Sea-level rise all too real for Guna people


Much of the Guna indigenous community lives in a Caribbean archipelago increasingly prone to the effects of climate change. (Photo courtesy of Panamanian Environment Ministry and Isla Kuanidup)

Next year Panama will help members of the Guna indigenous group move from one of their territory’s islands to the mainland as climate change and rising seas threaten to submerge parts of their Caribbean archipelago, known as Guna Yala.

With support from the Inter-American Development Bank, the government of Panama is building 300 homes to allow the transfer of families—roughly 1,500 people—from the island of Cartí Sugdub to higher ground on the mainland. Construction of the new community is 26% complete, and Panama’s Housing and Zoning Ministry expects it to be finished by October 2022, when the resettlement is slated to begin.

The project will mark the first time the government has moved an entire indigenous settlement due to climate change. It will be watched closely by island nations and coastal communities across the region as Latin America and the Caribbean face rising tides and stronger storms due to higher global temperatures. If successful, more such moves could be organized for residents of other Guna Yala settlements experiencing hostile climate effects.

“The idea is to move the 300 families that live on the island of Cartí Sugdub to dry land near the [mainland] Port of Cartí because they have flooding problems due to climate change; the sea level is rising and it is projected that in 30 to 50 years that island could be practically covered with water,” says Marcos Suira, national director of engineering and architecture for Panama’s Housing and Zoning Ministry. “They will be safer on solid ground with less flooding, and they won’t be at risk of wave swells or flash floods as they are now because of the island’s low elevation.”

Expected to cost roughly US$10 million, the future site of Nuevo Cartí, as the new community will be called, is about two miles from Cartí Sugdub and a short distance by road from the mainland Port of Cartí, Suira says. The development—which is near a highway that runs through Guna Yala province, ultimately connecting with the Pan-American Highway—sits about 115 feet above sea level, he adds.

The project may serve as a model for future climate-driven relocations in Panama. About 15.4% of the country’s 4.2 million people live within three miles of the coast and roughly 8.4% live at elevations ranging from zero to 30 feet above sea level, according to a study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac).

“These areas also require attention with a focus on adapting to climate change and reducing the risk of disasters,” says Jessica Young, the environment, climate change and sustainable development country manager at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Panama.

For centuries, the Guna have lived along the Caribbean coast of current-day Panama. Some moved out to what was previously known as San Blas, an area comprising 365 islands just offshore, to escape insect-borne disease and to better integrate themselves into coastal trade. The Guna populated about 40 of those islands, says Maribel Pinto, climate change analyst at Panama’s Environment Ministry. But in recent years, higher sea levels have led to more flooding. At the same time, changing weather patterns have brought more intense storms and unusually heavy rainy seasons along with stronger winds and higher tides, posing ever-greater risks to those who live on the islands, Pinto says.

After conducting a study, the government determined that the residents of Cartí Sugdub were among the most vulnerable in Panama to the effects of climate change and launched a project to move them to safer ground. Officials consulted with the Guna—whose constitution includes an article regarding potential community relocations—in the selection of a site for the new town. “This is all accumulating, and it is really making the situation worse,” Pinto says. “If we don’t take action to mitigate it, the impact of climate change is going to continue.”

Migration is nothing new to the Guna. People from Guna Yala province, an autonomous indigenous territory officially recognized by the government of Panama, have historically migrated to other parts of the country, including the capital Panama City, in search of work and education. Not until recently have high schools begun to open in the Guna’s province, says Onel Masardule, a Guna community leader. He himself left his community years ago to study chemistry at a university in Panama City, then returned and currently helps lead local environmental projects.

Now, climate effects have created impetus for migration of a different sort. Cartí Sugdub, home to the 1,500 people who will be relocated, is not the only place where the Guna are feeling the effects of climate change. Similar problems are afflicting some of their other islands as well as mainland towns such as Ukupa, which has seen flooding this year, Masardule says. In recent years, one Guna island community experienced such intense flooding that all of its available wood was soaked, making it impossible to cook with the wood-burning stoves that many families still use.

And changing rain patterns have upset local agriculture. May, a historically sunny month for seeding, is now often grey and wet, complicating the planting of staple crops such as corn, potatoes, plantains and squash, Masardule says. Resulting disruptions in the crop cycle have caused an uptick in malnutrition, he says.

Population growth over the last five decades has also contributed to the problem. The population of the Guna Yala territory, or comarca, grew from 24,600 in 1970 to over 33,100 in 2010, according to Panama’s census. About 80% of the population lives on islands, says Masardule.

Communities expanded outward and new houses sprouted up along the more vulnerable edges of the islands. Concerned about the increasing danger, some Guna communities have been scouting new locations for possible resettlement on their own, without government support.

“There have been periods when flooding has been greater than usual and that’s what is feared,” Masardule says. “In a lot of cases, communities have grown outward, stealing space from the sea, and now it’s the sea that is starting to reclaim its space with climate change.”

In decades prior, communities used pieces of the coral reef to build up the islands. Living coral cover in the area declined 79% from 1970 to 2001 as the population grew, according to a paper by marine biologist Héctor Guzmán. Meanwhile, island surface area increased as residents used the coral to fill in the islands.

