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Climate change forcing relocation of Panama’s indigenous Kuna

20 July 2010

From MRG Americas

Rising seas are forcing nearly half of the 32,000 semi-autonomous indigenous Kuna people of Panama to abandon their ancestral homes on the tiny low-lying islands off the country's northeastern coast and move to the mainland.

Kuna elders living in the Caribbean archipelago have noted a marked change in recent years. Echoing international climate change experts, they warn that the sea level rise will get worse. Whereas previously floods were occasional, brief and just a couple of centimeters high, today seasonal winds, storms and high tides combine to submerge the tiny islands, destroy Kuna huts and carry away the all-important dugout canoes.


The Kuna are one of the most politically organized of the indigenous groups in Panama with a history of rebellion against Spanish colonizers as well as the Panamanian government. The Kuna gained their semi-autonomous comarca (reserve) following uprisings in 1925 and in 1930, after which the government established the San Blas archipelago as a semi-autonomous zone.

The great majority of the Kuna population is spread over 38 islands. Eleven communities are located in coastal parts of the region and two communities are located on the mainland.

Costly move

According to a July 2010 Reuters report, the 2,000 inhabitants of one island community named Carti Sugdub plan to move to a coastal site within the Kuna's autonomous mainland territory. The work of clearing the dense tropical forest for the new settlement has already begun but progress has been slow. Residents have been using machetes and lack land-clearing machinery. The Panamanian government provides Kuna communities with basic social services and poverty alleviation support. Thus far, it does not appear as if the administration has put in place any contingency relocation plans, although there is official backing for the initiative. Kuna leaders on the island of Carti Mulatupu, who are working on an environmental impact study for their own move, have calculated that establishing a 600-person community on the mainland could cost up to US$ 5 million.

Observers have noted that the abandonment of the Panama islands by the indigenous Kuna population will be one of the first re-locations directly attributed to the predicted rise in sea levels. For at least two decades, environmental researchers have warned that coastal inundation would be one very noticeable consequence of global climate change.

Through a number of reports and its campaigning, MRG has continued to caution that such climate change-induced phenomena can have a particularly heavy impact on minority populations. Many minority communities live in environmentally fragile areas, and are often among the most socially, politically and economically marginalized groups in their countries.