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‘Slow-motion disaster’: Panama’s Indigenous leave home as sea levels rise

The Guna people of Panama’s sinking Gardi Sugdub island are planning to move to the mainland to escape rising sea levels. ANASTASIA MOLONEY, of Thomson Reuters Foundation, reports…

Thomson Reuters Foundation
Gardi Sugdub, Panama

When the storm surges and high tides engulf the tiny, overpopulated Panamanian island of Gardi Sugdub, Marcia Hernández watches helplessly as her hut along the shoreline fills with seawater.

“Flooding is getting worse, the winds are getting stronger,” said Hernández, who was born on the island, one of about 350 in the Guna Yala or San Blas archipelago off Panama’s Caribbean coast and home to the Indigenous Guna people.

“I can’t do anything but wait until the water goes away,” Hernández told Context, standing on a mud floor she has shored up with stones against the ankle-high seawater.

Gardi Sugdub island huts along the shoreline, Panama, on 17th February, 2024. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

Rising ocean levels caused by global warming and decades of coral reef destruction have combined with seasonal rains and more severe storms to submerge the island for days on end.

“It’s not that the islands are suddenly going to be underwater…it’s a disaster playing out in slow motion.”

– Steve Paton, head of the Physical Monitoring Program at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Among the 80,000 Indigenous Guna who live in Panama, about half live on the mainland of their autonomous Guna Yala region and on dozens of surrounding ancestral islands that sit barely above sea level.

Faced with rising seawaters and overcrowding, the Guna on Gardi Sugdub island, who have been living there for nearly 200 years, have decided to leave and resettle later this year on forest land they own on the mainland.

When they do relocate, they would be the first Indigenous people in Panama to leave their island homes, according to the Guna, as part of a project funded by the Panamanian Government.

The majority of the San Blas archipelago islands will have to be abandoned by the end of the century, said Steve Paton, head of the Physical Monitoring Program at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

“The islands are only about half to one metre above sea level and they are just not going to resist another 70 to 80 centimetres,” said Paton.

“It’s not that the islands are suddenly going to be underwater…it’s a disaster playing out in slow motion.”

Gardi Sugdub island resident and Guna community leader Blas Lopez at the pier of his home, Panama, on 17th February, 2024. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

On Gardi Sugdub island, which is roughly the size of five football fields, ramshackle huts made from wood, plastic and bricks are crammed along a labyrinth of narrow alleys with no running water, sewage and rubbish collection systems and patchy electricity.

Guna leaders – or ‘sailas’ – of the 1,300 inhabitants living on Gardi Sugdub spearheaded the idea to leave in 2010.

More than one decade later, about 300 families are expected to begin moving this year to an area on the mainland where houses built by the government have been assigned to families.

“The sea has changed, it’s not the same. We know that nature will dominate. The marine ecosystems are crying, temperatures are rising,” said Eustacio Valdés, a 58-year-old Guna community leader.

“And there’s no space left here, so these issues have all converged and that’s why we decided to leave. We are originally mountain people, we were always supposed to return to the mainland one day,” he said, as he rocked in a hammock.

Rising sea levels threaten about a tenth of the world’s population, in particular people living in low-lying coastal areas and small island nations in the Caribbean, Maldives and Asia-Pacific, according to climate scientists.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, sea levels in the region continue to rise at a faster rate than globally, at an average rate of 3.52 millimetres per year from 1993 to 2021, according to a 2022 report by the World Meteorological Organization.

“Glaciers are melting and that water is going into the ocean. It’s just a very simple equation,” said Paton.

The prospect of leaving the island is met by residents with a mixture of indifference, enthusiasm and foreboding.

Local shopkeeper Tomas Arias, 38, who sells fizzy drinks and tinned food, said flooding has got worse over the last decade as seawater brought in from the high tide now covers a bigger area of the island and spreads further inland.

“I don’t know when but the island will probably disappear eventually,” said Arias.

He has yet to visit the new relocation site but knows his family has been assigned house number 22.

“I’m glad to be leaving as I’ll have more space and electricity all day,” he said.

Gardi Sugdub island resident and shopkeeper Tomas Arias, Panama, 0n 17th February, 2024. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

Several huts down passing the island’s school and thatched roof community hall, university student and mother Katlein Montalla, who travels back and forth from the island and Panama City to study, is also looking forward to leaving.

“Our leaders have told us we need to go. We’re used to the flooding but it has got worse so it’s a good idea we’re moving because it’s better to be prepared as the island will probably be eaten by the sea in about 50 years’ time,” said Montalla.

Her mother, like dozens of elders, prefers to stay put on the island.

“My mother thinks leaving is failing our ancestors,” Montalla said.

The Guna have their own land to move to but their relocation has been fraught with bureaucratic delays, poor planning and coordination, according to community leaders.

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Financed and led by Panama’s housing ministry and backed by $US945 million in technical assistance from The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) the construction of two-bedroom concrete houses began in 2019 and has suffered repeated setbacks, said Guna community leader Blas López.

Gardi Sugdub islanders were first set to relocate to the mainland in 2014, and more recently in February this year.

Set amid humid tropical forest, the new site known as La Barriada, remains an unused and incomplete village of neat rows of 300 small houses that have stood languishing for years – a tangible sign of the challenges that come with resettlement.

The Guna people cannot move into their new homes as the settlement lacks running water and plumbing, while a nearby school remains locked because of similar problems.

“We got organised and cleared the jungle with our own hands so the houses could be built,” said López, standing beside empty homes.

“But three different governments have come and gone and they used our project for political gain to show they’re helping Indigenous people and the environment.”

Houses in the new relocation site of the Guna people, known as La Barriada, on the mainland in the Guna Yala region, Panama, on 18th February, 2024. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

Chico Solano, a Guna Indigenous community liaison officer at Panama’s housing ministry, said the resettlement project shows that the government has always “been interested” in supporting Indigenous groups.

“The Guna people felt the need to resettle .. the government consulted with the community,” said Solano, adding construction of the site is 98 per cent complete, with the first families expected to move in May.

Setbacks stemmed from a nearly two-year stop in building projects due to the COVID-19 pandemic and delays in government payments to construction companies, he said.

While a tank to store drinking water is now ready, wastewater and rubbish collection are still pending issues, Solano added.

It will be up to whoever comes to power after a presidential election in May to get the new site finished and functioning.

“By moving, we can improve our living conditions and quality of life but we can’t move because basic things like the water treatment plant aren’t ready,” said López, the community leader.

Back at Gardi Sugdub island, a sign at a community hall wall says: “People who lose their tradition lose their soul.”

Relocating to the new concrete site, which apart from a thatched roof community hall, preserves little of Guna traditions, makes it harder to conserve a millennia culture, said school teacher Evelio López.

“Western culture has a big influence on the Guna. Education is the key to maintaining our culture among our youth,” said López, Blas López’s brother.

“Everyone is talking about climate change, and we’re preparing our community for the future with a strong culture we need to survive,” said López.


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