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 Off the Caribbean coast of Panama lies a constellation of approximately 365 islands known collectively as the Guna Yala Comerca: it is the land where the Guna tribe lives. Some of the islands are owned by locals but uninhabited: sand and palms rising from the sea, places to swim or gather coconuts. Other islands are inhabited by densely packed communities of Guna families, with thatch homes built to the very edges of the islands, sometimes built over and above the water.  

 In Guna communities, decisions are made collectively. Each week, problems are brought to the congress house during a series of meetings overseen by sailas, or tribal elders. They talk about how to manage fish populations, how to grow crops and care for children, they mediate quarrels between neighbors. These days, there are new, unprecedented problems brought on by changes in the environment. There has been too little rain. It is not enough to fill the water tanks or water the crops.  Sometimes, parts of the island are flooded, the seawater rising to the knee and crossing the thresholds of homes. The sea seems too hot for the fish, and the storms seem to get stronger and stronger. The new problems exist alongside a loss of traditional knowledge, increasing influence from the cities, and overpopulation. 

The communities must make new decisions: what to do with the unpredictable environment and where to go when the sea begins to swallow the islands. According to a report by Displacement Solutions, it is estimated that 28,000 people in Guna Yala will eventually need to relocate.

This story focuses on two island communities: Gardi Subdub and Coetupu. 

 Gardi Subdub is an island closest to the highway on the mainland that leads to Panama City, an island with a cell phone signal and a small supermarket. Because of the rising sea and the growing population, the island’s congress has decided to relocate. The community has already begun building a new community on the mainland: a short drive into the hills where a new school building is almost completed. Next, they will begin to build homes.

Six hours by boat from Gardi Subdub is the island of Coetupu: it is more remote, more traditional. People wait in line to use one of two pay phones to call their families in the city. There, they are drafting plans to relocated to an adjacent island. They worry if the sea and land will continue to sustain their families and community. 

 
 
 
In the past, a lot of families lived together. Now they don’t live together anymore, people live only with their families. Back then, we worked only here, we didn’t leave to work in the city. We learned how to harvest banana, coco, yam, yucca– all kinds of agricultural products. We hunted deer and wild pigs.
— Aristoteles Cabu, saila (tribal congressman) Coetupu community
 
As children, we learned through songs. These days, there’s only few people in the community who sing the old songs. My Aunt Rosa was told a lot of knowledge when she was young, so now she can teach and sing to the young girls. We sing things like: When you grow up, you’ll help your mother, and you’ll see papa when he comes back home from the mountain.
— Joanna Robinson, Coetupu community
 
 

"Young people, they are going to suffer the consequences. Governments, politicians, big countries should think about the relationship between people, not only indigenous people but all around the world. The problem is that as long as the social system doesn’t change we will continue to have problems. The rich countries only work to more and more money, and they want to dominate. There’s no equality. Poor countries are becoming even poorer. The system has to change. The resources, the wealth that God created, only few are taking advantage of it and only a few are protecting it."

    -Guillermo Archibold, Agronomist - Gardi Subdub community

 
 
The sea is good. The sea is medicine. If you have mosquito bites, you go inside the sea and then you feel better. Now, the sea can’t heal the way it used to. It is too hot. And in the past they used to catch a lot of fish. Nowadays, there is not much fish. And before, there were a lot of coconuts and bananas. But not now, because of the changes with the sun. And it used to rain like for about a week long. Now, if it rains, it rains only one hour and then it stops.
— Leonidas Perez, saila (tribal congressman) - Coetupu community
 
Saila Leonidas Perez in his home on Coetupu. 

Saila Leonidas Perez in his home on Coetupu. 

 
The sailas come together to advise us on what they know about God. And then they get everyone together. And we make food. We ask God for what we want. We sing to the sun, we sing to the fish. We sing to teach people the ways to live in the community.
— Leonidas Perez, saila (tribal congressman) - Coetupu community
 
Parts of the island that normally didn’t flood are often covered in water. When people realized the sea level was rising, they started to destroy and use corals to build a kind of wall, which is very damaging. Our island is mostly made of coral infill now. So, we’re planning to move to a real island, an island made of land. About five years ago, we tried to start a project to relocate to the mainland, but there were disputes within the community. The land on the continent is already distributed; it has owners. And these owners don’t want to give their land to other people. So now we plan to relocate to another nearby island.
— Asterio Ramirez, teacher - Coetupu community
 
Guillermo Archibold, agronomist, in his home in Gardi Subdub.

Guillermo Archibold, agronomist, in his home in Gardi Subdub.

The streets of Gardi Subdub after a light rain. 

The streets of Gardi Subdub after a light rain. 

