SAN BLAS ISLANDS, Panama – It’s 9 am and the rain that had been pelting the islet of Gardi Sugdub – part of Panama’s San Blas archipelago – for several hours has finally subsided.
Three female members of the Guna community, the indigenous group that inhabits that Caribbean island chain, go outside and spread dry sand over the puddles that surround their cane-walled and straw-roofed hut.
Downpours have become more frequent and unpredictable, while ocean waves have started crashing over the rudimentary coral barriers the Guna erected years ago to protect this virtually flat, 1.5-hectare (3.7-acre) islet from rising sea levels.
Most of the narrow streets are mud-filled, and water has even seeped its way into several of the huts.
“The sea used to just barely penetrate. It happened just a few days a year, but now any rainfall affects us because we’re sinking. You don’t have to be a scientist to notice it. Look at Nonumula; it’s now almost underwater,” Pablo Preciado, the community’s “sagla,” or spiritual leader, told EFE while pointing out at the islet facing Gardi Sugdub.
Gardi Sugdub is part of the Guna Yala autonomous region and one of the islets that make up the San Blas Islands, a tourist archipelago that is renowned for its crystalline waters but also one of the areas of Latin America most vulnerable to rising sea levels, a phenomenon triggered by global warming and glacier melting.
According to data from a nearby tide gauge, sea levels in that part of the Caribbean have risen by nearly 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) over the past 50 years, or 11 centimeters more than the global average.
In its fifth report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) laid out a bleak scenario and warned that if present trends continue sea levels could rise by an average of up to 30 centimeters by 2065 and 63 centimeters by 2010 and devastate a host of coastal communities.
“Nature is angry and is sending us a message. Those factories spewing all that smoke are to blame,” the “sagla” said, recalling the terrible flooding that ravaged Gardi Sugdub in November 2008.
A 2004 study based on aerial photographs that was published in the Conservation Biology journal says that archipelago made up of 365 islets – of which 38 are inhabited and the rest are exploited for ecotourism – has lost 50,363 square meters (541,392 square feet) of territory in three decades.
Gardi Sugdub, Ustupu, Mamidub, Anassuguna and Ogobsucun are the most vulnerable island communities to date, according to experts. But predictions also are gloomy for the rest of the islands and their inhabitants know it, as do the Panamanian authorities.
THE ONLY SOLUTION: RELOCATING TO THE MAINLAND
Stretched out on a dusty and colorful hammock, an essential item at any Guna house, Eustasio Valdes, more commonly known as “Atahualpa,” speaks for the vast majority of local residents when he says, “We have no choice. We have to leave.”
Aware that their beloved sea will end up becoming a voracious and unmanageable enemy, the Gardi Sugdub community launched a pioneering plan in 2010 to relocate to mainland Panama.
After progressing in fits and starts, that plan appears to finally be coming to fruition.
Residents have set aside a 17-hectare piece of land on the mainland that is just a few kilometers from the islet and owned by the Guna Yala autonomous region. They also have convinced the Panamanian government to build a hospital and a school there.
After the plan stalled for several years, a contract has been awarded for the construction of 300 homes for the roughly 1,000 people who now live on Gardi Sugdub. That plan is pending final approval by authorities and will serve as a model in the event other communities seek to make a similar move in the future.
The Swiss non-governmental organization Displacement Solutions says Gardi Sugdub will become the first indigenous community in Latin America to relocate due to climate change.
“Rising sea levels are a silent monster. We don’t suffer great disasters and so we’re not a priority for the authorities,” said Blas Lopez, a community leader who has helped lead the hard-fought relocation effort.