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Updates on Climate Displacement in Gunayala, Panama

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

In September 2016, Displacement Solutions carried out its fourth field research and advocacy mission to the Gunayala region in Panama. This latest visit had three main objectives: First, to update the information about the state planned relocation because of climate displacement by the people of Gardi Sugdub island. Second, to get a broader picture about the status of relocation among other Guna communities contemplating planned relocation. And, third, to encourage and facilitate the sharing of information about the ongoing relocation process of Gardi Sugdub with other Guna communities.

 A growing number of island communities in Gunayala are actively expressing their desire to relocate to the mainland as the habitability of their island homes become increasingly uninhabitable. Throughout the territory of Gunayala the reasons people have given for relocating share common themes, which focus on unsustainable population growth over the years resulting in reduced space on the islands, coupled with sea level rise and increasing vulnerability to the impacts of high tides and storms.

From the Guna communities Displacement Solutions have visited so far during our three years working in the autonomous region of Gunayala, we have identified four different types of communities as determined by their relocation status: Communities in the process of relocating; Communities with a desire to relocate, and although they have taken the first steps toward that objective, they still don’t have a clear path to their relocation; Communities that would like to relocate but don’t know where to start and how to take concretes steps towards this goal; and Communities where relocation is not yet on their agenda, and/or where there is not a consensus among the community members about the need to relocate.

As Displacement Solutions has documented since 2014, the community of Gardi Sugdub has already carried out extensive planning for their eventual relocation to the mainland. Currently, the people from Gardi Sugdub are waiting for the government to fulfill its promise to build 300 houses for the relocation while their traditional and community leaders have followed the process closely by contacting by phone, social media and face-to-face meetings with different government officials at the Panamanian Ministry of Housing.

In our latest report, we show that the community of Playón Chico is the second island community that has initiated relocation processes. Although their efforts are not as organized or advanced as Gardi Sugdub, they have other factors that could facilitate the success of their relocation effort. These factors include proximity to the coast, the fact that the island is already connected by a pedestrian bridge, that some infrastructure already exists on the mainland, and the experience of a group of people living on the island and in Panama City that were involved in their previous attempt to relocate approximately 30 years ago. We have no doubts that Playón Chico has started a process that is irreversible.

For the past three years, Displacement Solutions has been calling on the Panamanian government to apply the Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement within States regarding the relocation of island indigenous communities in Gunayala, but until now this call has gone unanswered. The Panamanian government has made several promises to the community of Gardi Sugdub, but no concrete actions have been implemented yet.

We should not expect that relocation in Gunayala would be a spontaneous migration of individuals from the islands to the mainland. Relocation in Gunayala is a collective enterprise, that requires the support and assistance of the Panamanian government and the international community to ensure its success. If Guna communities are not assisted now in their preventative relocation to the mainland, when the sea level reaches a trigger point or when a natural disaster strikes, one of the only options available to them will involve a move to Panama City, where most – as is the case in countless countries where climate displacement is already underway – will end up living in the poorest neighborhoods around the capital city.

During the recent mission, the DS team took video footage at a variety sites in the area, including interviews with key players in the climate displacement reality playing itself out today in Gunayala, Panama. Six videos are available below:

Visita al sitio de relocalización de la comunidad de Playón Chico (Visit to the relocation site of the Playón Chico community):Displacement Solutions’ team walks alongside leaders from Playón Chico visiting one of the potential relocation sites for this island community. Community leaders showed us the crops that were planted there while it is decided if that site was adequate to resettle the community –

Lider mujeres Playón Chico (Women’s leader Playón Chico): Interview with Elena Gonzalez, a women’s leader from Playón Chico who is leading an agricultural project to benefit their community –

La visión del saila de Playón Chico (The vision of Playón Chico’s chief): Interview with Luis Layans, Chief of the Playón Chico community. He explains his vision for his community on relocation from the island to the mainland –

Entrevista con Ovidio Guillén, lider comunitario Playón Chico (Interview with Ovidio Guillén, community leader Playón Chico):Interview with Ovidio Guillén, perhaps the most active leader in the relocation process of the Playón Chico community. He explains why his community wants to relocate to the mainland –

Nuevo colegio Gardi Sugdub, Septiembre 2016 (New school Gardi Sugdub, September 2016): DS walks through the new school complex currently under construction near Gardi Sugdub’s relocation site –

Minsa-Capsi Llano Cartí, Septiembre 2016 (Health center Llano-Carti, September 2016): DS walks through the health center currently under construction near Gardi Sugdub’s relocation site. The construction site has been idle for the past two years. According to the original contract, it should have been ready by January 2013. Only about 54% of the physical structure has been completed, but since construction was completely abandoned two years ago, it is showing signs of a rapid and perhaps irreversible deterioration –

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