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How sea level rise is already transforming lives in Panama’s coastal communities: A harbinger of more changes to come

By: Raphi Gold

For over 200 years, the Guna people living on Gardi Sugdub have had a culture connected to the sea, building their lives around fishing and tourism. On this tiny, colorful island located off Panama’s Caribbean coast in the Guna Yala regions, women hang molas, traditional garments of vibrant layered fabrics, outside their homes. Small fishing boats dot the coastline, and children race through narrow streets to get to school. This past month, however, about 300 of these island-dwelling families migrated to government housing on the nearby mainland. 

Image Caption: A bird’s-eye view of Gardi Sugdub. 

Image Credit: Lee Bosher/Creative Commons

Gardi Sugdub is one of 49 inhabited islands in the area, all of which are between 50 centimeters (19 inches) and one meter (three feet) above sea level. The island has a high point of just one meter above sea level, and is approximately 300 meters (984 feet) long by 125 meters (410 feet) wide. That’s equal to just over five soccer fields, and it has been populated until recently by about 1,300 people, with hundreds more commuting daily from neighboring islands to attend school or visit the island’s clinic. 

Over the past few years, coastal hazards such as extreme weather events, erosion, and salinization have severely damaged people’s homes. Climate change is causing sea level rise and warming oceans simultaneously, powering stronger storms. In recent years, water has begun filling the streets and entering the homes of the island’s residents, especially during the strong winds of November and December.  In an AP News article, one island resident named Nadine Morales, 24, said, “Lately, I’ve seen that climate change has had a major impact. Now the tide comes to a level it didn’t before, and the heat is unbearable.” A student leader quoted in the Human Rights Watch report on the evacuation described the situation in vivid terms: “The sea is eating the land below our homes,” she said. 

Diwigdi Valiente, a Guna climate activist from Playón Chico, also known as Ukupseni, has family on Gardi Sugdub and is well acquainted with the whole region. After attending a One Young World conference where he heard a presentation about climate justice and subsequently googled the status of climate change in Panama, he discovered that the Guna were the first documented case of an Indigenous group that is forced to move because of the rising tides.  “That’s the moment I started becoming an activist,” said Valiente. 

He reflected on the changes wrought by climate change, overpopulation, and economic transformations over the last decades. Valiente noted that the community led a more sustainable and culture oriented lifestyle 15 to 20 years ago, before there was road access to the island’s main port. “The area of Gardi is one of the most affected not only because of the rising tides, but because of the latest economic activities. Namely, the access of the main road changed the whole life there,” Valiente explained. 

While fishing remains important to many on the island, dependence on local fishing has decreased since tourism has boomed. According to Valiente, much of the fish sold at hostels and lodges are bought in cities or at Pricesmart. Additionally, many have stopped working the crops and now import produce from Chiriqui, located on the opposite side of the mainland. “If you talk about tourism development, it has been pretty negative and damaging not only to nature but also to culture,” said Valiente. 

Coral reefs have borne the brunt of natural degradation in the area. When the region experiences extreme weather events or heavy rains, Valiente explained that, “the Guna people have coped by cutting coral reefs and using them as a building material to give land back to the sea.” Coral is used to add land as a response to rising tide and overpopulation. Valiente added that now, “Most of the islands in Guna Yala that are inhabited have borders that are pure coral that was taken from the sea and destroyed. And that also affects the amount of fish that people have there to eat.” 

According to Valiente, some on the island don’t believe in climate change. “You have to also take into account the big influence that religion, specifically Christianity, has had in our cultures. It [climate change] is somehow seen as something natural, not really based on scientific knowledge.

Image Caption: The view from a boat departing Gardi Sugdub. Houses, boats, and palm trees line the coast. 

Image credit: Sam Nabi/Creative Commons

The Guna people of Gardi Sugdub are just the first of around 63 communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts that government officials and scientists expect will be forced out by rising sea levels in the decades to come. A recent study by Panama’s Environmental Ministry’s Climate Change Directorate estimated that by 2050, Panama would lose about 2.01% of its coastal territory to sea level increase. Thus, the Gardi Sugdub operation is noteworthy not just as a standalone climate tragedy, but as a reminder that more such changes are close on the horizon in Panama and other coastal communities worldwide. The success of the Gardi Sugdub operation will also serve as a crucial case study for future relocations from which the government can learn and improve. 

For a cost of $12 million dollars, Panama’s Ministry of Housing developed a new town on the mainland called Isber Yala, which will host the region’s first climate refugees. A plot of concrete houses sitting on a grid of paved streets in the midst of the tropical jungle, just an 8-minute boat ride and one mile away from Gardi Sugdub, awaits the people’s arrival. Now, much of the Gardi Sugdub community has begun their move to this site and uproot their coastal marine ways of life. 

