Influencer Roland van Reenen
Could you share with us some information of your family life? Were you born here in Curaçao ?
I was born in Holland but I feel that my heart is closely related to Curaçao. My partner decided that she would love to come back and live in Curaçao in 2015 and when she told me if I would like to come along to Curaçao within less then 2 seconds I said “yes” and never doubted a second. She had a job, ticket and house on the same day, so all signs were on green, to come to Curaçao. I am 56 years old and now a widow as my partner, we were not married but knew each other since 2010, passed away 2 years ago. I have two children, one 24 and the other 22 years old from my first relationship both are living in Holland. My parents are still alive and in good health in their 80-ties and they have always given me a safety net in all the ventures I have undertaken and this gave me a lot of confidence in what I was doing. I have one other brother.
Could you share something of you educational background and your experiences?
I have a teacher’s degree, but after earning this degree I got involved in other things like I was in music as a salesman, musician and also a producer. The latter part of my life in Holland I was involved in the organic food sector in Holland. I was a manager in the first organic food supermarket in Holland and there is where I learned my management skills and also developed my interest in farming. We introduced a new method to attract and keep our clients as we introduced the membership concept to the supermarket. Through this new membership concept and the rebates we offered on our products for the members, the organic food supermarket became affordable and this was a breakthrough and quite revolutionary in that time. In 2015 I quit the supermarket I was managing as we were leaving to Curaçao. The director of the supermarket told me as I was leaving the supermarket that I had managed for 17 years, that: “If you go then you have to jump into deep”, which I did literally, I jumped into the deep. In 2013 I already got acquainted and fascinated with organic farming methods and with permaculture and I clicked with it, I thought to myself this is really something I can do something with. I started with permaculture as I was still in Holland and experimented with it for two years before we left to Curaçao in 2015.
When I was in Curaçao in 2015
In Curaçao I worked some time at ATV a company that offers tours, but my dreams to introduce permaculture were still alive and kicking in my head and I considered working at ATV as a distraction after while. I became restless and I needed every bit of time to try out what I have been learning and by doing this in Curaçao, I started to learn about the climate, the soil conditions and the wind conditions in Curaçao . In fact Curaçao has very challenging circumstances to work in, if you want to regenerate the soil. I was from 2016 till 2018 doing all sorts of experiments to build a food forest and due to the lack of farmland, I was experimenting with this in the garden of the house where we lived, my labotory basically and…it became a huge success as something did change on a micro level.
The ex-Minister Suzy Romer from the Ministry of GMN heard and came to see my experiments with permaculture, I was invited of by GMN to create permaculture research and educational projects and I organized a course on syntropic agroforestry together with 2 Brazilian experts, Thiago Gemenez and Murilo de Lima. Before that we created a mini forest cultivating first vegetables and later fruits first through experimentation without any course instructions, no meaningful experience in this climate with is dry and wet period in the year with little water at our disposal at a land area close to Dinah Veeris at Fuik, together with Shastri Moesker one of the sons of Dinah Veeris. After a year, I had to leave the project for I was invited by GMN to work as a coach for the Regenerative Organic Agriculture Program Curaçao (ROAP) facilitated by the Maharishi University of Iowa in the USA. But we were able to draw some interesting conclusions from this experiment. The project has been stopped medio 2020 due to the lack of funds by the new minister of GMN.
Back from Kenia
After coming back from a visit to Kenia as consultant, to spread our knowledge to elsewhere in the world on food foresting, I was curious about how this farmland had developed itself since I have left. I was pleasantly surprised to see what I have found. It was still there, even the banana trees, it little bit weak and small in size but it had survived these past 6 months after the project was abandoned without irrigation. Nowadays on a voluntary basis I work one day in the week on this farmland, where we use organic material, mulch, to revitalize the fruit trees that we are cultivating especially the banana trees that are the ones that need the most water. Using mulch is one of the core principles of permaculture and syntropic farming. This made me believe in the potential of connecting food production with the restoration of our environment in a certain way and this offers us a lot of interesting things that can be done and created in Curaçao.
You work at the moment in Curaçao you are transforming dry land into an oasis as plants create rain and can create food, in a year when, via the Corona virus crisis it became all the more clear, how vulnerable we are on Curaçao. Can you expand a little bit on this more, when did this started and why now in Curaçao ?
I deeply respect mister Barbolina from “Nos Kunuku” that is also been involved in organizing farming on a different, more organic basis. I started to go to meetings that were held in Papiamentu and in the course of time by doing that improved my Papiamentu. I experimented with local farming to master the specific circumstances in Curaçao with the sun, the wind, the dryness of the soil, the low groundwater levels, very little rainfall during the whole year, but believed the level of forestation of the island was linked with the amount of rain. If the forests disappear, the rain disappears. And vise versa, so the biggest challenges are the “how to connect things to one another” while dealing with the lack of sufficient rain and the iguanas. The answer is, to cultivate the opposite of a monoculture and cultivate as much food forestries as possible, meaning vegetables and fruits trees combined with supporting trees. The more we are able to do this, the more rain we will get on the island.
