That Sinking Feeling

For centuries, the Guna (a.k.a. Kuna) Indians have successfully defended their territory on Panama’s Caribbean coast. They allied themselves with French pirates to fend off the Spaniards during the colonial era, and revolted against Panamanian authorities in 1925 to demand the autonomy that they now enjoy. Today, they face an unprecedented threat as seasonal waves and rising seas resulting from climate change slowly consume the islands out from under them.

More than 30,000 Guna live just a few feet above sea level, in crowded villages on 41 small islands, which makes them especially vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change. Their autonomous territory, the Comarca Guna Yala, stretches for 232 miles along Panama’s northeast coast, comprising all 365 San Blas Islands, coastal lowlands and a densely forested mountain range that has kept them relatively isolated.

Originally a rainforest people, they moved onto the islands generations ago to escape the insects and diseases of the coastal jungle. They have since become exemplary seafarers, travelling between their islands, fishing grounds and coastal farms in dugout canoes powered by lateen sails or outboard motors. They fish for food and income, shipping lobster and other commercial species to Panama City. They also grow coconuts on the uninhabited islands and coastal lowlands, which they sell to the Colombian traders who ply their territorial waters in large boats.

The islands are becoming increasingly valuable, since Guna entrepreneurs have opened rustic lodges to accommodate travelers who come to enjoy the ivory beaches, turquoise waters and Guna culture. Yet those idyllic atolls are threatened as the polar icecaps melt, the sea level rises, and waves whipped up by seasonal winds erode their beaches.

Atencio López, president of the Institute for Research and Development (David Dudenhoefer)

Atencio López, president of the Institute for Research and Development (David Dudenhoefer)

For years, the Guna have fortified the ocean sides of the islands they inhabit with walls of stone and coral to keep waves from washing into their homes, but the sea is becoming increasingly aggressive. Atencio López, president of the Institute for Research and Development—an office of the Guna General Congress—notes that removing coral heads from nearby reefs to build those seawalls has actually exacerbated the problem, since coral reefs serve as natural barriers, causing waves to break before they reach the shore. “Climate change is going to cause the sea level to rise and that our territory is one of the most vulnerable regions. Few of our people believe this, because until now we have lived from the sea and nature has never hit us with hurricanes or other disasters, so it seems inconceivable, but the international experts tell us that our islands are going to disappear,” López says.

Onel Masardule, director of the Foundation for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge, says that while most Guna don’t comprehend the threat, their leaders do. He says that the Guna chiefs came face to face with the impact of climate change several years ago, when a session of the Guna General Congress—which meets on a different island each year—coincided with flooding on the island of Dad Nagid Dubir. “The sahilas [chiefs] know that climate change poses a very serious threat to the Guna,” Masardule says. “It could be worse than the invasion [of the Americas] by the Europeans, or any other threat that our people have faced in the past.”

Masardule, a chemist by training, attends international meetings on climate change and advises the Guna sahilas about the latest developments. He fears the Gunas’ only long-term option is to move to the mainland. “We don’t have the resources to build dykes, or other expensive adaptations,” he explains, adding that the Guna Congress also lacks the funds to educate people about the threat of climate change, or to even determine the best locations and relocate communities to the mainland, which will cost millions of dollars.

Despite being one of the peoples most threatened by climate change, the Guna share little of the blame for the problem. Few Guna own cars, or outboard motors, and many of their villages lack electricity. In fact, their carbon footprint score is probably a negative number, since they have conserved most of the rainforest on their 740,000 acres of mainland, which absorbs countless tons of carbon dioxide each year.

That forest could help the Guna respond to the threat of climate change, since it makes them eligible for payments for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)—an international scheme for slowing climate change by conserving forests. Masardule says the Guna General Congress has discussed options for REDD+ agreements with international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, but they worry that the Panamanian government might end up with most of the money, or that they might get locked into a low market price for the carbon in their forest.

López says the Congress is considering a 30-year proposal by the private company Wildlife Works Carbon, LLC to market carbon credits for 247,000 acres of Guna forest. Those funds could help the Congress conduct a study to determine the best mainland areas for settlements and begin relocating the village, but he says the Congress is apprehensive about making such a long-term commitment with a private company, or of selling their REDD+ credits at too low a price. “I think that this shows the hypocrisy of the industrial countries,” López argues. “In addition to damaging the world with their carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, now we have to negotiate the future or our forests and our rivers with them so that they pay us something for conserving them. I think they should pay us without demanding much in exchange, because we have conserved them until now, and whether or not we receive money from companies in industrialized countries, or the United Nations, etc., we are going to continue conserving our forests.”