The island with an escape plan

The low islands of the Caribbean, inhabited by Panama’s indigenous Guna people are threatened by rising sea levels and increasingly unpredictable weather. But unlike many island communities in the face of such problems, the Guna have a plan of escape.

The small port of Carti, on the mainland, Panama is the jumping-off place for day-trippers who come to swim, splash and snorkel around the idyllic-looking islands that dot the horizon. Motor boats buzz in and out, carrying happy visitors to wear life jackets and sun hats. It is one of Panama’s tourist destinations.

The islands – almost one for every day of the year, make up the Guna Yala autonomous region, together with a strip of territory on the mainland.

Most Guna living communities of the archipelago, and have done for centuries, after they have been chased offshore from disease and venomous snakes. But now many believe that only a move back to the mainland, they can ensure their future.

It is the people of Gardi Sugdub – Crab Island – that are in the vanguard of the relocation project. A kilometre inland from the port, where the land is the color of rusty nails, which has set aside 17 hectares (42 acres) for the development of a new village – The Barriada. Unlike other communities around the world threatened by the vagaries of climate change, the Guna people have an enormous advantage: they already own the land that they want to relocate.

Victoria Navarro is one of those Gardi Sugdub that the images of a new and broader existence on the dry, higher land.

“I can imagine the community here in La Barriada,” he says, looking out across the area of low tropical vegetation that has a stream, and up a small hill.

“My grandchildren want to play football and volleyball, but there is no place for them to do on the island. Here you can be as free as the birds.”

In 2010, Victoria and its island neighbors started to clean up this country, close to the area where they grow the crops, in preparation for the construction of the new village.

“Everyone came and participated,” he recalls. “It was a moment of great happiness.”

Around the same time, with funding from the inter-american Development Bank, Panama’s national government has started work on a new school adjacent to The Barriada. $9m complex, designed for students from all over the archipelago, is almost complete. A little further down the hill, $11m has been invested in a new health centre.

Everything seemed promising, especially when the government is committed in 2015 to build 300 houses in The Barriada – Guna can own all this land, but do not have the financial resources to develop so many families. Find out more

Listen to Linda Pressly report on Panama escape islands for Crossing Continents at 11:00 on Thursday on BBC Radio 4
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However, today I work on the school, and the hospital has stopped, as a result of a litany of contractual hiccups – and, above all, the lack of plan, for the supply of water and electricity. The work is not begun on 300 homes.

The Gunas are disappointed, but undeterred, they continue to lobby and to raise funds.

Victoria is an optimist. She is still every much for Barriada to help re-clear those 17 acres. Even so, this piece of land is slowly reclaimed from the jungle as Victoria’s home is gradually being swallowed by the Sea of the Caribbean.

His island, Gardi Sugdub, is only 400 metres long and 150 metres wide, but is occupied by about 2,000 people. Every inch of the island is built upon, unless they are part of a path of sand. Victoria herself lives in a compound with 50 of his extended family – 17 people to share his simple home bamboo.

The lack of space for a growing population, a time that seemed to be a bigger problem than sea level rise, which has grown at a pace of between 2.3 and 2.5 mm per year, with about an inch every 10 years. But efforts to expand the island has made its inhabitants more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Dolphin Davies, who works as a guide for tourists, live with the rest of his extended family in six simple bamboo houses built in a line radiating from the center of the island towards the coast. He had a sense of his ancestors to push the coastline further away.

“My grandfather, Charlie Davies, when he arrived here was a small island so that it has drainage. He brought the stone here, and extended his land,” he says.

This is what happened in the whole of the Guna archipelago. People have backed around to the edges of the islands and the use of stone, garbage, and – most controversially – coral.

“Coral reefs stop the action of the waves. So, when you remove the coral, even up to 3 m deep, you have no protection at all. This has created chaos for people,” says Dr. Hector Guzman, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute in Panama City.

“The Cartí area was where we got the most dramatic data on the destruction of the coral reef when we compared the aerial photos taken in 1960 and then again in 2003.”

This means that the inhabitants of the island are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, and when the rain and the wind come, Victoria Navarro often finds himself at the ankles in water at home.

“I never sleep well – we are awake 24 hours a day,” he says.

In 2008, the storms tore across the island over two weeks long. Even if a move to the mainland had already been put in discussion, it was the wake of destruction that the users of Gardi Sugdub started to put together a plan.

The Guna are very well organized. Sailas, spiritual and civic leader, to take decisions on the basis of a contribution from the part of the community – Gardi Sugdub there are meetings almost every day. And a committee dedicated to the transfer plan is responsible for driving forward and the collaboration with government agencies.

“This project is going to be a model for the rest of the Guna people,” said Blas Lopez, a sociologist and community activist. “But some of the other communities of the island, I don’t think that will happen. They see the government is not supported, so I’m waiting to see if it will become a reality. If we are to achieve our dream, other communities will move back to the mainland.”

On the much smaller neighbouring island of Gardi Muladup, a lack of space means pigs snuffle and feed in pens built out over the ocean. Carlos Perez, one of the sailas for this community of 500, is a sprightly 102 years of age. And he is worried.

“We are not able to control the water,” he says. “In the month of January and February there are very strong gusts of wind and huge waves.”

The island also has less protection than Gardi Sugdub.

“We are an island solo – there are other islands in front of us, then we are much more vulnerable to flooding.”

Carlos Perez says that his people want to move back to the mainland. Have a piece of land on the mainland called Red Mountain, and hope that they will follow the people of Gardi Sugdub.

Not all of them are waiting for a new life on dry land, though.

Even if her house floods, Antoneta Reurter, the mother of six children, says she has no intention of letting Gardi Sugdub. In fact, she hopes to gain more space for his family, if his neighbors to move The Barriada.

And she does not trust forecasts that some of the islands of the archipelago, could be flooded in a decade.

“I don’t believe the scientists,” he says. “I don’t think that the islands disappear, only God can decide that. If the people are corrupt and do wrong, God can send a hurricane or an earthquake, and then maybe the islands could go.”

His point of view – that other world powers may punish Guna for wickedness, is not shared by the director of education on Gardi Sugdub, Francisco Gonzales.

“We are increasingly affected by climate change,” he says. “And what we’re seeing lately is not the same as what we saw before – the time can be really good, then there is a sudden change. The sea is rising, there are floods in the streets and strong winds damage the roof of the school. When that happens, we have to send the children home to keep them safe.”

Five hundred students, squash in island classrooms in shifts. The new school is next to impossible Barriada on the mainland should have opened three years ago. When – once again – the class is not managed at the beginning of this year, the people protested by blocking the main road leading away from the port of Carti and to ask for the end of the false promises.

Now it seems that the government of President Juan Carlos Varela, who may be listening.

“We hope to be able to re-start the work for the school, and completed in the first quarter of 2018,” Jorge Gonzalez, the minister who took the lead on the relocation project, told the BBC.

“We’re going to try and find out the economic resources, and to get electricity to the school and the health center.”

And as far as The Barriada, and the construction of 300 houses promised back in 2015?

“They’re in the budget for this year and next year – the Ministry of Housing in the process of contracting a company that you can rely on. We hope that it will be delivered in 2018.

That’s a reality.”

And there are signs that the government’s commitment is to the original housing officials have since visited The Barriada to inspect the land. Then, perhaps, after all, the Guna foresight will pay off, and their efforts provide a model for other communities to face climate displacement in the region and beyond.

Photographs taken by Simone Maybin

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