When Victor Peretz returned home in January to visit his parents in Wichub Huala, an island fewer than 10 miles off Panama’s eastern shore in the indigenous Guna Yala territory, it wasn’t the place he remembered from his youth.
The 28-year-old, who now runs a tourism business in Panama City, had never seen the water around his parents’ house so high. On the dirt road and around his house, the water rose to his mid-calf, washing ashore bits of garbage that can’t be properly disposed of on the island. Wrappers and plastic bags tangled with bleached coral while lobsters were pushed into the streets and against homes by the rising tide.
As a child growing up on the island, he said, this was unheard of.
His first instinct was to help his family move to mainland Panama to evade the flooding and worsening storms created by rising sea levels and accelerating global climate change. But as he lay awake that night in a hammock in his parents’ house, staring at the thatched roof above him, he changed his mind. Rather than abandon the land his family has occupied for generations, he decided to fight for it.
“If you really love the place that you come from, you have to do something for your community,” Peretz said. “You have to work for your community.”
Peretz and his family represent a few of the roughly 50,000 people grappling with the same question of whether to leave the islands they’ve lived on for generations or fight a devastating and potentially deadly battle that pits humans and nature against each other. It’s a fight happening in coastal communities across the planet as much as it’s happening off Panama’s coast, where communities have lived peacefully for centuries in harmony with a pristine and beautiful sky-blue sea.
Forced to adapt or retreat
Guna Yala is a territory composed of about 350 islands –– there are so many of the tiny land masses that there is no definitive count –– and a narrow strip of mainland that stretches 232 miles down Panama’s eastern coast. The islands, plopped throughout 100 square miles of ocean, are mostly uninhabited, though an estimated 50 are host to residents and flocks of gawking tourists.
Seafare is the most popular mode of transportation between them. Guna families use canoes for their daily commute, some rowing from their homes to more populated and developed islands for school or work. Meanwhile, tourists with bright orange life vests, oversized sunglasses and sun-burnt noses load into small motor boats to visit hotspots.
On the islands themselves, palm trees and a few concrete structures dot the landscape, while homes with stick walls and corrugated steel or thatched roofs fill in the space between.
Isla Perro, a tourist hub where visitors can walk the perimeter in less time than it takes to get there by boat, offers snorkels and kayaks to explore a nearby shipwreck. On nearby residential islands, austere infrastructure, made from natural materials found on the islands and the mainland keep them remote and unappetizing to most tourists’ palates.
The territory was made independent after the Guna Revolution of 1925, when the Guna people fought the Panamanian government. With the conclusion of the revolution, the Guna people created an autonomous territory in which they could rule themselves and practice their own laws and norms separate from those of Panama.
All of the islands are at or near sea level, and some are already dealing with the effects of climate change: a sea rising 3 millimeters each year, which translates to higher flood levels and more damaging storms than ever before.
While 3 millimeters may not seem like much, it’s the accumulation of 3 millimeters each year for several years that has scientists concerned. Since 1880, that slow annual rise equals about 9 inches, mostly in more recent years from melting glaciers and ice sheets worldwide.
According to Matthew Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a Panama-based branch of the Smithsonian that researches tropical forests, marine ecosystems and biodiversity, it isn’t one major storm that will make the islands uninhabitable.
“It’s not like there’s a single storm that’s going to cause these problems,” Larsen said. “It’s a slow build-up of incremental events that are going to render it increasingly difficult to stay there… You get one unusual storm, and that can do 10 years of damage in three days.”
Higher sea levels mean that deadly and devastating storms –– such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 in the United States –– push water farther inland than they once did, which is particularly dangerous for people living close to sea level and in vulnerable structures, as the Guna people do.
Higher sea levels also mean more frequent high-tide flooding, which isn’t typically deadly, but can be disruptive to everyday life. It’s what brings trash and lobsters up to Peretz’s doorstep.
“A lot of people are living in these very primitive bamboo or wooden shacks, and they’re maybe a few feet or a meter above sea level,” Larsen said. “When there is a big storm, or waves are washing over, there’s waves going right through people’s houses.”
Whether it takes three, five, 10 or 20 years, scientists aren’t sure. But increasingly disastrous storms will eventually require the population to either adapt or retreat.
