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Kuna Yala´s climate change refugees
Leslie Josephs
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Indigenous community may have to flee its island home as water levels rise.

Panama’s Kuna do not need a television to hear about global warming. It has already come to their front door and to adapt, they´ll have to pack up and move. The Kuna´s floating paradise — a belt of palm tree-peppered white-sand islands that dot the pristine aquamarine sea north of Panama — is under threat. Rising water levels may force the thousands of Kuna who inhabit the San Blas archipelago to flee to the coast, a move that will change their traditional way of life and cultural backbone.

“Everything is flooded, up to your ankle,” said Helen Pérez, the director of the school on Carti Mulatupu, a Kuna island of some 500 people. He refers to the strong winds that hit the island in January, causing water to rush to the community, briefly flooding the labyrinth of sandy lanes that divide the wooden and palm huts where the Kuna live.

According to the Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research, the sea level is rising at 2.5 millimeters a year, a rate that could put some of the islands, which barely peek out above the crystalline Caribbean Sea, underwater in less than a century. Some estimates of water level increases are much higher, and for the Kuna, exacerbated by seasonal strong winds and tide surges.

Time running out
At the UN Climate talks in Cancun late last year, the Alliance of Small Island States, composed of countries from the Caribbean, Africa and Oceania, highlighted their plight, saying that for the Caribbean, a 1-meter rise in water levels could cost damages above $6 billion a year.

“For that reason, facing reality, we´re informing people about the displacement of the island to dry land,” Pérez added.

The San Blas island chain is part of the Kuna Yala, a “comarca,” or in Panama, semi-autonomous indigenous land. Ninety percent of the 35,000 Kuna live on around 45 of the more than 350 islands that stretch all the way near the Colombian border.

Last year, leaders of some of the Kuna communities decided it was time to start looking at alternatives and settled upon moving to the verdant hills of the coast.

The Kuna are possibly one of the most fiercely autonomous, independent and insular indigenous people in Latin America. They form their own policies and have some authority over who can enter their land.

Women wear traditional dress, including the colorful molas, woven overlain panels of florescent-colored fabric that they sew into their blouses, bright red, patterned headscarves and small gold hoops that sits tightly around the septum, and rows upon rows of beads encircle their legs from ankle to shin.

Spanish is rarely heard on the islands, where the native Kuna tongue is spoken.

But the group also has strong mistrust of the Panamanian government, rooted in a long struggle for autonomy. The Kuna Congress is seeking financing from outside governments, including Britain, to help the community members relocate.

Carti Sugdub, with a population of 5,000, is the most populated of the islands. Its residents may be the first to leave, along with smaller islands like Carti Mulatupu.

The communities live simply, eking out a life on small-scale agriculture, fishing and tourism. Few have electricity, let alone other modern conveniences like televisions and computers.

Indigenous communities have long-complained that they contribute little to climate change, yet suffer the largest impacts: deadly droughts, floods and a rapid depletion of water resources.

Who´s at fault?
“That’s why last year we raised the criticism last year that if we did not alter the environment, why do we have to be the ones to pay?” asked Ariel González, secretary of the Kuna Congress.

His point is not entirely true.

The Kuna who live on the archipelago have a space issue: they no longer fit on the islands.

And order to increase the space, they use land fill, most notably coral, which acts as a natural barrier to protect the islands from sea surges.

“Every student’s father has to do this,” Osvaldo Taylor, a 34-year-old father of two students, as he tossed buckets of recently harvested coral into a small lot in front of the school, speaking through a translator.

The organisms that comprise coral grow at a snail’s pace – just a few millimeters a year, meaning the Kuna are speeding up the process.

“I will say it is not correct to tie 100 percent to [global warming,” said Hector Guzman, a scientist at the Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research, who has researched the San Blas ecosystem extensively. “They are responsible for the damage of the reefs and there is where they are missing the point.”

So now the Kuna are faced with a quickening countdown before they are forced off the islands they have lived on for about a century.

And some do not want to go.

“I can’t obligate my people to move,” said González. “It’s not easy to tell someone who has lived his whole life, who has been born, grown up, on an island, lived near the sea, ‘Move. It’s time.’”

Village elders, particularly, have reservations about starting over.

“With time, everything will flood,” said Orlando Paniza, a 68-year-old father of four. “Then where will I go?”.
—Latinamerica Press.


Rapidly rising water levels may force Kuna from islands to coast. (Photo: Francesco Vicenzi)
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