The effects of climate change are glaringly obvious now more than ever. The Carribean has been ripped apart, Japan’s being dominated by tsunamis, the USA’s drowning and little islands are facing the very real possibility of their whole livelihood being taken over by the sea.
But the Guna Yala autonomous region, which is inhabited by Panama’s indigenous Guna people, has an escape plan.
The Guna Yala autonomous region is constructed of a strip of territory on the north-east coast of Panama and around 365 tiny islands just off said coastline. Before the hurricanes and floods, these low-lying islands were an idealised holiday destination and with turquoise waters and vibrant coral reefs, it isn’t hard to see why.
A few years ago the biggest problem on their minds was the impending overpopulation of their small islands, however, now that their islands are sinking at a rate of 2.3mm-2.5mm per year their efforts at expanding the islands may be jeopardising their chances at overcoming the larger problem at hand: their islands sinking.
In an effort to expand the crowded archipelago they have been using stone, rubbish and even coral to widen the islands. However, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute in Panama City has said that “Coral reefs stop wave action. So when you remove the coral, even down to 3m in depth, you have no protection. This has created chaos for people.” So now they have realised that in an attempt to save themselves they have made themselves more susceptible to storm surges and often find their homes filled with a few inches of rainwater after the rain and wind arrive.
It is specifically the island of Gardi Sugdub — commonly known as Crab Island — who have an escape plan. Back in 2008, the Guna Yala autonomous region was plagued with severe storms. At this time the idea of relocating to the mainland was merely a possibility but after the Sailas (spiritual and civic leaders) fully understood the extent of the damage to their beautiful island and the damage that might be to come they decided a move to the mainland would be in their best interests.
The move to the mainland involved building a whole new town, which is going to be called La Barrida, for everyone to live on. Most of the community of Gardi Sugdub helped to plant crops and vegetation for their new village and thankfully La Barrida is a kilometer inland meaning the threat of the water will only affect them in an extremely unfortunate position.
Around the time the community started planting crops the Inter-American Development Bank helped finance the government with building a massive advances school worth $9 million for all the students of the archipelago to attend. After this $11 million was invested into a new health centre. The possibility of saving their community was getting better by the day, especially after the government committed to building 300 homes.
This happened back in 2015 and now work improving La Barrida has halted but the community is still hopeful and has carried on clearing the land and raising funds. So, when the community found out that yet again the school that could revolutionalise Gardi Sugdub and all neighbouring islands wasn’t opening, they protested. They blocked the main road leading from the port in Carti in an attempt to end the false promises the government is spewing at them.
And it seems that it has worked. Jorge Gonzalez, who is leading the relocation process, recently said: “We hope we can re-start work on the school, and complete it in the first quarter of 2018, […] We’re going to try and find the economic resources, and get electricity to the school and the health centre.”
Moving to the mainland is the key to securing all of the Gardi Sugdub’s residents’ futures and thankfully there is now a very real possibility of it happening.
[Featured Image courtesy of Ray in Manila, Flickr]