Kuna Yala, or Kuna Land, is comprised of a narrow strip of land 400 kilometers long, and an archipelago of 365 islands off the Caribbean coast. About 50,000 Kuna live there, spread over 36 of the islands. Kuna Yala has been an autonomous region since 1930. The residents secured their rights several years after a successful revolt. Foreigners may not own any property in the area.
The Kuna live from fishing and farming. They grow manioc, pineapples and bananas on their small fields on the mainland. Their most lucrative crop are the coconuts, which they sell to Colombian traders. They negotiate the going price for the coconuts annually, in dollars. This year it is forty cents per coconut.
The indigenous Kuna live on the Carribean coast of Panama. Two centuries ago most Kunas lived on the mainland, but due to an epedimic they moved to the islands. They built up a new life as fishermen. Now the rising sea level is a new threat to their islands. Storms erode the islands, and floods wash away their homes. Soon the Kuna will have to move again, this time back to the mainland.
A total of 36,000 people will be re-homed. The dwellings will be built by the government, along the road between the island of Carti Sugdup and the Pan American Highway. The project also includes roads and facilities, and will take years to complete.
Carti Sugdup is one of the four islands which will be evacuated in August, 2012. 65 families will move in the first stage.
The islands, chock full of buildings, seem to float on the water. Living there has become dangerous. The houses, built of reeds and palm leaves, are no match for storms and rising water. In the past, flooding was comparatively rare; now the residents regularly have to contend with the surging water. According to experts, over the last century the sea level has risen by 17 centimeters, and they expect it to rise by at least 18 – and perhaps as much as 59 centimeters over the rest of this century. In time, the residents will have to abandon all 36 islands. The first three islands will be evacuated in August, 2012. The Kuna are not the first people to have to move as a result of the rising sea level. Others, in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, have already left their homes for the same reason.
The residents use coral in order to try to shore up their islands. The practice is controversial. It damages the coral reefs, eliminating a natural source of protection against the waves. But the Kuna refuse to accept that. According to them, the ‘whites’ are responsible for the flooding. After all, one of the causes behind the rise in the sea level is the burning of fossil fuels.
The Kuna form a tight-knit community, they have their own language, and are well-organized. Decisions are made collectively in the Onmaked Nega, the assembly hall. The meetings are presided over by a saila, a political and spiritual leader.
The coming move has also been debated there, and was only approved after long discussion. Many residents are still afraid of being tricked by the state. Because they have no financial resources to build new accommodations for themselves, they ultimately agreed to the evacuation plans.
Across the water, on the mainland, lies the only road in the whole vicinity. It is only four years old. Previously it was a twelve-hour walk to reach the Pan American Highway. Now it is a matter of three hours. As a result, many of the young people have left for the capital city. Conversely many more consumer goods, like televisions and Coca-Cola, now reach Kuna Yala.
This story is part of Via Panam, Kadir van Lohuizen’s project about migration in the Americas.