As a scuba diver, I have had the pleasure of visiting Bonaire and seeing the Cargill Solar Salt Works operations. The sights and sounds of an industrial workplace caught my attention. It’s just another day at the salt mine!Kit Case, Editor
Cargill is making salt in paradise on the island of Bonaire. A Dutch Caribbean island, Bonaire lies about 50 miles north of the Venezuelan coast. It is home to the Solar Salt Works of Bonaire.
Cargill has operated the Solar Salt Works on Bonaire since 1997, and employs roughly 40 workers. The site, on the flat south end of Bonaire, covers about 13% of the small island’s 115 square mile area.
Salt Production is a Modern Process
Abundant sunshine, an arid climate and near-constant trade winds make the process of making salt relatively fast. It takes two to three months from the time the seawater enters the salt flats until the salt crystals are ready for harvest.
Solar evaporation is a process that has been around for centuries. Salt water is collected in ponds and, as evaporation occurs, the level of salinity increases. Modern salt production involves the use of pumps to move the water closer to the harvesting site as the salinity levels rise. Once the salt is ready for harvest, heavy equipment is used to transfer the salt from the water to piles for drying. Once dry, the salt is again moved into large piles alongside the conveyor system that extends out along the salt pier. Ships arrive from ports near and far to load the brilliantly-white salt aboard.
Like a mini-mountain range, the piles of harvested salt are a lovely site. Tourists pull off the road to snap photos. Scuba divers love diving on the salt pier whenever no ships are in port to load salt.
Salt Ponds are Wetlands
The salt ponds also contain habitat for flamingos and terns. Cargill has taken steps to set aside and protect these habitats, as well as providing community support for projects outside of the ponds.
Cargill partners Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire to protect sea turtle nesting sites. It also works with STINAPA, which manages the Bonaire Marine Park, protecting the coral reef around the island to a depth of 200 feet, and the inland Washington Slagbaai National Park.
Cargill’s solar salt works is a major employer, a tourist destination, and a community partner on the island of Bonaire. Read more about Cargill’s operations on Bonaire, here.
History of Salt Production on Bonaire
The story goes that the Spaniards began harvesting salt on Bonaire beginning in 1499. I’m sure the local Bonaireans were doing so long before that. The Spaniards did not initially inhabit the island, but used it as a hitching post on their trail of maritime commerce.
They harvested the mesquite forests for charcoal fuel, and left animals on the island. Goats were self-sufficient and hearty and were slaughtered, salted and used as meat provisions on the Spanish sailing vessels. Donkeys were brought as the heavy equipment of the time.
Later, as with many of the Caribbean islands, people from Africa were captured, enslaved, and brought to the island. They worked and lived in horrid conditions. Several of the slave quarter buildings remain on the island, some relatively intact and others mere ruins. Bonaire makes an effort to educate about the plight of the slaves that worked on the island. There are signs at each location that make it clear that whole families lived in the tiny slave huts by the sea.
Prior post about solar installation projects closer to home: