Conservation Tourism in Bonaire

September 22, 2015

Caroline Lowe

On a map with street names, Buddy Dive Resort is on Kaya Gobernador Nicolaas Debrot, but chances are directions will include some hand waving and a “you can’t miss it, it’s the big yellow one.” On Monday nights at Blennies Restaurant and Bar (conveniently located within Buddy Dive Resort), there is a presentation on coral restoration and the work that Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire (CRFB) does around the island. Each presentation goes through the specific conditions for coral growth in the waters of Bonaire, the science behind coral propagation, and the types of coral the foundation focuses on.

The presentations offer a primer on the work that CRFB does, and hopes to garner support and interest from the people who are an otherwise captive audience at the restaurant. Listeners learn that the foundation’s mission is “to develop affordable, effective strategies for protecting and restoring the shallow water population of staghorn and elkhorn corals along the coastlines of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire.” They also learn that “CRF Bonaire, supported by the local government and the Bonaire Marine Park, is developing a large scale reef restoration program, promoting awareness and engaging tourists and local volunteers.” The foundation is young—created in 2012 after a visit from Ken Nedimyer of CRF’s United States branch to discuss conservation efforts. In February of that year, the government and marine park granted a permit for Buddy Dive to begin its work (CRF Bonaire 2015).

The last slide from the presentation at Blennies

The last slide from the presentation at Blennies

As a leader for young adult scuba service trips on the island this summer, I saw the presentation three times, twice with a group of young adults. Both times, I brought groups for the express purpose of attending the presentation, giving strict instructions not to order anything aside from water; we were the only ones at the outdoor restaurant explicitly paying attention to the speaker.

I saw three different people give these presentations in three consecutive weeks. Yago, a handsome Spaniard with an awareness of his audience, was incredibly personable and often tried to engage us by making jokes and seeking answers to his somewhat rhetorical questions. The second week (which I attended without teenagers), Elena gave the presentation. She attempted some hasty jokes that fell on deaf ears and bulldozed through the scientific terminology with aplomb and novel pronunciation. Elena was Spartan with her words—no nonsense—and seemed as though she could not be done soon enough. She clearly cared about the restoration project but did not know how to address the lack of interest on the part of those dining. All of the coral restoration instructors take turns giving the presentation, as it is not a highly coveted after-hours job. Augusto, the head dive master instructor, gave the third week’s presentation. He struck a balance between Yago’s lighthearted banter and Elena’s direct, to-the-point information. Augusto has been in charge of diving at Buddy Dive for thirteen years and an integral part of the coral restoration endeavor for the past three. All three were highly informative presenters, and they rattled off scientific terms in English despite the fact that it was no one’s native tongue.

For some diners, the presentation disturbed their idyllic sunset dinner, and the presenter made an insincere apology and asked them to be quiet. There are no walls at Blennies, and the roof is thatched palm. It appeals to the tourists who flock here in droves for a rustic, tropical experience. For some guests, the dinner and drinks made them loud distractions. For others, dinner and drinks made them loud participants in the presentation. Either way, it was clear that the informational presentation was a surprise add-on to their tropical meal in paradise. Some were resentful while others embraced the laidback island spirit. Perhaps some of them would go on to get a coral restoration certification once they got tired of the house reef or maybe become curious about the haphazard obstacle course used for training set up under water by the shore. Maybe they would take the pictures of bleached and dying coral to heart and feel compelled to do their part to regenerate swaths of reef.

Sunset from Blennies during the presentation

Sunset from Blennies during the presentation

Bonaire is a small island off the coast of Venezuela and a special municipality (as of 2010) of the Netherlands. It is therefore a common destination for vacationing Dutch, and several of the Dutch dive instructors grew up spending time on the island. The official language is Dutch, the local language is Papiamentu, and most everyone speaks English. The island is one of the top destinations in the world for shore diving, the access and ease of which is (so I’m told) unparalleled. Painted yellow rocks with the names of dive sites dot the roads along the shore, demarking shore dives. Especially along the southwestern shore of the island, it is hard to go more than a few hundred yards without a yellow rock.

Buddy Dive lies along a stretch of road that is home to many resorts that cater to tourists. These resorts provide all the equipment and (for the most part) instruction needed to start diving independently. In order to dive in Bonaire, one must be outfitted with a Stichting Nationale Parken (STINAPA) tag and pay a fee to the marine park. STINAPA is the nongovernmental, not-for-profit National Parks Foundation commissioned by the island government to manage the two protected areas of Bonaire: the Bonaire National Marine Park and the Washington Slagbaai National Park (STINAPA Bonaire 2011). In this way, Bonaire ensures that its natural beauty continues to exist for more tourists to visit. Every diver is therefore literally invested in conservations efforts on the island. Divers who wish to dive on their own must also do a “checkout dive” before getting this tag or diving anywhere else on coastline. They must prove that they are safe divers who will not endanger themselves, the reef, or others. On Saturdays, direct flights arrive from a handful of airports around the United States, as well as from Amsterdam. Sunday mornings at the Buddy Dive dock are hectic affairs tinged with American Southern accents, shouts in Dutch, jokes in Spanish, and slippery feet as the newly arrived prepare for a checkout dive.

Recently, some of the Buddy Dive instructors, representing a smattering of nationalities, created a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification specialty. The organizing certification body of divers around the world has granted its particular means of restoring coral, which is a huge boon. For some people who come to dive, this possibility and almost certainty of another badge and card to put onto their diving resume is a great draw, as divers love to collect specialties. Another tag! Another skill set! For some of these tourists, coral restoration is simply another way to get a dive in. For others, like the kids I brought to the island, the idea of saving the charismatic reefs is what brings them to Bonaire and Buddy Dive.

Coral reefs are tangible, colorful habitats and objects of conservation. The underwater landscape is vast and for the most part far more unknown compared to its terrestrial counterpart. To see pictures of coral reefs at their full resplendence is reminiscent of scenes from Finding Nemo. Perhaps this is part of the allure—to feel as though one is a part of a movie. There may not be many charismatic mega fauna in and among the branches of elkhorn and staghorn coral, but the colors and proximity of the smaller fish are almost enough to make a first-time diver gasp in her mask. Seahorses like to hang on the coral nurseries, and little, awkward trunkfish dart in and out of the branches.

A group of students hang coral in the nursery off the shore of Klein Bonaire

A group of students hangs coral in the nursery off the shore of Klein Bonaire.

CRF Bonaire’s Facebook page shows fun pictures of newly certified divers, as well as underwater action shots of people cleaning and hanging coral in the nurseries, captioned as “coral lovers,” “coral heroes,” and “brave soldiers of the polyp.” It is interesting to note the age range of people who have gone through the course; the students I led were among the youngest, while most of the others are middle aged and retired. After they leave Bonaire, most of them will not go home to a reef to restore. This has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Perhaps they will come back, but there isn’t a direct tangible transference of skills and actions that stem from their coral restoration. Instead, they will share their photos with friends, wear the T-shirt they bought at the gift shop, and think about how relaxed they felt on the island. Hopefully the seeds of awareness have been sown, and perhaps at some point they will consider the small dent they have made in a wider global oceanic conservation effort.

Caroline Lowe
is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She graduated from Harvard College with an honors degree in Folklore and Mythology, and her studies focused on the intersection of biology and folklore, specifically the role whales play in Māori culture in New Zealand. She hopes to continue educating people about how to best approach their own interaction with the natural world.

All photos in this post are credited to the author.


Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire. 2015. “About CRF Bonaire.” (accessed 24 August 2015).

STINAPA Bonaire National Parks Foundation. 2011. “STINAPA Bonaire.” (accessed 24 August 2015).

Cite as: 
Lowe, Caroline. 2015. “Conservation Tourism in Bonaire.” EnviroSocitey. 22 September.

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Taste Environments

Linking Agrobiodiversity and Food Security in the Bolivian Andes

September 3, 2015

Alder Keleman Saxena

In the first farming settlement of the [Andean] cold country I should place emphasis on the second-rate tuber crops—oca, ulluco, and añu … They are inferior in food value and in yield to potatoes, but are maintained in cultivation by highland Indians from Colombia to Peru and are grown in the same fields as potatoes. There are numerous races of each, and all three are man-made species, remote from wild kin. It is difficult to believe that people who had passably satisfactory potatoes to hand would have given attention to transforming such wild plants into root crops which provided nothing that was not better provided by potatoes. On the other hand, if the minor tubers were developed first, they might retain a place in Indian cooking because of traditional dishes and old taste preferences. Wherever there are highland Indian communities these tubers still are much used; white people do not care for them. (Sauer 1969: 50–51)

There are few activities less charismatic than the write-up period of a dissertation. Having returned from my fieldwork in Bolivia a little more than a year ago, my days are currently somewhat fragmented. I read or reread segments of books, I search my field notes for particular experiences, or I spend hours cleaning a handful of survey variables.

But from time to time, like when I stumbled across this opinionated passage by the formidable agricultural geographer Carl Sauer, a thread linking the fragments snaps taut. I went to Bolivia to study precisely the crops that Sauer dismisses. To him they were “second-rate,” but to many contemporary Bolivian farmers, chefs, and agrobiodiversity conservationists, these crops are rare delicacies to be valued and protected.

Charismatic potatoes at an agrobiodiversity fair in Candelaria, Colomi, Bolivia. (Photo: Alder Keleman)

There are many things about this passage in Sauer that we might question today. For example, we might treat with skepticism the assumption of a simple periodization of cultivar types, wherein primitive people plant minor tubers, like oca and ulluco, and more modern ones plant potatoes. So, too, should his slippage into a simple racial binary dividing “Indian” from “white” raise warning bells for the contemporary reader.

But what interests me about this passage is not only how current anthropological thought would revise it. Rather, I’m drawn to a simpler expression therein: despite his life’s work of cataloging the diversity of American agriculture, Sauer, it seems, had little affinity for Andean foods.

It strikes me as curious that a figure who spent so much of his life understanding and celebrating the diversity of the world’s crops might also so easily dismiss a few of them as “second-rate.” But then again, perhaps it isn’t; Sauer, too, had taste buds, and surely also had his own likes and dislikes. These very human qualities tap into deeper questions: What makes people decide they like certain foods, while they simply can’t stomach others? And what turns these likes and dislikes from individual idiosyncrasy into collective preference? In other words, I wonder, what relationships link taste to culture and environment?

These musings may seem esoteric, but I see them as more than trivial. My research is on the role of agrobiodiversity in household food security and food culture in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This region presents a real conundrum. Cochabamba is agriculturally rich, both in the sense of yield potential and in the diversity of crops it produces, but it nonetheless exhibits some of the highest levels of child malnutrition in the Western Hemisphere. These problems are more marked in rural areas—seemingly anomalous, given the potential of many of these areas to produce an ample and diverse diet.

A plate of oven-baked cuy (guinea pig), prepared by a women’s group in Kayarani, Colomi, for an annual food security fair. (Photo: Gonzalo Tiñini Huanca)

While economic inequality and a long history of racial oppression are obvious culprits for these outcomes, I also wonder about the role that an oft-overlooked element of food security may play in the development of malnutrition. The FAO’s definition specifically stipulates that food security, among other characteristics, describes a diet that meets one’s “preferences.” But the idea of preferences contains a cultural wild card. It is easy to imagine what a “healthy” and “complete” diet might consist of, from the perspective of Western science, but this gives us little sense of what food security might look like (or taste like) to the average Bolivian.

Indeed, just as Sauer expressed marked opinions about Andean foods, I observed Bolivians articulating very particular preferred “taste ways.” A case in point: I am married to a South Asian vegetarian. On my husband’s first visit to the field, we prepared an Indian meal for my Bolivian colleagues, many of whom were agronomists or nutritionists from local institutions. We put together what we thought was a fine spread: jeera rice, hand-rolled parathas, mint and cilantro lentils, and a spicy chutney, accompanied by a chicken korma, in a nod to the strong preference for meat in Cochabamba. Judging by our guests’ appetites, these were mostly well received.

But the evening was colored by our choice of beverage: a homemade, sweet-and-salty lemonade, garnished with toasted cumin seeds. This is one of my favorite South Asian beverages—refreshing on a cool day and a rehydration fluid to beat any other on the market. It hadn’t occurred to me that the dark yellow liquid, complete with floating brown specks, might be quite a shock to an unaccustomed palate. Two Bolivian friends later recounted the story of how they’d arrived at my apartment on that hot afternoon, thirsty after climbing three flights of stairs. They served themselves a generous portion—and promptly gagged.

Sweet and sour and salty and crunchy? In hindsight, I probably should have warned them.

