Approached by motorboat across the Caribbean Sea, Gardí Sugdub, or Crab Island, first appears on the horizon as a densely packed cluster of tin-roofed huts, punctuated by the odd coconut palm. The huts seem to sit so low in the surrounding azure water they could be floating. Soon they will be. Within a few decades, rising seas will completely engulf the island, along with 364 others from the San Blás archipelago, home to the Guna indigenous people.
The Guna migrated from mainland Panama to the islands centuries ago to escape disease and improve trading links along the coast. The first written record of their presence on the islands is said to date back to 1690. Never subjugated by the Spaniards, the Guna rose up against the Panamanian government in 1925 in protest against a move to eradicate their language and customs. After the rebellion they carved out a 160km coastal strip of Panama running along the Caribbean shore from the Colombian border, as well as the islands of San Blás. More than 30,000 people live in these autonomous areas, mostly offshore. Close to 1,500 are clustered on the four hectares that make up Gardí Sugdub.
Early next year the Guna are set to begin relocating en masse to a new settlement on the mainland. In the process, they will become some of the first climate refugees from the Americas to flee rising sea levels.
Solís Tejada, a community leader, is lying in a hammock in the island’s meeting place, a large thatched hall with a dirt floor and a roof held up by sturdy wooden beams. A portrait of Olonibiginya, one of the leaders of the 1925 rebellion, hangs from a post. A mural painted on the side of one of the huts nearby shows a barefoot, red-jacketed indigenous man trampling a Panamanian flag, next to a depiction of two Guna flags. “100 Years of Kuna Revolution 1925-2025” is written above.
“Climate change is affecting us,” Tejada says, speaking in his native language through an interpreter. “But it’s not our fault. The industrial countries are to blame — the United States, Spain and France — they destroyed the ozone layer and we started suffering.” Dozens of charity workers and researchers from wealthy nations have visited Gardí Sugdub in recent months to listen and express concern. Tejada is frustrated. “What use is it telling our story if we stay here and nothing changes?”
The Guna are determined that their distinctive dress and customs survive the impending return to the mainland. Women wear brightly coloured molas — hand-stitched cloth panels on the front and back of blouses — beaded winis (bracelets) on their arms and legs and gold rings in their noses. A single-room museum on the island explains other ancestral traditions to visitors, such as burying the dead in a hammock suspended in the middle of a burial pit or brewing chicha, a fermented drink, for a four-day festival to celebrate the onset of puberty.
The community abides by strict rules. Women and men meet separately for assemblies, beer-drinking is only allowed on the island until 10pm and permission from the saila (community leader) is required to leave its shores. Transgressors are fined or locked up.
As the saila on Gardí Sugdub, José Davies makes those decisions. His main preoccupation at present is to oversee the move. Although he is in favour of the change, he resists the notion that the island will be swallowed up by the sea. “It’s true that there is climate change, the temperatures have got hotter, but it’s not true that the islands are flooding. The tides have always been like this,” he insists, clasping a trilby in his lap. “The main reason to move is overcrowding and the increase in population.”
The constant trickle of foreign visitors with questions annoys him. “Often, when people come, they don’t understand Guna spirituality and they distort information,” he says. Davies is proud of having studied his people’s customs from an early age, learnt the Guna tongue and absorbed knowledge from the actions of past sailas. He says he decided that the community needed to move more than a decade ago and donated land from his own plot on the mainland for the purpose, before the government came on the scene with its project. If they want to fund it, he says, so be it — as long as they move the communal meeting hall and the house where the community drinks chicha to the new settlement. He is philosophical about the move. “All change brings problems,” he says.
The plot on the mainland where the islanders will live has been carved out of the rainforest. Ranks of identical white purpose-built houses stand like sentries on a building site where bulldozers have levelled the ground, exposing the reddish soil to the blazing sun. The only trees in sight are those that ring the distant periphery. Instead of the thatch and bamboo sticks that are used on Gardí Sugdub, the new houses are roofed with terracotta-coloured corrugated zinc. Their walls are prefabricated sections fixed together on site. The floors are concrete. The sea lies out of sight, several kilometres away along a winding dirt road. That is a disturbing thought for some in a fishing community used to plucking its food from the water.
