PANAMA CITY, Panama – Like many of the elders in the Kuna indigenous population, Kinyapïler Johnson has noticed an “abrupt” change in the environment in recent years.
On the Caribbean San Blas Islands where the Kuna have lived for more than 200 years, the sun seems hotter in the sky, the winds don’t blow like they used to, and the birds sing out of season. But most worrisome of all: the ocean is rising around them.
While scientists in the United States and Europe look at computer models to predict the impact of rising sea levels on major coastal cities, all the Kuna have to do these days is look out their windows.
“There have always been certain months when the sea rises normally, but in the past two years it’s been alarming,” Johnson said. “Many communities have been completely flooded, and people couldn’t cook because their kitchens were flooded.”
So serious was the flooding two years ago, that one of the more populous Kuna islands was completely submerged under several inches of ocean water when “waves from the north met the waves from the south in the middle of the island.”
That’s never happened before, according to indigenous elders. That’s why the Kuna leaders have decided it’s time to go.
The Kuna General Congress has already started to develop a master plan for the mass exodus of 32,000 people, who, in the coming years, will leave behind their sinking islands and retreat into mountains on Panama’s mainland.
“For me, it will be a return to our natural habitat,” said Johnson, who as a boy remembers his father going over to the mainland to hunt deer. “The (Kuna) youth of today are accustomed to life on the beach and the islands, because they think that’s where we are from. But those of us who know the oral history, know we come from the mountains and the jungle.”
Ariel González, head of the Kuna General Congress, said the plans must be made for an orderly and coordinated evacuation of 38 island communities. He estimates the planning will take at least five years, and within six or seven years the exodus will begin.
“There’s no model for how to do this,”
González told The Nica Times during a recent interview in Panama City. “It’s going to be hard work, but we know it’s time to start. The climate has already become unpredictable; all the community leaders say the ocean has risen and the winds don’t blow they way they used to.”
The San Blas islands are only about half a meter above sea level, he said. So there’s no time to waste.
Signs from Nature
While international debate continues on whether climate change is a cyclical phenomenon or an irreversible symptom of global warming, González says “it’s irreversible from our cultural point of view.”
And for those who know how to listen to “nature’s body language,” the signs of change are all around, the Kuna leader said.
“Nature has been altered. We see it in the birds. There are specific days when certain birds sing and tell us that the rains are starting, and other birds that sing to tell us when the rains are ending. But now the birds are singing in the wrong seasons,” González said.
The same, he said, is true for certain flowers, whose bloom used to predict the end of the dry season. “But now the flowers are blooming at the wrong time.”
“Nature is trying to readjust itself and find a new equilibrium,” González said. “But right now it’s off balance, and that’s why we are in crisis.”
González says the Kuna have no faith that the western world will find a solution to the problem of global warming – mostly, he says, because they’re the ones to blame.
“The white man won’t find the solution,” he said. “The western world has lost it’s balance.”
And despite similar problems in other Panamanian islands, such as Bocas del Toro, which in recent years has reported some of its worst flooding ever, the Kuna aren’t going to wait for the Panamanian authorities to take control of the situation either. “We can’t wait for the government,” he said. “First we’d sink and then they wouldn’t throw us a lifesaver.”
Defending the Land
Since the days of the Spanish colonization, the Kuna have been resisting, moving and adapting to new lands. In the beginning of their oral history, the indigenous nation lived along the riverbanks in the forested lands of what is today Colombia and Panama.
When the Spanish invaded, the Kuna were pushed west. The expansion of colonizing groups forced the Kuna up into the mountains along Panama’s Caribbean coastline, and then eventually out to the San Blas islands. The Kuna finally revolted against the Panamanian government in 1925, and were later given autonomy in a strip of coastal land (including the islands) known as the Kuna Yala, or KunaTerritory.
Today, 38 of the 49 Kuna communities are on the islands, while the other 11 are on the mainland. Only two Kuna communities remain in the mountains, where they’ll soon be joined by those leaving the islands.
“We are from mountains and jungles. And though we adapted to life on the ocean, we have to return to our land,” González said.
But the Kunas’ return to the mainland might be motivated by more than just environmental change and nostalgia for oral tradition. According to González, it’s also about defending their tribal lands from outside invaders who are encroaching on the Kuna Yala to raise cattle and construct ecotourism projects.
The Kuna Yala is a 10-kilometer wide strip of land that stretches along 320 kilometers of coastal land. The Kuna Yala is protected by law and recognized as a semiautonomous region.
But while most of the Kuna live out on the islands, sections of their interior lands have been invaded by “Panamanian colonizers” and Dutch investors, González said. He said the Kuna have filed complaints with Panamanian authorities regarding four separate land invasions, “but the government doesn’t want to take actions.”
González warns that if the Panamanian legal system continues to fail the Kuna, they will take the matter into their own hands.
“We tell the government, if you don’t take care of it, we’ll do it our way – through force, violence or through forming alliances,” González said.
The Kuna leader said he’s been requesting a meeting with President Ricardo Martinelli for almost a year, but the president “doesn’t want to meet with us.”
González claims none of Panama’s recent governments have had a vision of a nation that includes the indigenous peoples. Martinelli, he charged, “is an ostrich with his head in the ground.”
Same Threat, Different Form
For Kuna activist Kinyapïler Johnson, who insists he’s already made up his mind to leave his island community of Ustupu and migrate to the mountains where his ancestors once lived, the exodus will happen the same way the migration to the islands occurred: family by family, group by group.
He predicts some people will want to remain behind on the islands, where they’ve started to make a living from the tourists who visit their tropical, white sands. But in the end, he says, the Kuna migration is motivated by the same instincts it was 500 years ago when the Spanish first arrived: survival.
Though the threat today is rising oceans and not the Spanish sword, Johnson says “at the root, it’s really the same threat.”
“The western world, the developed world, the white world – they are the ones who are provoking these problems; it’s not us,” Johnson said. “So it’s the same threat, just now in a more indirect form.”