Panama's islanders threatened by rising seas begin moving out – CNN

An aerial view of Gardi Sugdub off the coast of Panama.
Photographs by Edu Ponces and Berta Vicente/RUIDO Photo
Story by Rachel Ramirez and Edu Ponces
Published June 8, 2024

An aerial view of Gardi Sugdub off the coast of Panama.
Gardi Sugdub, Panama — On the densely packed island of Gardi Sugdub, off the coast of mainland Panama, colorful houses and wooden huts cover nearly the entire landscape almost up to the water’s edge. Between them are unpaved roads, often wet and puddled, lined with just a few trees.
Gardi Sugdub is one of around 50 islands that are home to the Indigenous Guna people, who have built a life devoted to the ocean from fishing to tourism. But they were once people of the forests and mountains, living in an area that straddles Colombia and Panama, forced to flee around 300 years ago from Spanish conquerors and conflict with other Indigenous groups.
Now, the very ocean the Guna people have long relied on poses a threat to their existence, as rapidly warming global temperatures raise the world’s sea levels. The people of Gardi Sugdub are the first of Panama's island communities asked by the government to move to the mainland in the coming decades.
After many years of planning, more than 1,000 Guna people have finally received keys to their new homes, and many have slowly started to move into a newly built town called Isber Yala in recent days. They are not legally bound to move, and plenty are choosing to stay on their home islands.
The people who live on the islands of the Guna Yala archipelago, which includes Gardi Sugdub, are among the first climate refugees in the region. Local residents on Gardi Sugdub, however, say there has also been long-standing concerns that their island is getting too crowded. The climate crisis has just expedited their relocation.
"The Guna people and other Indigenous communities in the Caribbean are going to be affected by the increase in sea level rise in the region, so of course we have to be prepared," Blas Lopez, a Guna leader in Gardi Sugdub, who was part of the relocation committee, told CNN.
"It's in the oral history of the Guna people, we always talk about what happens when the strong winds blow, the communities are flooded. The consequences can happen in 30 or 50 years. So, we have to organize, we have to plan."
Even if the world dramatically cuts the planet-warming pollution that causes climate change, scientists say a certain amount of sea level rise has already been locked in until the end of the century. And that rise won’t happen uniformly around the world. Small, low-lying islands in the tropics, like those in the Guna Yala archipelago, will bear the brunt. Here, the rise is existential.
“Within 40 to 80 years — depending on the height of the islands and rates of sea level rise — most, if not all of the inhabited islands, will literally be underwater,” warned Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitoring program in Panama.
Nadin Morales, a young Guna resident from Gardi Sugdub, said she is looking forward to starting a new life on Panama’s mainland. The new town boasts more than 300 two-bedroom houses, paved roads, streetlights and a large school.
It’s a sharp contrast to her living conditions as an orphan back on the island where she lives in an overcrowded house with four different families. Like many homes there, living conditions have become challenging due to overpopulation.
The tiny island has a problem with overcrowding. Too many houses have been built, and images from above show very little space between them. As a result, people are also forced to live cheek by jowl within their own homes.
“In one of the houses, we saw it had 17 people living in them,” Ana Spalding, a social scientist, also with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute living in Panama, told CNN. “From conversations with community leaders, they had felt for a long time that, in addition to the changes they were seeing in climate, it just was too many people.”
The overcrowding has had consequences to the Gunas’ health, access to water and children’s education, said Lopez.
Those problems become even more challenging when a storm’s strong winds and heavy rain pummel the islands, or flood people’s homes.
Climate change is hitting the Guna people on many fronts. Not only is much of the water from ice melt in places like Greenland ending up in the tropics, the excess heat is also causing the world’s oceans to swell, pushing sea levels up even further. That heat is also intensifying tropical storms and making them more destructive.
But the Guna are used to finding their own means of protection. Residents mine coral from the ocean and stack them up with rocks to build barriers between their homes and the water. They work for a while, but they’re a stopgap at best.
Views among the Guna people on whether the climate crisis is to blame for their relocation are mixed, and often the divide is generational.
Victor Peretz, a 34-year-old Guna Yala resident who works in the tourism industry, said his dad, who is 60 years old, tells him the changes in weather are normal and seasonal.
Peretz, on the other hand, believes the climate crisis could bring changes to the island in the coming decades.
“Climate change is serious,” he told CNN. But he said it was the overcrowding that was making relocation most urgent.
“The reality is it’s more about overpopulation, because families are growing," Peretz said.
Spalding said the generational divide might also determine who stays on the island and who goes. “The younger folks, with the families, like young families, are going to relocate,” she said.
The government-built town of Isber Yala couldn’t be more different than the Guna people’s island homes.
Rows of two-bedroom prefabricated houses line asphalt roads. Each dwelling is identical — dusty cream one-story structures with orange-red rooftops, a far cry from the hodgepodge of huts and homes on the island.
But there are growing concerns the move has been rushed. The town still has no access to water and no functional health care center. Lopez said even though people were ready to move in, there were no functioning lights, and basic services like garbage collection hadn’t been planned.
“There is a lack of planning at a social level, economic level, environmental level, and ecological level,” he said.
Some Guna people are disappointed the new houses don’t respect their traditional way of life. Their new town is built inland, disconnected from the sea. But Lopez pointed out the Guna people have adapted once before.
“Many years ago, the Guna people arrived on the island coasts of the Caribbean Sea, but we are originally from the mountains, from the rivers and from the forests,” he told CNN. Moving back on land is needed to “improve the quality of life, especially for the children,” he said.
There are also logistical problems. Although the government funded the construction of the houses, it still needs to figure out how the Guna people will pay for or access basic needs, like electricity and water.
Those who have stayed behind on Gardi Sugdub and the other Guna Yala islands are watching with keen interest, Lopez said, and may follow if the initial relocations are a success.
The Guna people will be further away from harm on the mainland, but in a rapidly warming world, there is no safe place. And there is a clear injustice to that, Spalding said. Like many Indigenous groups around the world, the Guna Yala have contributed a negligible amount to the climate crisis, yet are stuck on the frontlines.
Paton, who gives regular climate science lectures on some of the Guna Yala islands, recalled a recent one, when community members expressed their frustration with the world.
“Because for the Guna, it was very simple,” he said, “you just stop damaging Mother Earth.”
CNN’s Duarte Mendonça contributed to this report.