What is a a perma food forest?
Permaculture is based on a wide area of disciplines like energy, water management, fossil fuel or non-fossil fuel aimed to make farming regenerative and sustainable. Perma refers to permanent, to make the farming sustainable. If it is not sustainable we will continu to create more desserts, as is happening at this moment all over the world with the way farming technology is being applied. You can consider it a reaction on this (global) development. It is about how to transfrom desserts into vertile land, it is about basic needs. This one of the concepts of food forestry.
Syntrophic is focussing on food forestry with the same goals as permaculture but with a new perspective on the economy and ecology, deeply respecting nature and the environment. By making controlled food forestry economic wise attractive, this makes it very important to consider.
This has been a major turning point as with the Ministry of GMN with the help of the two Brazilian experts we organized a first course and had 42 people attending this course that we trained. This has been a wonderful experience. As most people think that we need water for our farming and we believe that if you want water, you should plant. And we have achieved some important results during our experiments because of the harsh conditions Curaçao has. The applied method was developed in Brazil, where you start without an irrigation system but jointy we developed a hybrid system where we use a minimum of irrigation and we proved that it worked. We used a land lot of 15 meters by 15 meters, small but used it very efficiently using only 4 liters per m2 per day as is common in Curaçao but instead of having a few crops only, we planted 50 plants including banana, yuka and papaya close to each other on that same squire meter and after 6 months we stopped with the irrigation based on the advice of the Brazilian experts and after 20 days without irrigation, this ecosystem still was working. Of course 20 days without water isn’t ideally what we should do, but it proved to us how strong the system is, where we only water the plants once a week. I now really believe that we can export this knowledge.
What happened with the 42 attendees to the first course?
Some also are still working based on these principles and we repeated the course and this time with zoom meetings with about 20 attendees, (with attendees from Trinidad and Bonaire). We offer a month of the theoretical part and then with 4 coaches just start implementing. Each week-end we set up a new farm. But as the financing of the project by GMN was stopped what I could notice is that, after I came back from Kenia, I could take notice on how well, what we created, was functioning. I see that there are more people interested now, including people that don’t come originally for the agriculture sector and I see people from the younger generation interested. I am still very active in helping design, consulting and implementing projects. We do collaborate together when we get an assignment as we don’t compete but collaborate with each other, just like the plants that we grow is based on collaboration and not competition. Competition is based on scarcity, while via syntropic farming we can prove that there is abundance and in that sense influence the world in how we can provide in basic needs of people. There is so much food that we can plant and that we can do ourselves. I was also involved in the project “Kunukitu di Kas i di Bario” and I believe that this needs to continue.
What is your BIG WHY or driving motivation to be whom you are right now?
My drive is the paradigm shift that we need on the island. We should not be competing for the resources, but if we use the resources well, there is more than enough for us all. I firmly believe that we can make Curaçao green via food production. Remember we are a small island and if we could use those lots on the islands that are unused, we can as we go, create a momentum, a tipping point to achieve this.
I have this idea that Curaçao must have been a lot greener in the past with a different climate. This idea was supported when we brought two brazilian experts on the islands and they told me that Curaçao scenery looks like a regenerative scenery. Furthermore when the Spaniards came to Curaçao they use to come for the mahony trees which are tropical rainforest trees. This is what I believe.
We can reverse nature. If we would plant between the wabi trees as a first step, the wabi trees being the pioneer plant, we could then expand it to become a food forest as if you would plant fruit trees and they become bigger then the wabi trees, the wabi trees eventually will disappear. The same goes for the neem trees, this as part of syntropic farming can also be used as the pioneer plant. In permaculture they call the neem tree “hard working immigrants”. As without hard working immigrants the economy wouldn’t work, the same goes for neem trees for the ecology. They can help reverse deforestation. The main neem tree grows on itself, thermites don’t like it and you can make a lot of medicinal products out of it, like anti-moskito sprays, toothpaste..etc…we should see the neem tree more like an asset instead of a liability.
How do you create a Ripple effect with the ideas that you are promoting and trying to implement?
Just to be active with enthusiasm and passion. We have given courses to 44 people on synropic farming and now we have an additional 20 people on the second course. People go to my Facebook and they read over what we are doing and this inspired others.
When do you consider that you have been successfull in your personal and business/professional life, let us say 5 years from now?
That we would have reached a “Tipping point” as far as my community goals are concerned.
Personally I would not want to be too concerned of my finances, because my consultancy work would have become profitable enough and with all those who have gained the knowledge from Curaçao, export our knowledge to countries with comparable climate conditions.
What are the challenges that you are dealing with? And how are you dealing with these different challenges you confront?
Finances can play a limiting role. At the other hand seeds are free, like most of the materials we use in syntropic farming come from nature. Nature is the cheapest source available. Look at nature as an asset. “The problem is the solution”.
