In brief

Alarm sounds as climate change eats away indigenous-inhabited islands, Panama government drags feet

Relocation plan for single Guna community was planned 14 years ago, still not completed · Some 40 islands are under threat

Aerial image of Gargi Sugdub.
Aerial image of Gargi Sugdub. Author: Google Maps - CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies 2023
About 40 islands inhabited by the Guna, one of Panama’s largest indigenous peoples, are in danger of disappearance as the sea level rises and extreme climatic episodes become more frequent. The threat affects some 28,000 people, who will need to relocate to the mainland of the Central American country. However, according to a Human Rights Watch report, the so-far slow and inefficient planning and execution of population transfers by the Panamanian authorities are threatening the Guna’s rights.

The islands are located on the coast of Guna Yala, one of the three comarcas that make up the Guna land, in northeastern Panama. Since the islands were healthier than the mainland, some Guna moved there from the mainland decades and centuries ago. Climate change is now likely to make them uninhabitable.

Plans for the relocation of the first of these communities, Gardi Sugdub, to the mainland began in 2010. This was done with the participation of the community leaders, the Panamanian government, the Inter-American Development Bank, and some NGOs. 14 years later, not even the school and hospital the Panamanian government promised to finish in 2014 are available. The houses are not ready either. The report also states that the community complains that the houses are not adapted to their lifestyle, so there are many who expect to have to do building work or extensions when they move in.

In any case, the situation is urgent, because Gardi Sugdub sees flooding every year. Its 1,300 inhabitants cannot move elsewhere on the island, which is completely occupied by houses. The highest point on the island lies one metre above sea level.

The report also reflects the fear of some community members that, after relocation, the Guna will be more exposed to the influence of Panamanian majority culture. This could have negative consequences for the preservation of their own culture and language.