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Around the world, many islands are on the forefront of environmental sustainability efforts, as rising seas and plastic pollution threaten both tourism-driven economies and daily life. That’s certainly true for Aruba, where large-scale, government-led efforts are strengthening the island against 21st-century climatic threats.
“Aruba is aligning itself to international targets such as the Paris Climate Agreement and will add more renewables over the coming years,” said Varelie Croes, the chief innovation officer for the Government of Aruba. “However, there is still much more work to be done to achieve long-term sustainability. A cultural mindset shift is necessary, and this takes time. Numerous NGOs on the island are doing great work on sustainability, including plastic recycling and awareness, which should be encouraged.”
Indeed, many notable efforts underway to improve Aruba’s resiliency have sprung up from the island’s community. These grassroots developments aim to improve environmental sustainability, to be sure, but they also strengthen communities and sustain Aruba’s unique culture — a blend of Caribbean and European influences that is like nothing else in the Caribbean.
Consider Juliet Carvalhal, who launched the Impact Blue Foundation, which is focused on reducing single-use plastics on her native Aruba. After thousands of hours of canvassing, studying, collaborating, and advocating — and a bachelor of science from the University of Aruba — Carvalhal recently celebrated the implementation of one of the Caribbean’s first large-scale bans on single-use plastic bags. After going into effect on January 1, 2017, the ban has mostly eliminated the kind of lightweight plastic bags that can harm wildlife and marine environments.
On November 19, 2019, Aruba’s Parliament unanimously adopted an even more wide-reaching ban on single-use plastics including styrofoam as well as oxybenzone, which is used in some sunscreens. “It was inspired in part by a symposium organized by the government of Aruba in 2018 when the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) shared valuable insights regarding important steps to take to safeguard Aruba’s natural resources,” said Indra Zaandam, chief of staff of the Ministry of Spatial Development, Infrastructure, and Environment.
“The plastic ban will greatly contribute toward the island’s sustainability efforts, as the government is currently focusing heavily on creating more awareness about this important subject,” Zaandam said. “ Proper waste management is one of the key pillars of the government’s vision. Therefore, different trajectories have been initiated in order to approach the waste problem that Aruba currently has in an integral way. The plastic ban is an important part of this integrated approach.”
The new rule goes into effect on July 1, 2020, but many groups are already taking notice of the island’s full-on embrace of sustainability efforts both large and small. Lonely Planet recently named Aruba one of the top 10 countries to visit in their annual Best in Travel list, in part because of its “ambitious sustainability efforts.”
“[The destination] has offered the island to be a testing hub for other countries’ renewable energy solutions and is working to implement a ban on all single-use plastics and reef-destroying sunscreens in 2020,” according to the guidebook publisher. “With a flurry of new home-sharing accommodation and experiences on offer, an authentic, more affordable, and sustainable Aruba awaits.”
Yet there’s more work ahead for the island, said Ronella Tjin Asjoe-Croes, the CEO of the Aruba Tourism Authority. “From an economic perspective, the travel and tourism industry is booming and continues to expand at a rapid pace,” Tjin Asjoe-Croes said during a World Tourism Day celebration in September. “Nevertheless, each one of us, both public and private, have the duty to limit the destructive effect [of tourism] on the environment. Instead of choosing to grow quickly, we have to choose to grow wisely and at a sustainable pace.”
A Focus on Plastics
Helping drive that conversation are a number of locals making strides to both educate and evangelize around the issue of plastics. Christie Mettes founded her organization, Plastic Beach Party, to address the ever-worsening issue of pollution. “We’re the only local plastic recycling facility on the island,” she said. As the organization has grown, it has made great strides in helping local businesses, including hotels, reduce their waste streams. At the same time, plastics are being recycled and turned into consumer products such as key chains and public park benches have since been installed at Surfside Marina, Carnival Village, and other places around Aruba. Since June 2017, Plastic Beach Party has recycled 6.5 tons of plastic. “The progress we’ve made has been mostly due to tourists,” Mettes said, crediting visitors for their recent interest in lower-impact trips.
Meanwhile Julienne Paskel, another local, has opened Arubalife Organics, which creates reef-safe sunscreens and other beauty products made from fully biodegradable ingredients. Aruba Aloe, another local company, has just added reef-safe sunscreen to its lineup as well.
Other innovation work is underway at Futura, a national innovation lab under the purview of Croes, the island’s chief innovation officer. Recent work there has focused on STEM education, government efficiency (through a collaboration with Estonia on improving digital systems), and youth engagement in policy-making.
“We are one of the first countries to announce its commitment to sustainability,” Croes said. “It’s an ambitious strategy, because it’s not just about how much renewable energy we have. We have to look at sustainability in its totality. Aruba is taking a holistic approach. We’re focusing on energy. We’re focusing on youth leadership. We’re focusing on 21st-century education and strengthening our institutions through digital transformation.”
Enhancing Cultural and Social Sustainability
The work that individuals have undertaken extends beyond just the environmental, said Nathalie Maduro, director for the department of agriculture and fisheries. “We’re taking baby steps with the local farmer’s market we’ve started and have encouraged families on the island to create their own gardens,” Maduro said. Now, her focus is on further developing rural tourism routes and helping family farms liaise with tour operators to create new tourism experiences. “I want to create a new nature-driven industry,” Maduro said.
Among the early pioneers of this sort of tourism is Goshen Farm in the northern part of Aruba, where visitors can go “back to the land” and learn about the agricultural history of the island, contemporary organic farming methods, and how to make classic Aruban dishes like comcomber stoba, a stew made from spiny cucumbers.
Also developing is an arts district in San Nicolas, a town at the southeast end of Aruba. Recently dubbed “the street art capital of the Caribbean” by Forbes, colorful murals decorate the walls, and arts education happens at places like the ArtisA Gallery. San Nicolas is home to the latest iteration of the Island Festival, a monthly street party with live music, dancing, local food, and much more, designed for locals and visitors alike. And while nothing can compare to Aruba’s Carnival, the Festival draws inspiration from those annual springtime celebrations, with drum lines and performers in elaborate beaded costumes.
The city also hosts Aruba Art Fair, an annual event that features interactive exhibits, readings, dance performances, culinary demonstrations, and art auctions. The event puts a spotlight, too, on the significant amount of public art on view in the city, in the form of murals, sculptures, and colorful “street furniture,” like mosaic-encrusted benches produced by professional and amateur artists alike.
Taken collectively, the momentum on the island is pointing to a brighter future in ways that go well beyond environmental sustainability. “We need to focus on our culture,” said Ronchi de Cuba, a fashion designer and unofficial ambassador for his home island. de Cuba has morphed the beautiful landscapes and landmarks of Aruba into his clothing designs, furthering the promotion of the island’s rich culture. “We’re one of the most open-minded Caribbean islands. That’s something the experience-minded traveler wants — they’re seeking more than just beaches.” The good news is that today, those travelers can have it all, thanks to a growing number of forward-looking Arubans.