But the relocation has been a long and arduous process, and for many, it is far from over. The Ministry of Housing delayed the date of the site’s completion multiple times, announcing that it would be ready in September, 2023 and then February, 2024. Even then, the site was not deemed ready for its new inhabitants until just a few weeks ago, in early June. However, parts of the development remain incomplete at this juncture, including an abandoned hospital construction and still unfinished school building. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has deemed plans for water, sewage, and waste management at the site “inadequate.”

Because of these insufficiencies, many are choosing not to move to the new houses or to only partially use them. “People are using these houses as a vacation home, a house they will use on the weekend,” Valiente explained, adding, “They can’t move there – there is no water, no sewage, no way to manage waste.” 

Valiente also pointed out that the housing does not take into account Guna culture. For example, the Guna people sleep in hammocks. “The hammocks are the umbilical cord between the spiritual and the physical worlds,” said Valiente. However, the new houses are built out of PVCs, or plastics, and cannot support hammocks. Due to a combination of the lack of traditional infrastructure and a desire to remain connected with basic services, like health care, education, and electricity, many will remain on the island or commute back and forth between island and mainland. 

Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitoring program in Panama Steven Paton recognized the nuance of the situation, similarly attributing this particular move to a combination of sea level rise due to climate change and overpopulation. “That’s the specific case of this island,” said Paton in an interview with Pro Eco Azuero, “But in the long run, most if not all of the islands in the area will have to be abandoned at some point because of increasing sea level rise.” The current estimate of sea level rise is 5.5 millimeters per year, a significant upswing from 1.5 in the 1960s.  “That will almost assuredly get up to one centimeter or more in the coming decades,” said Paton.

Paton has noticed a tendency to predict how climatic conditions will change by the end of the century, but he emphasized that sea level rise is baked in for the long term. “We’re talking about centuries, that even if today we stopped producing greenhouse gasses, sea level is still going to continue to rise because we’ve increased the thermostat, and it’ll just be melting at the rate where we’ve stopped producing greenhouse gasses,” Paton explained. 

Paton explained that people will need to start moving off islands like Gardi Sugdub long before they are fully submerged, and each island will need to make its own decision according to its own timeline. “It’ll be a very gradual process, and each community will make that decision on their own because each community has its own local governance,” said Paton. 

Valiente also commented on how he views the future regional relocations that climate change will necessitate. Because Gardi Sugdub is just one of many islands that will face similar situations going forward, Valiente believes the government should learn from the mistakes they made this time around. “The government spent like 15 years building these houses and they did horribly. What happened a couple of weeks ago was just a show for journalists. It’s a big example of how things shouldn’t be done,” said Valiente. 

As more coastal communities begin to move inland, it will become more crucial than ever to restore Panama’s biodiverse forests and wetlands on which both people and animals depend, not just for their livelihoods, but for their lives. When I asked Paton whether he saw a connection between this issue and reforestation, he immediately replied, “There is a link: it’s with the mangroves.”

Paton described mangroves as being on the “front lines” against the effects of climate change on the coast, especially for coastal erosion.  According to a study conducted by the Nature Conservancy, mangroves are a uniquely situated defense against the forces of climate catastrophe. They can reduce wave, storm, and tsunami damage, mitigate erosion by binding soils together, and protect communities from the most severe effects of sea level rise. 

Image Caption: Mangrove roots and leaves

Image Credit: Matt Stirn

“It is absolutely critical for any country that has mangroves to preserve those mangroves,” said Paton. He often points to Punta Chame as an example, predicting that in 30-40 years, “we’re going to be referring to the Isla Chame, and not the Punta Chame, because eventually the ocean is going to cut that neck.” According to Paton, this process has been greatly accelerated by the removal of regional mangroves, especially in the Pacific, where the slope of the shoreline is gradual. “Preserving those mangroves is going to be absolutely critical, as a form of mitigation,” said Paton. Similarly, he noted that reforesting mangroves is a crucial tool for adaptation.

Later this summer, the Pro Eco Pelaos students will learn about the role of mangroves in coastal ecosystems and have the opportunity to visit the nearby mangroves of the Pablo Arturos Barrios Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was created in 2009 to complement the Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge and protect various marine and coastal ecosystems. Mangroves play a significant role in these protective mechanisms, as they are breeding sites for fish and buffers for storms. Students will learn about the importance of mangrove conservation and how doing so can tangibly impact their lives.

Image Caption: Birds-eye view of mangroves in the Pablo Arturo Barrio Wildlife Reserve

Image Credit: Matt Stirn

In the face of intensifying climate urgency, reforestation work is becoming more important now than ever, from protective coastal mangroves to carbon sequestering mainland rainforests. Now, Fundación Pro Eco Azuero’s work takes on new layers of significance as we respond to climate change, maintain the integrity of our ecosystems, and enact a liveable future for Panama and its residents. 

Sources and Further Reading

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