Next year Johan van Blerk hopes to open his Tera Barra Natural Park. Then school classes, Bonaireans and tourists can see with their own eyes what Bonaire’s nature should look like.

Jeannette van Ditzhuijzen7 October 2020, 10:48,

Halfway the road from Kralendijk to Rincon, a dirt road bends to the left. After a few hundred meters there is the five-hectare garden Tera Barra, with a typical Bonairean cactus hedge around it. Inside, bees buzz around white hives. The garden now has thousands of trees and shrubs; partly grown by Johan van Blerk from seeds of trees that covered the entire island until the arrival of the Europeans in 1499.
You can hardly imagine that it was so green on the largely barren and arid Bonaire. However, the conquerors soon saw that the yellow-flowering brazil tree was interesting as a dye, that the hard wood of the wayaká was suitable for pulleys and that you could make donkey saddles from the soft wood of the red saddle tree. Other trees were sacrificed for charcoal making.

This is how the diversity disappeared, because to make matters worse, the Spaniards introduced donkeys and goats, which nowadays often roam free. The consequence? Every seed that bravely tries to germinate, disappears in the greedy goat’s mouth. Van Blerk: “What remains are trees and shrubs that donkeys and goats do not like, so that Bonaire’s nature begins to resemble a large spiny forest.”

As an independent consultant, Van Blerk had been involved in this garden for years, called a kunuku on Bonaire. Ten years ago, for example, he grew part of the hundreds of native trees for the then owners. When they left in 2018, he took over the chairmanship of the Tera Barra foundation. The goal is an educational garden, which shows the original vegetation of the island. A garden with an eye for nature. A garden with nesting space for parakeets, sleeping places for bats and where tens of thousands of bees ensure better fruit set.

A termite nest over a dead tree raises questions. “People are startled when they see termite nests, but termites are one of the few animals that can digest hardwood. They produce seventy kilos of compost per hectare, so they are welcome on the kunuku. All the more so because parakeets can make nesting space in a termite nest. Nature can take its course here. We just need to adjust.

That becomes apparent if you look around carefully. The wayakás and even rare tree species are shooting up everywhere. “I did not plant them, they have spread, partly with the help of the many birds that come to the green kunuku. Because the goats cannot get through the cactus hedge, the seed gets the chance to sprout. Farmlands were traditionally fenced off in this way.”

Just before the corona crisis, a club of volunteers helped in the context of BonDoet with the construction of a huge shadow greenhouse. Van Blerk grows trees, shrubs and perennials, such as native orchids and bromeliads that can cover the soil of the garden. The more cover, the less the relentless Caribbean sun can dry out the soil. Not unimportant, because the residual water from the water purification that farmers and horticulturists were promised is no longer supplied and tap water is very expensive. Van Blerk has to bring the water in a trailer to the kunuku in cubic meters.

Because not all tree species self-seed easily, Van Blerk grows various ‘difficult species’ in the shade greenhouse. This morning a number of rare specimens will go into the ground. With the help of two permanent volunteers, Van Blerk cuts a large planting hole in the rock-hard soil. The five-foot-tall trees are ready on the wheelbarrow and when the hole is big enough, the three of them put the first tree in the ground. As an encore, he gets a splash of water and a large shovel of compost.
The volunteers help Van Blerk – a volunteer himself – twice a week with various jobs, such as maintaining paths, crowning trees, watering and completing the modest wooden visitor center. Soon there will be information about Bonairean nature, visitors will be able to buy bee honey and native trees for the garden. Graceful trees, such as the evergreen olibas, which are used to the dry climate. “But also saddle trees, which the farmers traditionally used as a partition. I hope they want to plant new ones again, because they are an important landscape element on the island. With the sale of trees, I also cover the costs a bit.”

When we talk about finances, Van Blerk looks somewhat shy. “I should really be looking for sponsors and grasnt money, but I just don’t get around to that. I now have tens of thousands of dollars of my own money in it, so I could use some help in looking for funds. I’d rather work in the garden than deal with finances. I get so happy when I walk around here. I can’t wait for the kunuku to open next year.”

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