighborhood, the effects of the refinery are obvious. The air stinks of toxic petroleum emissions. It reminds me of my hometown, Cleveland, and other American rust belt cities before the EPA was established in 1970. The sky is thick with smog. A gray dust covers much of the vegetation.
Soon after George heard from the neighborhood residents, he established the Humane Health Foundation. “I’ve always learned that if you want to get things done, aim straight to the heart, and that’s what we did,” George says. “We learned that local government did not want to touch this matter. So we took it straight to them, and now they can’t bend around it.”
George formed alliances in the Netherlands (Curaçao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) and with the local NGO Clean Environment in Curaçao (SMOC). He ran for office in 2007 and won a seat in the Curaçao Parliament. He also used his background in law, along with help from SMOC, to take the government to court.
“The refinery has been issued a nuisance permit,” says George. “It is based on the legal court cases that we started. We’ve won three to date, and two are still ongoing. Today, it is high on the agenda of the Dutch Parliament. Because of the pressure from the Netherlands, our local government is listening now. But there is corruption and resistance from those on the side of the refinery. The government here doesn’t back the local environmental agency, so it’s ineffective. They have little support – limited staff, low budget, and unqualified staff members with no environmental background.”
In 2019, the current lease with Petroleos de Venezuela expires. George assures me that the Humane Health Foundation and others will continue their legal fight to shut down the Isla Refinery before a new lease contract is signed.
“Our government, based on its constitution and other laws, has the responsibility to safeguard its citizens, especially those downwind from the refinery. In the future, I hope that our citizens who have health damage are compensated for both their health and material losses. I also hope that the international environmental laws will be introduced and enforced in Curaçao.”
By preserving and protecting the island’s unique plant species, she is also conserving its unique culture. “Den Paradera is what the elders wanted me to do so their knowledge will not be lost,” she says. “They want young people to understand the way of healing, to love nature. The youth can find that here.”
Den Paradera has become a popular center for residents and tourists to purchase medicinal products for common ailments. But perhaps more importantly, the garden has become a sanctuary for the native plants that grow here. It is a refuge from the many environmental challenges occurring beyond its gates.
Curaçao faces the same 21st-century pressures as other Caribbean islands: tourism, urbanization, industrialization, and development. The island’s population, approximately 150,000, has increased five-fold in less than 100 years. In terms of population density, Curaçao would rank fourth in a list of US states, between Massachusetts and Connecticut. John de Freitas, a scientist who for decades has documented Curaçao’s flora for CARMABI – the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation – offers a historical perspective.
“Primary plant communities have suffered through time beginning 500 years ago,” he says. “First, there was overgrazing of goats and donkeys brought in by the Spanish. Then, wood export and the chopping of the trees for charcoal wiped out most of the original vegetation. Today, tourism is booming here and so are the housing projects. The green areas of the island are becoming less so because of development. A system of compensatory measures needs to be introduced by the government, otherwise you are only creating a loss.”
That loss is readily apparent in the Brakkeput area of Curaçao. Every week, bulldozers are busy stripping the land bare to make way for new homes. The neighborhood resembles the suburbs of Phoenix, AZ, complete with orange-tiled roofs, decorative cacti, and graveled yards. Brakkeput covers miles of rolling hills that are quickly filling with houses, hotels, paved lanes, and streetlights. The sprawl ends on the shores of Spanish Water, a large saltwater bay. Its coral reefs are now in peril due to suburban runoff and untreated waste discharge from the visiting yachts that dot the water.
“Even in the remote western part of the island, illegal housing is occurring, and that’s taking place in conservation areas,” adds De Freitas. “But we are helping DROV, the Department of Urban and Regional Development Planning and Housing of the island government. We are looking at the conservation areas of their zoning plan with regards to invasive species, illegal garbage dumping, illegal housing, and the survival of rare species. The plan is in the revision process, and we’re giving recommendations on how better to protect those areas.”
(The island government’s Executive Council did not respond to repeated requests to interview DROV officials about the revised zoning plan.)
