An official opening with several funny moments
The management of the Christoffelpark was officially handed over to STINAPA (Stichting Nationale Parken/ National Parks Foundation) by commissioner of Agriculture Mr. Augustin Diaz on the 30th of June 1978.
This was celebrated with a great number of festivities.
Mr. René Römer, then chairman of STINAPA, received this honor on behalf of the organization after which the Governor of Curaçao (Gezaghebber) Ornelio Martina officially opened the park by revealing a newly painted sign at the main entrance.
The festivities themselves were very adventurous and stories of all the things that went wrong during the celebration are numerous. But these festivities were not only the beginning of the official management of the park, they were also the culmination of years of extensive preparations.
The time before June 30th 1978
The story of Christoffelpark starts far before that festive day in 1978.
Records show that the island’s government focused on this natural area during the early 1960’s.
In the first half of 1969 the island’s government purchased the former plantations of Savonet, Zorgvliet and Zevenbergen, which totaled 1270 hectares and included the Christoffel Mountain. Most of this area was to be made a nature reserve.
But there were not only happy sounds after this purchase.
People criticized the decision of the government to start building inter insular and international communication antennae on the top of Seroe Gracia, a hilltop next to the Christoffel mountain. The government however assured that the damage to nature would be small.
In 1972 Carmabi foundation was approached by the local government to write a general plan of how the Christoffelpark should be made nature reserve.
Mr. J.J.M. Voskens, a landscape architectural student at the university in Wageningen, the Netherlands, was on the island from November 1971 up till May 1972 to work on this plan and he finished it when back in Holland. His excellent piece of work was presented to the government by the management commission of Christoffelpark. This commission was installed by the government a few years earlier to help with the preparations for this future nature park.
In this year, 1972, these first ideas for the Christoffelpark only included the former Savonet plantation. The commission also wanted to include the Christoffel Mountain and other terrains to the west of this mountain but had not achieved that yet at that time.
The Voskens-plan was executed a few years later and appears in the records of 1976. In this year a total of 175 workers started building the roads and trails in the park, freeing ruins from excessive vegetation on several locations and other necessary work according to prepare the park to become an official nature reserve. The work was executed by the department of Agriculture (LVV) under guidance of a group formed by the heads of the departments of agriculture, Public Works and the secretary of STINAPA.
At the same time an orchid project started in which orchid plants that had fallen from the trees in the park were given to the department of Labour (Arbeidszorg) at Groot Santa Martha where they would be cultured in order to reintroduce them to their natural surroundings in the park.
The idea was to focus especially on the areas in which poaching had severely diminished their population. A small part of the orchids would be sold to visitors of the park.
Many additions to the Voskens plan were made by the departments of Public Service of Curaçao and Welvaartszorg of the Netherlands Antilles, of which the construction of a fence around the entire plantation would be one of the largest.
Management by STINAPA
The Netherlands agreed to finance the first phase of the plan in 1976 through the so called Multiple Year Plan or “meerjarenplan”.
In August 1976, 175 people started working on this first phase. In 1977 the last sections of the new road network were completed and steep parts were covered with asphalt. The fence was not completed. Small sections of the new park were opened to the public at the beginning of 1978.
The decision to open only small sections of the park to the general public was taken to control the number of visitors more efficiently. The different parts and attractions of the park would each bring their own sets of logistical problems, like traffic blocks, parking problems, and vandalism, which would be difficult to control.
The commission in charge of the coordination of the Christoffelpark ceased to exist when the project was finished and the management of the area was officially transferred to Stinapa. Mr. Dick Hoogerwerf was appointed as the first manager of the park together with several rangers who would help him patrolling the park.
To prepare Mr. Hoogerwerf for the job as manager of the park, Stinapa sent him to Dominica to follow a three-week workshop organized by the Caribbean Conservation Association
There were other things to consider as well. The plantation house of Savonet was still going to be inhabited by the family Koppers- van der Linde Schotborgh, who sold the plantation to the government with the condition that they would be allowed to live in the house. The grounds around the plantation house were now part of the Christoffelpark, but the house was excluded.
The roads that were developed in the park led to all kinds of attractions, of which the caves and the mountain were the most attractive. Visitor rules were formulated. One of these was the prohibition to take flora or fauna out of the park.
To control this, all cars were inspected before and after entering the park.
Plans were made to produce a Christoffelpark guide, and a simple car route map was made including the rules for entering the park.