“My guess is we’ll see (migration) through attrition,” Larsen said. “There’ll be people who just get fed up with it or their homes are so badly damaged they just go. There’s always some people who resist… there’s always people who are so attached to their place and they’re stubborn, and we can’t force them.”
Loyalty and identity
The problem has always been there, Larsen acknowledged. It’s just worse now.
“Storms are episodic, and you might have a couple big ones in one season, you might not have any for two years,” Larsen said. “The difference, though, and not everyone recognizes this, is that a storm today of the same magnitude as one 30 years ago will do more damage because it’s got another few inches of elevated sea. It’s going to get higher, wetter and it’s going to reach further inland.”
Despite that, a certain few will choose to stay. These populations are what Carol Farbotko, a human geographer with CSIRO, Australia’s national science research agency, calls “voluntarily immobile.” Her research centers on social and cultural geography and environmental politics, and she studies voluntarily immobile populations in the Pacific Islands.
Voluntarily immobile populations are those that choose to stay despite the impending uninhabitability of their homes. “… Voluntary immobility is not simply life as usual in climate-impacted territory, but an active and often political choice to remain in places that have cultural, emotional, spiritual and psychological value but may be increasingly seen as ‘unlivable’ by outsiders,” Farbotko said in an email interview.
This refusal to leave is often closely bound to a deep sense of place and identity, or spirituality, or a strong tie to the idea of “home.”
“Place often forms the bedrock of culture, (and) provides an ongoing connection to ancestors and nature,” Farbotko said. “Place may form an important part of spirituality, it is often closely linked to traditional and local knowledge systems and can support emotional and psychological well-being.”
Here is where Peretz and his family find themselves. Having lived for generations in Guna Yala, leaving isn’t as simple as packing a bag and moving.
In fact, Peretz sees leaving their island home as an act of defeat, and one they should at least try to avoid, despite outside groups telling them otherwise.
“It’s true, some people want to move to the mainland,” Peretz said. “They want to say, ‘we can’t do anything.’ But you can do something. For me, it’s an excuse for people –– especially for leaders of the community –– to find an easy way out.”
A new way of life
Leaders from Carti Sugdub, an island a mile from the coast Panama, began toying with the idea of leaving a decade ago, and are expected to start moving by 2021.
While the conversation began with the fact that the island is overpopulated –– at only 1,312 feet long and 492 feet wide, it is home to an estimated 300 families –– worries about climate change have since crept into conversation.
With help from the Panamanian government, construction began in January 2020 on a 42-acre development, known as La Barriada, about five minutes inland from the port of Cartí, where most boats to the islands are docked. The project, which has moved forward in fits and starts for a decade, is expected to be complete next year.
Because the Guna do not have the financial resources to build the community on their own, the Panamanian government made a commitment in 2015 to build 300 homes on the property.
Around 2010, with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank, the Panamanian government began construction on a new school and health center near La Barriada. While the school is nearly complete, a failure to plan for adequate supplies of water and electricity has halted construction on the health center.
According to islander 48-year-old Delfino Davies-Reyes, some of the older residents, those who were born there and feel a sense of attachment to the community, won’t go.
To him, however, there’s no problem with leaving. In fact, he said, moving to the mainland will help kids and young people connect to their culture.
As it is now, they’re far from everything the community needs, except for fishing. In the mountains, they can grow pineapples and bananas, bolster their agriculture and be closer to the earth. On the islands, the spiritual Guna people are disconnected from these things.
“The children are going to the mainland to make the culture stronger, because we are going to live in the mainland, the Guna land,” Davies-Reyes said. “We are going to live there, in the new community. We are going to sleep close to iguanas, close to frogs, close to birds, close to the river, close to natural medicine. Right now, we are sleeping far (away). We don’t listen to the frogs, the birds, only to radios and TV.”
In Guna culture, the land represents the grandmother, the sea represents the mother and the sky represents the father, said 55-year-old resident Arhualpa Gomunideo.
“People are disrespecting our mother, our father, our grandmother –– the land, the sea, the sky –– and you see consequences of that around the world,” Gomunideo said, rocking back and forth in a hammock hanging in a spacious, dirt-floored building on Carti Sugdub. “Because of those demands, and the increase in population, a lot of people in the community felt the need to move out… But there are some who have chosen to stay, and you have to respect that decision.”
Others, like 64-year-old Kike Arias, who splits his time between his home island, Dad Nague Dubir, and Panama City, take issue with the new government-funded housing development.
His extended family still lives on the island, where practically no one has discussed moving away, he said. He worries for those from Carti Sugdub who will be moving into the government-sanctioned concrete homes next year.
“I don’t agree with the construction plan or the style of the houses,” Arias said. “Yes, you may fix the problem with the rising water levels and you’re fixing the things that had to do with the climate, but you’re losing the culture. If you’re going to fix one thing, you have to fix both things. I think it’s really going to have an impact on how people culturally live.”
Most homes across Guna Yala are made with naturally sourced materials that can be found on the islands themselves, or on the mainland nearby. Bamboo, mud and other natural materials comprise the houses, and while their composition makes them particularly susceptible to the whims of the sea, it is part of their culture.
But with the addition of new materials, Arias feels the Guna culture is being pushed out.
The new community early this spring was still only a rough and winding dirt road carved into the dense forest from a nondescript roadside entrance. About five minutes away from the coastline and nearly an hour away – along a severely pocked and narrow road – from any developed towns, it is a world apart from the sparkling seaside homes residents now occupy.
The communities of Carti Sugdub, Dad Nague Dubir and Wichub Huala are not the only ones grappling with the life-altering question of whether to stay or go.
Timoteo Fabrega is an artisan who owns a small business with his family and sells art in Panama City’s Plaza Mayor. He paints feathers, adorning them with pictures of Panama’s natural life: birds, iguanas, trees and flowers. His wife sews traditional molas, weaves baskets and makes jewelry, among other things. His daughters, 4 and 6, laugh and play while their parents work.
Fabrega moved to Panama City almost 35 years ago. His parents and other family members still live on his island, Ayligandi. For them, it’s less a decision based on want and more one based on the reality of time and age.
“My parents are very elderly, so in any moment now, their life could be over and they could pass away,” Fabrega said. “It makes no sense for them to move.”
Fabrega believes they will stay there for the rest of their lives. No one else from his home is planning to move in the near future, either. Living in the city, Fabrega sees the news and knows what’s happening with rising sea levels and the islands. He worries, but there’s not much he can do.
“Of course I think they should move,” he said, referring to the community as a whole. “With the rising sea levels, especially with the rainy season, the water is basically at their knees.”
Changing times, different realities
For other communities, the struggle is not whether or not to move, because the subject isn’t even being raised.
The Guna Yala government is highly decentralized, and there isn’t one governing body that controls all of the small islands. Instead, each forms a congress of leaders to make decisions for their community. Iniquilipi Chiari, secretary of the Guna Yala youth congress, works with congresses across the islands.
Every few months, representatives from all the congresses get together to discuss topics that affect all people.
Climate change, Chiari said, hasn’t been on the agenda.
There’s a generational divide, he said, between those who seek to talk about climate change and rising sea levels, and those who don’t. Older generations are often resistant to discussing the issue. To them, like Victor Peretz’s parents, the rising sea and berating storms are normal, a tradition.
“From the congress, I can say that we haven’t talked about that topic, or take seriously the topic,” Chiari said. “In our official agenda, there is nothing about the sea rising. Even now that it’s happening, they don’t want to see the realities. The point is, it’s happening.”
Often, the problem isn’t that they don’t care –– it’s that they don’t understand the gravity of the issue. To inform them would require a more formalized education about the topic in the Guna dialect, which is widely unavailable across the islands.
“Sometimes it’s not because people don’t want it,” Chiari said. “It’s because people don’t know it.”
But for 33-year-old Chiari, who was born and raised on an island called Ustupu, things are changing, and quickly. He said he too can’t recall a time in his childhood when the water would come up to his knees, or when trash would be washed up into his backyard or the streets.
For now, Chiari is seeking to educate the island’s youth about the issue rather than attempting to change the minds of the elderly. In the meantime, he believes that the movement of the Carti Sugdub community will be the first domino in a chain that sends all the other islanders –- or those who will listen –– searching for higher ground.
“The times change,” Chiari said, “and we have different realities from our elders as they had before.”