Panama prepares to evacuate the first island in the face of rising sea levels

GARDE SUJDUP, Panama (AP) — On a small island off the coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea, about 300 families are packing their belongings in preparation for a radical change. Generations of Guna people who grew up on Garde Sugdub in a life dedicated to the sea and tourism will trade that next week for the hard land of the mainland.

They go willingly – sort of.

The Gunas of Gardi Sugdub is the first of 63 communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts that government officials and scientists expect will have to relocate due to rising sea levels in the coming decades.

One recent day, the island’s indigenous people were paddling or outboarding to catch fish. The children, some dressed in uniforms and others wearing colorful local textiles called molasses, chattered as they walked quickly through the narrow dirt streets on their way to school.

“We are a little sad, because we will leave behind the homes we have known all our lives, our relationship with the sea, where we fish, where we bathe, where tourists come, but the sea is sinking,” said Nadine Morales, 24, who was preparing to move with her mother, uncle and boyfriend. The island little by little.

An official at the Panamanian Ministry of Housing said that some people decided to stay on the island until the situation became unsafe, without revealing a specific number. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, said the authorities would not force them to leave.

Gardi Sugdub is one of about 50 inhabited islands in the Guna Yala Territory archipelago. It is approximately 400 yards (366 m) long and 150 yards (137 m) wide. From above, it appears as a spiky semi-oval surrounded by dozens of short piers where residents tie up their boats.

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Every year, especially when strong winds blow over the sea in November and December, water fills the streets and enters homes. Climate change not only raises sea levels, but also warms the oceans and thus triggers stronger storms.

The Gonas have tried to reinforce the edge of the island with rocks, pilings and coral, but the seawater continues to flow.

“I’ve seen recently that climate change has had a big impact,” Morales said. “Now the tide has reached an unprecedented level, and the heat is unbearable.”

The self-governing government of Gona decided two decades ago that it needed to consider leaving the island, but at the time it was because the island was too crowded. Evelio Lopez, a 61-year-old teacher on the island, said the effects of climate change have accelerated this thinking.

He plans to move with his relatives to the new site on the mainland developed by the government at a cost of $12 million. The concrete houses sit on a grid of paved streets carved into the dense tropical jungle just over a mile (2 km) from the harbour, from where Garde Sugdub is an eight-minute boat ride away.

Leaving the island “is a big challenge, because more than 200 years of our culture comes from the sea, so leaving this island means a lot of things,” Lopez said. The island, now we will be on solid ground, in the jungle, and we will see what the result is in the long run.

The next step “is a direct result of climate change through sea level rise,” said Stephen Patton, director of the Smithsonian’s Physical Monitoring Program in Panama.

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“The islands are on average only half a meter above sea level, and with that level rising, sooner or later the Guna will almost certainly have to abandon all the islands by the end of the century or sooner.”

“All the coasts of the world are affected by this at different speeds,” Patton said.

Residents of a small coastal community in Mexico I moved inside Last year after storms continued to take over their homes. Governments are forced to take action Italian lake city Venice to Coastal communities in New Zealand.

A recent study conducted by the Department of Climate Change of the Panama Ministry of the Environment, with support from universities in Panama and Spain, estimates that by 2050 Panama will lose about 2.01% of its coastal land due to increases in sea levels.

Panama estimates it will cost about $1.2 billion to resettle the 38,000 or so people who will face rising sea levels in the short and medium term, said Ligia Castro, climate change director at the Environment Ministry.

In Gardi Sugdub, the women who make the elaborately embroidered molas worn by the Juna women hang them outside their homes when finished, in an attempt to attract the attention of visiting tourists.

The island and others along the coast have for years benefited from year-round tourism.

Brocilio de la Ossa, deputy secretary of the Port of Carti facing Garde Sugdub, said he planned to move with his wife, daughter, sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Some of his wife’s relatives will remain on the island.

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He said that the biggest challenge facing those who move is the lifestyle change of moving from the sea to the inland even though the distance is relatively small.

“Now that they are in the forest, their way of living will be different,” he said.


Juan Zamorano reported from Panama City.

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