Luckily, these colleagues took it in stride, and the story of the sweet-and-salty lemonade incident became a source of amusement rather than disgust. But this was far from the only moment when it became apparent that what I liked to eat seemed quite strange to my Bolivian interlocutors. I once had a long conversation with another colleague about my “flexitarianism.” My husband was vegetarian, I explained, and I ate meat occasionally but didn’t usually cook it, mostly because I simply didn’t crave it. I could tell by her questions that there was something in my occasional approach to meat that was utterly confusing. She understood complete vegetarianism, a sacrifice she had heard of people adopting for health reasons, and as a born-and-raised Cochabambina, she certainly understood carnivory. The idea that someone might just not want to eat meat every day, however, seemed to provoke deep skepticism.

Thinking about these instinctive likes and dislikes—Sauer’s, my colleagues’, and my own—leaves me wondering about the broader issue of taste. And here, I mean taste not in Bourdieu’s sense of “social distinction” (although there is some element of that as well) but more in the sense of “flavor.” How, I wonder, does the environment we inhabit, the environment we grow up in, influence the flavors we perceive as pleasing? How does it structure the flavors that we disdain?

In the early 1980s, ethnobotanist Timothy Johns did a study with a group of highland Aymara Bolivians, testing their taste perception and classification. While the taste testers had an affinity for sweet flavors, they expressed aversions to flavors that were sour, bitter, or salty. These aversions, he found, were ranked more strongly than aversions held by populations in other regions of the world, when calibrated on a comparable scale. Comparing these data with the foods reported in dietary recalls, Johns hypothesized that highland Aymara peoples’ preference for bland foods—i.e., starchy carbohydrates—might have to do with the frequent exposure to bitter plant toxins, like glycoalkaloids and saponins, in native Andean crops (Johns and Keen 1985).

Colomi potatoes in cross-section, in preparation for taste-testing. (Photo: Alder Keleman)

Indeed, as I am exploring in my dissertation, many Andean agricultural and culinary practices seem specially designed to reduce exposure to just such bitter chemicals. Taken in this light, perhaps my colleagues’ visceral disgust with the sweet-and-salty lemonade was more deeply rooted than I might have imagined—the result, one might imagine, of a deep cultural history of avoiding flavors that, in such a high-altitude environment, might well have indicated the presence of dangerous poisons.

This hypothesis, of course, is tricky territory. Anthropologists from Mauss to Geertz and beyond have cautioned against the perils of environmental determinism. In emphasizing the role of the environment in ritual, behavior, or preference, one does indeed run the risk of pitching environmental structures as overdeterminant while minimizing the agency of the people living in them.

Nonetheless, when I look at data from my own surveys of agrobiodiversity consumption, they show native crops, like oca, papalisa (ulluco), and isaño (año), accounting for as much as 65 percent of a household’s caloric consumption in rural Cochabamba, while they make up as little as 12 percent in urban areas just a few hours away. Typically, these crops are replaced not by other vegetables but rather by pasta, rice, bread, and meat. Some of this difference may be explained by access to markets, and some might be explained by income or other household resources. Still, I can’t help wonder whether perception of flavor itself isn’t an underlying driver of these contrasting dietary choices.

Anthropologists studying the interface of society and the environment have long been interested in “traditional knowledge,” or local and place-based ways of knowing. Though heavily structured field methods, like ethnolinguistic and ethnobotanical cataloging, have largely been replaced in recent years by studies of more fluid national and global processes, I wonder whether even these processes might not be illuminated by placing them in relationship to flavor. On some level, I would argue, we all know the world by its taste.

Alder Keleman Saxena
is a PhD student in a combined program hosted by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Yale Department of Anthropology, and the New York Botanical Gardens. Her research is on the role of native and traditional crops in household food security and food culture in the Bolivian Andes. Recreationally, she likes to experiment with unconventional combinations of foods, flavors, and ingredients.


Johns, Timothy, and Susan L. Keen. 1985. “Determinants of Taste Perception and Classification among the Aymara of Bolivia. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 16, no. 3: 253–271.

Sauer, Carl O. 1969. Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds: The Domestication of Animals and Foodstuffs, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cite as: 
Kelemen, Alder. 2015. “Taste Environments: Linking Agrobiodiversity and Food Security in the Bolivian Andes.” EnviroSociety. 3 September.

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