Completion of the village has been fitful, further delayed by the pandemic. The government insists the project will be ready later this year, but only two workmen are on the site when I visit. Both are sceptical about the completion date. “The main road isn’t finished, the water supply isn’t ready and the sewage treatment plant isn’t ready,” says Eduardo, one of the builders, as he sits in the shade by the entrance. “And there’s no electricity yet.”
For all its suburban charmlessness, the new settlement, which is named Isberyala, will offer one big improvement: a modern, two-storey, purpose-built school. Ginela Salazar, who teaches on Gardí Sugdub, says the new facilities will be an improvement on the often-flooded classrooms she currently struggles with. “I’ve been working here 18 years,” she says. “When I arrived, there was a tide which washed in during December and January but now it’s higher. There’s no problem in the summer but in the winter, the water levels come up.”
A dirt road, which snakes across hilltops and through valleys, may connect the new settlement with the rest of the country and the outside world, but visitors will not be able to wander in freely. Anyone travelling from Panama into Guna lands must pass a checkpoint on the dirt road branching off the Panamerican Highway, where indigenous guards check documents and control access. Advance permission is required for entry. The yellow and red flag of the Guna revolution flies nearby, with its counterclockwise swastika whose four points, the Guna say, symbolise the four corners of the world.
Although Gardí Sugdub lies less than 100km from the skyscraper-packed, traffic-choked streets of Panama City, a much larger distance separates the islanders’ way of life from that of the capital. The Panamanian government hopes to use the plight of the Guna to focus attention on how carbon emissions from industrial nations is having a drastic impact on island peoples in countries whose contribution to global warming has been negligible. Thanks to lush preserved rainforest, covering about two-thirds of its territory and a small population of 4.5 million, Panama is one of a tiny club of three nations that absorb more carbon than they emit (the others are Bhutan and Suriname).
The colonial-era, white-painted Palacio de las Garzas in Panama City’s historic centre overlooks the sea. Sitting in an ornate giltwood chair in the air-conditioned comfort of a reception room decorated with orchids, Panama’s president, Laurentino Cortizo, insists the new housing development will be finished soon. The day before our meeting, he had examined plans to sink water boreholes to supply the accommodation. But he also says he is alarmed by the lack of urgency displayed by major nations in tackling climate change, despite mounting natural disasters. “We are seeing pandemics; we are seeing big droughts, big floods,” he says, frustration in his voice. “The scientists are telling us that if we don’t take the decisions we need to take, then all species will die out.”
His nation is suffering the effects of global climate change so seriously that an entire population is being displaced. “We are the first country in [Latin America] which is in the process of moving a community because of the rise in sea levels,” he says. Sea levels in the Caribbean are forecast to rise 28cm by 2050, according to an intermediate forecast by the US National Ocean Service.
Diwigdi Valente, a Guna who grew up on the islands, uses his role as planning director at the national tourism ministry to act as an advocate, travelling abroad to speak about the Gunas’ plight. “All of us 31,000 Guna on the islands are threatened,” he says. “We will all have to move.” Valente draws consolation from the fact that distant memories of life on land remain in the Guna people’s oral traditions. Their ancestors moved on to the islands to flee the Spaniards and to escape malaria “so life on dry land is not entirely alien”. His dream, which draws inspiration from the indigenous communities living on Lake Titicaca between Bolivia and Peru, is to substitute a network of floating islands for the disappearing archipelago. But he concedes that the cost of such a project makes it unlikely.
The Panamanian environment ministry, for its part, predicts that by 2050 none of the San Blás islands will be above sea level. By then, the entire archipelago, and parts of the country’s coastline, will become just a memory.
Michael Stott is the FT’s Latin America editor
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