Updated June 7th, 2024 at 16:47 IST

Panama Relocates First Island Community Due to Rising Sea Levels

Indigenous Guna families from Gardi Sugdub island ferried stoves, gas cylinders, mattresses and other belongings first in boats and then in trucks.

Civil protection officials move residents' belongings on a boat to the mainland from Gardi Sugdub Island, top, off Panama's Caribbean coast | Image:AP photo
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Panama: Hammocks began appearing this week in the doorways of 300 new houses built in what was previously a yucca field along Panama’s Caribbean coast for families from the country's first low-lying island evacuated due to rising sea levels. Indigenous Guna families from the island of Gardi Sugdub ferried stoves, gas cylinders, mattresses and other belongings first in boats and then in trucks to the new community of Isberyala. They quickly saw some differences.

“Here it’s cooler," said 73-year-old Augusto Walter, hanging his hammock on Wednesday in the tidy two-bedroom house with a backyard. “There (on the island) at this time of day, it’s an oven.”

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He was waiting for his wife who had stayed a bit longer on the island to prepare food. They will share the government-constructed house with three other family members.

Most of Gardi Sugdub’s families had moved or were in the process of moving, but Isberyala’s freshly paved and painted streets named after historic Guna leaders were still largely empty.

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The Indigenous community surrounded by jungle is about a 30-minute walk from the port where a few more minutes aboard a boat brings them to their former homes. Government officials said they expected everyone to be moved in by Thursday.

However, that doesn’t mean everyone is leaving the island. Seven or eight families numbering about 200 people have chosen to stay for now. Workers were even building a two-story house on the island Wednesday.

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Among those staying was Augencio Arango a 49-year-old boat motor mechanic.

“I prefer to be here (on the island), it’s more relaxing,” Arango said. His mother, brother and grandmother moved to Isberyala.

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“Honestly, I don’t know why the people want to live there,” he said. “It’s like living in the city, locked up and you can’t leave and the houses are small.”

He didn’t think climate change was responsible for the move, but rather decisions made by people. “Man is who harms nature,” Arango said. “Now they want to cut down all the trees to build houses on solid ground.”

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Tiny Gardi Sugdub is one of about 50 populated islands in the archipelago of the Guna Yala territory.

Every year, especially when the strong winds whip up the sea in November and December, water fills the streets and enters the homes. Climate change isn’t only leading to a rise in sea levels, but it’s also warming oceans and thereby powering stronger storms.

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The Gunas of Gardi Sugdub are only the first of 63 communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts that government officials and scientists expect to be forced to relocate by rising sea levels in the coming decades.

Ernesto López, 69, moved Tuesday with his wife Digna. Two more relatives were expected soon.

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“We feel like we’re more comfortable here, there’s more space,” López said, sitting on his own hammock Wednesday. “On Gardi Sugdub we were really squeezed in houses with a lot people. We didn’t fit anymore and the sea was coming in every year.”

Like most of the families who had moved in, López, a Guna leader, and his wife still didn’t have electricity or water. The government said electricity was available in the community but families had to set up their own accounts. They made do their first night with a battery-powered lantern and the gas burners they brought from the island.

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Mangos, unripened bananas and sugar cane that López had brought that morning from his farm plot some two hours away lay in a pile on the house’s floor. Like most families, they didn’t plan to completely abandon the island where generations had spent their entire lives.

“Once in a while we are going to cross to the island,” López said.

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Late in the day, many of Isberyala’s new residents did just that because their new homes didn’t yet have electricity.

Betsaira Brenes, 19, moved with her mother, grandmother and an aunt Wednesday. Carrying two gallons of water into the house that they brought from the island, she said it would be enough space for their family after living on the crowded island.

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They planned to continue straddling between mainland and island too, she said. “The good thing in all of this is that now we have a new house and the other one where the other aunts stayed.”

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Published June 7th, 2024 at 16:47 IST