Pinto says the communities have stopped the practice of coral land filling, having learned that weakening the reefs only causes more flooding. Still, the damage to the reefs has been done, and the barrier that once provided greater protection for the islands has deteriorated, exacerbating the effects of climate change and rising seas, she says.

“Corals are one of the first barriers to wave swells, and they mitigate between 80-90% of the force of a swell,” Pinto says. “They were used to build, and [now] the waves pass directly over them. That’s why the islands flood, and it is very possible that some islands are going to disappear.”

The case of the Guna Yala is one that will be monitored closely by other governments and indigenous communities throughout Latin America. Disproportionately poor and often hardest hit by changing weather patterns due to their traditional proximity to waterways and reliance on subsistence agriculture, indigenous people may be forced off their land if global temperatures continue rising and storms keep intensifying.

Extreme droughts over the last decade have destroyed crops in Mayan communities in Guatemala and Mexico, forcing waves of migrants to the United States. Hurricanes have battered Caribbean islands such as the Bahamas, and in November 2020, two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, delivered back-to-back blows to Nicaragua and Honduras.

Planned, government-supported relocations are “one type of movement we don’t often talk about, but it’s going to be increasingly required, particularly in the Caribbean and some places in Central America,” says Pablo Escribano, Regional Thematic Specialist on Migration, Environment and Climate Change for the UN’s International Organization for Migration. “Indigenous people are mostly on the front lines of climate change because of where they live and also because they rely massively on the environment. Communities will have to move out of harm’s way; but as the Guna Yala example shows, you need massive community engagement, and you need to protect livelihoods and communities. So this sort of process is going to be very interesting.”

Nuevo Cartí will have all the fixings of a new, urban development. Laid out on a grid, each home will be built on a roughly 3,200 square-foot lot and have concrete floors and walls with zinc sheet roofs. The town will have a water treatment plant, parks and recreation areas. The Housing and Zoning Ministry also plans to build traditional Guna buildings such as a Congreso, a meeting hall where leaders hash out local issues, and a Casa de la Chicha for celebrations.

Inhabitants of the island of Cartí Sugdub work largely in the tourism and fishing industries, activities they expect to continue once resettled in their new community.

Even with culturally supportive infrastructure, Masardule worries some customs and practical benefits may be lost in the move. For instance, homes in Guna Yala communities are traditionally built with wood and thatched roofs instead of concrete and zinc, and they are constructed in a way that helps absorb the impact of earthquakes, he points out.

“Guna architecture isn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill architecture,” he says. “The homes that collapse collapse because they are old, but most of them don’t fall no matter how many earthquakes we have,” he said. “There’s a risk that the kids [will] grow up and lose that knowledge in the transition because they will never build a traditional house. They will grow up in a concrete house and live a Western-like lifestyle.”

Escribano says similar concerns have arisen in indigenous-community relocations in areas ranging from Alaska to the Andes, where some native groups consider the glaciers to be holy, but now the ice is melting. “[Relocation] obviously brings up massive issues for these populations,” Escribano says. “It’s delicate and complicated.”

Relocation efforts should involve prior and informed consent, such as in the case of Cartí Sugdub, and they should be accompanied by a comprehensive environmental zoning plan in order to be successful, UNDP’s Young says.

Albeit complex and culturally fraught, the challenges of community relocation require immediate attention from governments in the region, experts and regional leaders say—especially when it comes to island populations.

The Sixth Assessment Report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued in August, forecasts that “relative sea level rise is very likely in the ocean around small islands and, along with storm surges and waves, will exacerbate coastal inundation with the potential to increase saltwater intrusion into aquifers in small islands.” The report also stated that shoreline retreat “is projected along sandy coasts of most small islands.”

An international matter
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo called on all nations to help mitigate such impacts. He added: “[A]ll the large problems our planet is facing are related to climate change. This problem is one of very high priority.”

In September, Panamanian and Costa Rican officials met to discuss challenges facing the Bribri, Chibcha, Cabécar and Ngäbe Buglé indigenous people, who live on the two nations’ border near the Sixaola River, one of Costa Rica’s most flood-prone waterways. These groups “are among those that are most left-behind and where we find the greatest inequalities that, today, have grown because of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the relentless effects of climate change,” UN Population Fund Regional Director for Latin America Harold Robinson said after the meeting.

As Panamanian authorities prepare for the first relocation of the Guna Yala, they may soon begin engaging with other vulnerable communities as well.

“We can look at [Nuevo Cartí] as a pilot project because it’s not just happening on the islands,” says the Environment Ministry’s Pinto. “They are the most vulnerable, absolutely, but there are people on the mainland and in other parts of Panama that are losing their homes and infrastructure because of storm intensity, rains, changes in river flow patterns and so on. The country is gaining experience on how to deal with these impacts, as well as trying to mitigate the impacts before they become so serious that we can’t do anything about it.”

- Michael McDonald

In the index: As their island populations have grown, the Guna have had to build closer to the water’s edge, becoming more vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms. (Photo courtesy of Panamanian Environment Ministry and Isla Kuanidup)

Onel Masardule
Guna Leader
Foundation for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge
Ustupo, Panama
Maribel Pinto
Climate Change Analyst
Panama Environment Ministry
Panama City, Panama
Marcos Suira
National Director of Engineering and Architecture
Panama Housing and Zoning Ministry
Panama City, Panama
Jessica Young
Country Manager
Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development
United Nations Development Program, Panama