The Guardian • Issue #2104

Guna People of Panama

Latin America’s climate refugees

Gardi Sugdub, Panama, in 2019.

Gardi Sugdub, Panama, in 2019. Photo: Michael Adams – (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Climate change in the Caribbean has now forced the Islanders of Gardi Sugdub (Crab Island) to move due to rising sea levels. The residents’ houses have been damaged by extreme weather events, erosion and salinisation. The Panamanian government’s failure to maintain resettlement promises has again raised distrust of the government. It’s an example of what can go wrong when a community’s needs are not met by governments during forced climate-related relocations.

The Guna people who inhabit the San Blas archipelago have a history of strongly fought independence from the Panamanian government. In 1903 Panama broke from Colombia, with US support, and attempted to assimilate the people living on the archipelago. In 1919, President Belisario Porras began a policy of forced assimilation, banning the wearing of traditional clothes. Thirty people died in the February 1925 San Blas Rebellion, which declared independence for the Guna.

In 1938 the government agreed to recognise the Guna Yala territory as a reserve, and the Guna General Congress became its representative body. More than 30,000 Guna now inhabit the Territory along coastal Panama. Guna communities elect traditional authorities known as sailas (chiefs) and argars (chief’s spokesmen), holding regular meetings to address community issues.

Rising sea levels and intense tropical storms have made life dire for the 300 families who live on Gardi Sugdub. It is calculated that the sea level is rising 4 mm per annum in the region. The Ministry of Environment predicts the average sea level rise will rise 27 centimetres along Panama’s Caribbean coast by 2050. All of the archipelago will be underwater by then.

In 2010 the Gardi Sugdub residents put forward their relocation plan to the mainland. In 2014 Carlos Arenas, an international human rights lawyer and an adviser on social and climate justice, visited the island as a consultant for Displacement Solutions to assess relocation plans and provide recommendations. Coral reefs were filled in as a buffer against storm surges, flooding and erosion. The destruction only increased the problem. The resettlement will be on 17 hectares within the Guna Yala territory. After the 2014 Displacement Solutions report, the Ministry of Housing agreed to build 300 houses, along with a hospital and a school. The slow progress that followed caused the Guna to question the government’s commitment. The Guna responded by gaining support from international environmental and human rights groups and members of government to quicken the project time frame.

The government did not seek Guna input before building the homes, and it shows. So far only 200 of the promised 300 houses have been built. The incomplete hospital building has been abandoned and the schoolis still under construction. The new homes are too small for large families. The fishing community has expressed concern that the site is a 30-minute walk from the coast (they do not have cars).

President Laurentino Cortizo promised that the site would be completed by September 2023. The houses have not been completed, and there is no water or sewage disposal. In frustration, many younger Guna have moved to Panama City and Colón for school and work.

Human Rights Watch first reported on the plight of the Guna community in July 2022. The Panamanian government promised to protect Guna’s cultural rights during the relocation. Blas Lopez, a Guna community leader, told Human Rights Watch that the government should draft a national policy to better safeguard human rights in future climate-related, community-led planned relocation efforts. Without proper institutional arrangements, adequate funding, and a national policy framework, other communities will face similar delays. Houses should be culturally appropriate with ceremonial halls and cultural centres, to ensure the traditional culture is not lost.

Anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith of the University of Florida says that climate change has become a major driver of displacement of the poor. Thirty-eight communities in Panama, and more than 400 communities world-wide plan, to relocate, as floods, storm severity, droughts and sea level rise are intensified by climate-related impacts. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there were more than 1.6 million displacements in 2021, which will increase to 17 million by 2050. Regional governments are not prepared for such a major problem.

The Guna could be the shape of things to come.

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