Finally the festive 30th of June 1978 arrived when the park was officially opened at the plantation house of Savonet. It must have been a stressful day for the organizers since there are many stories about the things that went wrong during the festivities. A television crew arrived at the scene without a camera.
A basket of orchids, which was to be presented to Stinapa by the Islands government, disappeared.
Nevertheless the festivities marked a triumph in the efforts to protect the special area in which Christoffelpark was now established.
The first difficulties
Of course the first difficulties soon appeared. Because the fence was still not complete, there were several problems with bulls from neighboring plantations, which were attracted by the lush vegetation in the park. These bulls regularly destroyed the pond were White tailed deer and birds came to drink. A continuing grievance for the management and rangers who had to clean up the mess and dredge the pond time and time again.
Another problem the management had to deal with with was the legacy of the workers who worked on the infrastructure in the park, consisting of thousands of bottles. These workers had also poached hundreds of iguanas during the construction period.
Destruction of infrastructure was also a big problem. Fences and signs were destroyed, fires started, time and time again.
Despite al this, visitors were very enthusiastic about the attractions in the park. 3562 adults and 250 children visited during the first year.
Not bad, taking into account that no marketing was done.
Hiking trails to the top of the Christoffel Mountain and to Seroe Bientu became very popular.
An office for the management
The management needed an office near the main entrance of the park at Savonet, and the decision was made to transform the old carbon shed for this purpose. The shed next to the office was also renovated, and the old rain tank at the side of the mangasina or storehouse.
Preliminary ideas were developed to renovate the mangasina and use its two parts as an audiovisual presentation room and a exposition room annex gift-shop.
Renovation of the building would be a major project, much larger than the renovation of the other structures in the park.
More and more visitors
In 1979 the number of visitors had increased to 12.514 adults and 3.147 children between 6 and 15 years old. These numbers do not include approximately 2000 schoolchildren who visited the park for free. The reactions were overwhelming, many visitors provided very positive feedback in the guest book at the entrance of the park.
Other special happenings
Video recordings were made in the park for the production of the movie “mijn zuster de negerin”, a popular book written by Mr. Cola Debrot .
To compensate for the negative effects of poaching on the iguana population in the park, hundreds of iguanas were reintroduced in the park by Dr. Dolf Debrot to revive the population.
The great number of wild domestic cats and dogs, caused major fatalities especially under the cottontail and bird populations.
The office in the old carbon shed was repainted and covered with drawings of the local flora and fauna.
An open-air museum?
The idea for the renovation of the mangasina and the installation of audiovisual and interactive attractions for visitors was further worked on. Although the local government was very enthusiastic about the idea, the Netherlands did not agree with the project because the terrain on which the mangasina was settled was not owned by the Stinapa organization.
The plans, however, were nevertheless growing.
The concept of an open-air museum, that would include the entire Savonet complex, was formulated. Savonet was one of the most complete remaining plantation structures. The basic idea was to renovate everything and give some of the structures their old function back.
The bakery would have to start baking fresh bread, which could be sold; the milk house would be producing milk and other products etc. Fruit trees, including species of trees, which were used in the past, would have to be planted in the former fruit tree garden, locally known as a “hofje”.
Pater Brenneker and mr. Ellis Juliana made an inventory of the old data available.
They discovered an old name for one of the “rooi’s” (dry river beds) in the area which was called the Rooi Bakie.
The name referred to the so called “Bakie blous”, which were basins used to extract indigo-blue color from the Indigo plant.
Science in the park
Several scientists started to find their way to the park.
In 1979 Mr. Peter Paalvast did an extensive quantitative study on the effects of goats on the vegetation in the park.
Miss Joke Winkelman studied the dispersion of the “Palu di Lechi” or Rubber Vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora), the effects of the goats on the vegetation, and the dispersion and population density of the Sabal Palm.
Increasing number of visitors
The park increased in popularity over the following years. 11.330 persons visited in 1980, 11.663 in 1981, 12.397 in 1982, 20.235 in 1989 and 6000 school children, 33.019 in 1991, 41.688 in 1996 including 18.780 school children.
Daily work continued over the years on the roads, fences and structures around the main entrance.
In 1980 the financial aspect of the renovation of the mangasina was finally completed.
The Dutch government agreed to pay 73% of the costs and for the remaining 27% several sponsors were found.
The renovation was concluded in 1982 after which communication was started with the archaeological section of the department of Culture to design a permanent expo in this building.
The plans for the entire open- air museum project were so far developed in the early 1980’s that a new foundation, solely to support this initiative was considered desirable to ensure the sustainability of the museum in the future. This idea would never crystallize.