Rising sea levels will force the migration of an estimated 28,000 indigenous residents of the Caribbean San Blas archipelago to the mainland.
Their relocation could serve as a model for climate change refugees in a threatened region.
Currently, Panama’s government and the indigenous Guna Yala community are working to build a new community for one island – Carti Sugdub – of approximately 900 residents, but eventually every islander will have to relocate.
Anelio López, spokesman for the semi-autonomous local Guna government, explained that resources such as fish and beautiful tourism locales near the islands are a lifeline in the impoverished Guna region, making the decision to leave difficult.
“Taking on the task of moving, they ask what does it mean to me? My home? My location? It totally changes your way of life that is already planted in the island,” López told Latin Correspondent in an interview.
Tourism accounts for 90 percent of the economy in the Guna community, according to López, and the islands provide a base for fishing trips, beach trips and overnight cabins.
However, the Guna province remains one of the poorest regions in Panama, with almost 81 percent of its population living on less than $105 per month, according to the country’s Ministry of Economy and Finance (pdf).
A second migration
This means that the semi-autonomous Guna province, or “comarca,” requires assistance from Panama’s government to build infrastructure such as housing and the sanitation system in the new mainland site for the Carti Sugdub community. This process will have to be repeated for all 38 island communities.
In an ironic twist of history, moving from the islands will be the second migration of the Guna Yala pressed by outside circumstances. According to López, the Guna Yala originally settled on riverside communities on the mainland, and moved to the islands to avoid colonial encroachment in the early days of Spanish conquest.
Last year, Displacement Solutions, a non-governmental organization that works with the United Nations on climate change refugees, studied Carti Sugdub.
According to one researcher, Carlos Arenas, Panama has a duty to provide assistance in the island’s relocation.
“The worst-case scenario would be for an extreme weather-related natural disaster to occur, forcing a sudden, chaotic, and permanent relocation of large numbers of people,” Arenas wrote in a July 2014 report (pdf).
According to Arenas’ report, Cartí Sugdub, the first island to relocate, has a population of 927 people, but eventually approximately 28,000 Guna islanders will have to relocate, and an additional 12,000 who live in Panama City may wish to return to their home comarca once it becomes sustainable.
Panama’s Housing and Territorial Regulation Ministry has already pledged sanitation and housing construction for Cartí Sugdub on the mainland and is in talks with the Guna Congress over the ongoing project.
“This is a very important step, but there are other things that need to be done,” Arenas told Latin Correspondent in an interview. “This is not only a housing project, but this should be seen as a relocation project,” he said later.
Arenas said that the government needs to think about how to enhance the life of the community in helping to build their new mainland town. Arenas reiterated a finding in his report that the government has yet to create a plan for the new community.
More to come for Central America
The Guna will not suffer alone on the tropical isthmus due to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released by the UN last year, Central America, with its pronounced wet-dry seasons, vulnerable environments and low levels of economic development is likely to witness some of the worst effects of climate change, even outside of poorer indigenous communities in the region.
Arenas, who has worked with similar communities in Colombia and Nicaragua said that there are other communities in even worse straits than the Guna.
“The Guna are unique in that they embraced Western education many decades ago,” Arenas said. “It’s one of the few indigenous communities in Latin America that have a lot of well-educated people, professional, different disciplines. They have been very helpful, as you can imagine, in this process.”