One of the traditional songs performed by the sahilas, or wise elders of Kuna Yala, compares their tribe's 365 tiny Caribbean islands, which are legally part of Panama but afforded a degree of autonomy, to "coconuts resting firmly on the sand" that will never disappear, regardless of the strong winds or high tides. In late 2008, after a series of giant waves flooded most of the islands, the sahilas began singing a new song. "Why are our mothers crying? It is because of the hurricanes and earthquakes," the lyrics go. "Times are getting dark. Who is causing this?"
The storms that pummeled the islands for 14 straight days that October compounded the four-inch sea level rise since 2004, ruining schools, subsistence crops, and wood and straw homes. But the episode had a more lasting impact: The Kuna now fear that they will be permanently flooded off of the islands they've called home for several hundred years, forced to relocate their population of 45,000 to the only other land in their territory--the mainland forest.
One year after the floods, my husband and I boarded a small prop plane from Panama City to Usdup, which with about 5,000 people is the most populous Kuna island. We arrived without plans for where to stay, so Toyo, a young Kuna man who worked for the airline, ushered us inside a cayuco, or dugout canoe, and kindly took us half-way around the island to the village's only hotel.
There are no cars or motorcycles allowed on Usdup. Women mostly spend their days within the network of huts and courtyards, cooking, caring for their kids, and embroidering molas - the traditional dress of layered colorful fabrics that has drawn tourists and anthropologists here for years. When the men aren't at home swinging in their hammocks, they head out to the sea in their cayucos to fish or across the bay to the forest and mountains to look for food. "Everyone here makes a living from nature, and each family has a small parcel on the mainland where they can grow coconuts, manioc, cocoa, yucca, corn and bananas," said Toyo. "I've lost the custom of heading out each morning to harvest, but when I was a kid, I would always go in the cayuco to help my father."
Despite a few modern-day distractions and comforts - cell phones are omnipresent - most residents of Kuna Yala still live simple and traditional lives. But over the past decade, the Kuna's sacred forest, called bonigana, and their islands have come under serious threat from climate change. As climate scientists have long warned, climate change is causing sea levels to rise around the globe. Recent studies by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) report that, since 1910, the average sea level in Kuna Yala has risen by almost 6 inches and is now increasing by around 3/4 of an inch each year. The islands don't rise much above sea level, and it isn't difficult to guess how many years it would take before they are under water if the trend continues unabated. A conservative estimate by STRI gives them less than 50 years. In the meantime, communities have resorted to landfill, made of gravel from nearby riverbeds and coral reefs, to keep the sea at bay.
The rising sea will likely force most Kuna communities to move to the mainland within a generation. "Many experts have come to Kuna Yala to suggest that we move to the mainland, and into the forest," said Toyo one day, as we stood on the edge of Usdup, facing a row of mangroves on the edge of the mainland. "But can you imagine how difficult that would be? And how would we pay for it?" The Panamanian government has discussed the need to help the Kuna with the transition in the next 10 to 15 years, but has not yet determined how to do it or what it would cost.
The Kuna Yala's land was not easily won. After a violent rebellion in 1925, followed by years of negotiation with the Panamanian government that became so heated the U.S. had to intervene, the Kuna secured both self-governance and full voting rights as Panamanians. This arrangement, which remains today, gives the Kuna one of the greatest degrees of self-rule of any indigenous group in Latin America.
Over the last 30 years, the Kuna have successfully fought infrastructure projects from government-granted mining concessions to plans to build a major highway. A recent proposal to pass a power line through Kuna territory has been a subject of heavy debate.
After having fought so hard for their islands, many Kuna are disinclined to leave. "If our territory came under threat once again, for any reason, I would take up arms to defend it," an otherwise gentle 70 year-old man named Feliciano Jones told us. "The main thing we share as Kuna, is that we don't take for granted what our ancestors did for us."
But that has not stopped Kuna leaders from discussing the floods and rising sea level. While there is no Kuna word for climate change, the Spanish cambio climático can be heard frequently on the islands, often as part of discussions about the impending move.
On our last evening in Udsup, as we sat alongside a congregation that had gathered inside to listen to the sahilas' hypnotic, circular chants and predictions for the future, another tropical downpour began. Lightning and thunder followed. Outside, the dirt paths quickly turned to mud and soon flooded. We could make out the noise of people running and splashing around, looking for cover.
This story was produced in association with the media NGO Project Word as part of coverage of a UN climate mitigation program in Panama. It was made possible by a grant from The Christensen Fund.. Article by Ruxandra Guidi, photos and captions by Roberto (Bear) Guerra.