De Freitas continues: “There is no system in place to evaluate new project developments with respect to their economic and environmental impact. Everyone is talking about sustainable development, but no money is put into major conservation. Until that happens, we’re not working toward sustainable development.”
To get a sense of what Curaçao may have looked liked hundreds of years ago, before the primary plant communities that De Freitas refers to were destroyed, I visit Christoffel National Park, one of the few areas protected from development. Significantly, the park is managed by CARMABI, not the island government. The trail leading to Mount Christoffel’s 1,230-foot summit passes through relatively healthy stands of divi divi, mesquite, and gum trees. I even spot several massive West Indian mahogany trees.
As I approach the crest of the summit, the landscape becomes sparse and rocky. But on the north slope, I discover a botanical micro-niche shaded from the relentless tropical sun. The ground is blanketed with bromeliads called teku. Each plant displays a stunning rosette of spiked red leaves with a small cluster of tiny, delicate purple flowers in the center. The small trees clinging to the slope have two kinds of orchids growing on their branches. One that I recognize is the banana shimaron. The flowers range from light pink to dark purple, all connected by a grid of hardy stems. This slope appears to be a prime example of the island’s original plant communities. But even here, the orchids differ from the original ones that, according to CARMABI research, used to grow on the ground. These orchids, along with two bromeliad species, have adapted to grazing goats and donkeys, and now grow exclusively in trees.
After leaving the park, I travel to the city of Willemstad, where I visit Plaza, the downtown open market for fresh produce. I see various stands that sell herbs and plants, but none of the vendors appear to be Antillean. They speak exclusively Spanish and have the dress of South Americans rather than Caribbean Islanders. At Den Paradera, I ask Dinah Veeris about this.
“At the moment, you see that plants and medicinal herbs are coming from Colombia and Venezuela,” she says. “A lot of them are sold at Plaza. I don’t feel very good about that because it’s dominating the culture of the island. That’s why we are trying to educate our young people here at Den Paradera.”
Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by a boisterous group of about 30 schoolchildren led by Veeris’s son, Shastri Moesker. Five years ago, Moesker returned to Curaçao from Holland to join his mother’s crusade in saving the island’s plants and culture. He has definite ideas on how to best reach the youth of today.
“In the old days, children would just sit around and listen,” he says. “Knowledge was passed on through oral tradition. But this stopped two generations ago. Many times the culture goes away when the old people die. Today, kids want to be engaged. They want to see, to touch.”
To that end, there are several places in the garden where old-fashioned kunuku houses stand. Inside them are life-sized dolls dressed in traditional clothes. Moesker leads the enthusiastic children through games and spontaneous mini-plays. In the process, the class learns much about their ancestors.
“We play with them and show them the way of living in the past. For that moment, the kids become part of the past. For them, it’s tremendous,” Moesker says with a grin. “I hope that the children will look differently at their culture and at their plants. I can talk about one type of cactus for 20 minutes. Sometimes you see their eyes get bigger when they learn these new things.”
“We have to take care of the plants and the trees because they take care of us. That’s what many have forgotten.”
Veeris chimes in. “Our plan is to have people grow plants from seed, but the education needs to come first. We need to first develop the need, the value. I get a lot of e-mails from children wanting to know what a certain plant can do for them. That’s the future.”
I then ask her about the future of Curaçao as it tries to balance the need for jobs with the pressures of development. She responds with a calm determination that bodes well for Den Paradera and Curaçao in the years ahead.
“People have to be aware of plant loss through development. We are all part of nature. Sometimes we think we can dominate nature, but it has its rules. You cannot abuse it because it will come back to you. That’s why we have to see ourselves as part of creation. We have to take care of the plants and trees because they take care of us. That’s what many have forgotten. They have lost the balance. They can find that here at Den Paradera.”
Patrick Holian has produced and written television documentaries for more than 30 years. He now writes magazine articles on environmental topics from points abroad and from his home base of Marco Island, FL.