 
When we go to the mountain on the mainland, we leave at 4am. We look for coconuts and banana, and on our way back, I steer the boat while my husband David dives for fish. Then we return. That way, we can get all of our food: banana, coconut and fish. I have noticed changes. Now, it doesn’t rain as much, it’s sunnier, and it worries me because it’s hotter. Farming needs rain to grow faster. If it doesn’t rain, the crops dry up. So we have to wait for good weather to harvest our food. I am praying for it to get better.
— Rosa Alvaredo - Coetupu community
 
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Most people in our community die when they are very old, of old age. And recently, in the last few years, people have started to die because of cancer. It is a new thing. In earlier days, people ate natural food, not artificial food like nowadays. Back then, they used to eat only fresh meat and didn’t use oil to fry. In the past, we didn’t use money. Now, some people trade coconuts with people from Columbia for money. This has introduced new products that people buy, unnatural products.
— Guillermo Archibold, Agronomist - Gardi Subdub community
 
When I was a little girl, I loved to go to our farm on the mainland and learn about how to plant things. I used to go with my grandmother, grandfather, or with my aunt. I spent many good times planting things, harvesting mangoes. It is a Guna tradition to teach these things. As children we are taught to plant things, especially boys. Mostly it’s men who plant trees, and we women go to help and pick things. They plant trees to be healthy, to give us food. Girls are taught to help as well. Girls are taught to sing. When we put a girl to sleep, we sing as we give an advice to her. We sing for example: when you will grow up you are going to help the family and community.
— Naidi Robinson - Coetupu community
 
The construction site at the "Nueva Barria"- the new community being built on the mainland near Gardi Subdub. The new school building is projected to open this year, with construction of the residential community to be built next. The Panamanian government began construction of a new health center, but the building has been sitting unfinished for years. 

The construction site at the "Nueva Barria"- the new community being built on the mainland near Gardi Subdub. The new school building is projected to open this year, with construction of the residential community to be built next. The Panamanian government began construction of a new health center, but the building has been sitting unfinished for years. 

Victoria Navarro, community leader working to organize the relocation to the "Nueva Barria" in her home in Gardi Subdub. 

Victoria Navarro, community leader working to organize the relocation to the "Nueva Barria" in her home in Gardi Subdub. 

 
We, the community, have to be prepared for a new life on the mainland, because life is different on an island than on mainland. We must be organized and provide information to each other. We’re moving to mainland, not only because of climate change but also because of the increase of population.
— Ascanio Martinez, Health Educator - Gardi Subdub
 
 
We have more and more problems with water. It’s getting worse. We have always gotten water from rivers on the mainland. Now the rivers have dried up because of the lack of rain. Every five days, we have to go to another island to get water from their community water source. It’s good when it finally rains; it fills up the river, so we can get water from the mainland. And the rain is good for growing our crops. We are alive thanks to the rain.
— Joanna Robinson - Coetupu community
 
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Saila Leonidas Perez by a dry water reservoir on the mainland near the Coetupu community. 

Saila Leonidas Perez by a dry water reservoir on the mainland near the Coetupu community. 

 
When there is no rain, there’s no water pressure for the water to come through the pipe from the mainland to the island. So we go to another island, called Cuba, to fetch water. Then we wait for rain.
— Leonidas Perez, saila (tribal congressman) - Coetupu community
 
Climate change has been happening for a long time. When I was a baby, there was a lot of food, there was a lot of fish. But over time, people no longer thought about working in the fields. And civilization came, the government came, they built highways and tore down trees. It was then that they began destroying Mother Earth, extracting gold and stones for construction. Nowadays, the Guna have changed a lot. We have begun to be like the people from cities who don’t care about the land.
— Alberto Lopez - Gardi Subdub community
 
 

"The Guna, we have a coast full of forest. And we know it captures carbon from the air, so we protect it, while developed countries have destroyed forests. In other places, there’s a lot of pollution and big industries, oil, and big planes.  And that’s the principal cause of global warming. Indigenous people and poor people like us are keeping forest, helping in controlling heat. Now that big countries are discussing issues of climate change, they should prioritize to helping poor countries to protect our forests."

    -Guillermo Archibold, Agronomist - Gardi Subdub community

 

 
 
Climate change is happening. And it’s happening in other countries, too. Right now there’s no water. We’re in danger. In the future, our islands are going to disappear. We aren’t safe. We are going to leave our own island, because the sea is taking the land.
— Alberto Lopez - Gardi Subdub community
 
 

A portion of this story was photographed for and published by Orion Magazine. 

Translation, transcription, editing or other support by:  
La Wayaka Current, Macarena "Macay" Yanez, Tasha Aulls, Héctor Lara, Sofie Iverson, Victor Fernández, and Naidi Robinson.