Like organic material from the garden, you can fertilize neemtrees instead of throwing it away in landfill, like we are doing now. It could be used to boost syntropic syntropic farm production, as soon as we change our paradigm and initiatives can become economically feasible. Like using those who are mastering this knowledge as trainees and cheap labor, to make certain projects economically more feasible.
Do you use your inner voice to evaluate when dilemma’s show up? How does that work for you?
Using my gut feeling has become natural to me. I am not even aware of it when I use it, compared the days where use to be an overthinker. My gut never betrayed me, it is my compass and this can lead to radical decisions like the way I ended up in Kenia for a month. My gut also helped my discover my passion when I was already 50-years old. I am now a self made man with a clear vision and this vision really drives me.
How are you trying also to keep up with your personal knowledge and skills levels?
I am continuously learning from nature through trial and error and I also love to be challenged by people who know better. That is why I want to go to Brazil to learn more, after I have the two Brazilian experts that I worked with. I also learn from the internet and I believe that knowledge is limitless and being curious to learn more, keeps me young.
What are your strengths?
I am authentic. If I believe in something, I can become very passionate about it and by being passionate, I inspire other people.
Do you have hobbies or interests that you are also passionate about?
Music, I have done a lot in music and now, not as a professional. still play music
I have seen and been through many experiences because of what inspires me. Like, I love the diversity in societies, and I was fascinated and inspired by the culture of Kenia. They can be an example for the rest of world in a certain way.
If you as Roland would meet a stranger in the bus (let say in Mexico or the US) and they would ask you to introduce yourself what would you answer in one word or one sentence?
I am a forest farmer. I love what I am doing. I live in some kind of matrix and if I step out of it to comply with other people their desires that I don’t agree with, it doesn’t make me happy.
But also Malcolm X as he transformed from being a criminal, prisoner, radical and freedomfighter for the dignity of all oppressed people. The number of transformations he had been through in his life fascinates me about him.
What is a trait that is still work in progress?
My physical conditioning. I have been very active in sports in the past, this I need to work on more.
My finances, I need to organized and do better on that.
I need to focus more and become less distracted.
What was a defining moment in your life?
When we left to come to Curaçao in 2015. Curaçao is such a beautiful place in the world and people are very helpful. For example if you would have a flat tire within soon someone would stop and give you a helping hand. This will not happen easily in Holland.
I am completely in love with Curaçao and want to share this with the rest of the world. It is magical and it has healing powers. It is said that in the days of the Spaniards, sailors use to be left on the island because of their illness and when they came back they were completely healed. I myself have changed living here. Like sad songs I am now able to appreciate it and even get the goose bumps now that we are talking about this. In the past I couldn’t listen to it, as I considered it pathetic music.
Where do you want to be 15 to 20 years from now with your career?
I want to have seen the world and I don’t want to worry about my finances. In Curaçao it most be feasible to have 10 % syntropic farming, that has a significant economic impact for the whole island and in itself will influence our climate.
What would you want your Loved Ones, family, friends and others to say about you let’s say 20 years from now?
He followed his passion and he went all the way to achieve it, sometimes against all odds.
What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao as we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, recession and in the middle of growing environmental challenges because of the global warming consequences?
I am very optimistic about the future because I can only see opportunities. Our focus has to shift, like instead of looking at what exists, we have to for opportunities in our direct environment. For example during the time of the year when you have a lot of mango’s, we have so much mango’s that they rot away. Why not dry it up and make mango chips. It doesn’t cost a lot and it is not difficult to produce it. The focus in government policies is too much on keeping what already exists. In Cuba after the Sowjet Union collapsed and stopped subsidizing Cuba for 3 year people hardly had enough food, and now they have 90 % food security. I believe that the Corona pandemic is a turning point and I am positive about this. The thing is that I meet so many people nowadays with similar ideas like Mister Barbolina from Nos Kunuku. That is why I am optimistic.
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YouTube Channel Roland van Reenen
One of the 250 Influencers of Curaçao
Ronald van Reenen, is an enthusiastic, passionate, forest farmer that through trial and error has developed a hybrid knowledge on how to create a food forest even in the harsh climate conditions in Curaçao . This knowledge he believes can be exported to other countries with similar climate conditions and help regenerative farming elsewhere in the world. Finding his passion in the past 10 years has made him a focused person, where he combines the principles of Permaculture with Syntropic farming. With his enthusiasm, his collaborative mindset and now proven knowledge on food forestry, his aim is to make Curaçao within 15 to 20 years from now have 10 % syntropic farming, using every single unused lot on the island. With the slogans that: “To create more rain we have to plant more” and “The problem is the solution”, as most resources required from nature to achieve this goal, cost almost nothing, we are convinced that Roland together with all the others like minded drivers on the island will make, this change on the island come through. That is why we dearly love and deeply respect Roland and consider him part of the 250 Influencers of the island representing the Sustainable Agriculture sector.