Panama: Climate change could force out entire island indigenous community

Rising sea levels due to climate change are forcing one of Panama’s most well-known indigenous groups to draw up plans to relocate from their autonomous island territories to the mainland.

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One of the hundreds of islands making up the Guna Yala archipelago in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama. Rising sea levels attributed to climate change are forcing the islands’ indigenous communities to make plans for their evacuation to mainland Panama. Photo courtesy of El País.

The first few days of September have seen a UN-sponsored Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) take place in Samoa, with a focus on developing a global strategy for aiding small island nations which are set to find their very existence threatened by sea-level rise as a result of climate change. Much of the emphasis in this strategy is on publicising the plight of these island nations which, despite having historically made minimal contributions to global emissions of greenhouse gases, are likely to find themselves in the firing line as climate change begins to wreak havoc across the globe.

And yet, on the other side of the Pacific in a country that isn’t even a member of SIDS, the apparently ‘future’ prospect of entire communities being forcibly displaced as the sea swallows up their territory is, in fact, already a reality. For thousands of indigenous Guna people living in an archipelago of some 360 islands, known as Guna Yala and situated off the Caribbean coast of Panama, climate change is a very current hazard as rising sea levels begin to hammer away at the islands’ shores, flooding settlements and the precious little arable land on offer. The phenomenon has led to a major operation being drawn up to relocate, bit by bit, the 30,000 or so Guna back to the Panamanian mainland from which they moved over 150 years ago.

Whatever the overall extent of the evacuation, it now seems almost inevitable that, at the very least, considerable contingents of the Guna Yala community will be forced to relocate, which observers have pointed out would be one of the first instances in the world of rising sea levels caused by man-made climate change forcing inhabitants of islands or coastal areas to be evacuated. They would be joining communities from Pacific nations such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Kiribati who have already become ‘climate refugees’, with some experts warning they could be joined by millions more from around the world by the end of the century if climate change continues to melt the polar ice caps and lead to higher sea levels.

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Guna children steer a canoe round an island in Guna Yala. Photo courtesy of Reuters / Alberto Lowe.

This fate is one that seems to have been accepted by many of the 2,000 or so inhabitants of Gartí Sugdup, one of the biggest islands in the archipelago that can also go by the name of San Blas, and a plan of action has been in motion for some years now. Community members have begun to clear rainforest within a 300,000 hectare area of forested foothills near the Caribbean coastline in the eastern part of mainland Panama, where they will be able to maintain the special administrative autonomy they currently enjoy over their island territory. They are receiving limited on-the-ground support from the Panamanian government, which has nonetheless given its backing to the Guna’s relocation plans and pledged to fulfil its constitutional duties of providing services such as health, education, and infrastructure once the mainland community has begun to settle properly.

The Guna people are dotted around 50 or so of the archipelago’s largest islands, some of which have been ‘built up’ by mining coral from the surrounding reefs. As well as benefitting from limited tourism that brings some of the more adventurous travellers to their islands, the Guna are largely dependent on fishing and agriculture for their cultural and economic survival, but this is increasingly under threat as their land has been interrupted by periodic ocean swells and abnormally high tides. While flooding and inundation is not unheard of in the area – some of the smaller islets in particular come and go as sand banks are shifted over time – the inhabitants of Guna Yala have noted a definite increase in the number and severity of such incidents in recent years, as well as the fact that these events have started to happen outside the usual ‘season’ of November to April.

“Our people, who have lived their entire lives in the sea, don’t want to leave the islands but they are aware of the imminent danger”, explains Atencio López, a Guna leader and lawyer well respected both within the Guna Yala region and across Panama, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País (link in Spanish). “It’s hard to explain overnight to the elder generations that they need to abandon their homes”. However, as López explains, “the islands are collapsing and their communities will have to cross over to terra firma before the rise in sea levels happens, as we’ve been warned will happen with climate change”.

The El País report continues to add that of the 50 or so different island communities in Guna Yala, only five or six have so far seriously considered the big move back to the mainland. However, the Guna’s problem is already critical enough that it would not be overly surprising if they all end up being forced to move in the coming decades, if global climate change becomes as serious a phenomenon as warned by many in the scientific community.

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The Guna Yala archipelago, also known as San Blas, is famous for its clear Caribbean seas and charming desert islands, which act as a magnet for tourists and holidaymakers. Photo courtesy of .

As a report by the NGO Minority Rights Group states, the Guna are regarded as one of the most politically organised of Panama’s indigenous groups, and they have a long history of resistance to and autonomy from both colonial-era Spanish invaders and the modern Panamanian state. Having gradually migrated from the mainland out to the Guna Yala islands, due to a variety of factors including conflict with other indigenous and Spanish communities, between 1925 and 1930 they engaged in a series of uprisings and rebellions against the Panamanian government, who had tried to force them to abandon their distinctive culture for a more ‘Hispanic’ one promoted by the modern Panamanian state.

They briefly established a Republic of Tule which sought to give the Guna a nation independent from the rest of Panama, but a subsequent peace treaty mediated by US officials led to a compromise whereby they would remain part of Panama but would enjoy a degree of autonomy over their territory and political organisation. This arrangement has remained to the present day, but having successfully resisted European colonisers and early-20th-Century military oppression, the Guna appear willing to accept defeat against the rising tides and may well be forced to take the next bold step towards a new chapter in their long and varied history.

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