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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Rising Seas Are Forcing Climate Refugees to Abandon Their Island Homes

The Guna Yala people are being forced from their homes as their islands sink into rising seas. Residents of Cardi Sugdub will be the first to be relocated to the Panama mainland, followed by the rest of their tribe over the coming decades. Theirs mirrors the situation for Indigenous island dwellers around the world, particularly in the South Pacific.
A Guna Yala woman in a canoe displaying her wares.

A Guna Yala boat merchant. 

More than 1,000 members of an Indigenous tribe off the coast of Panama are being forced from their homes by the climate crisis. The Guna Yala people of Cardi Sugdub are facing flooding from rising seas, as their island home sinks 3.5 millimeters per year. They’re not the first climate refugees to face relocation, of course. And they won’t be the last. Truly, we’ve only just glimpsed the beginning of the social upheaval that is coming as the planet continues to warm — and the fact remains that those who are paying the highest price for climate change are also those who contribute the least when it comes to greenhouse gases.

Going under: Residents of the Guna Yala archipelago brace for evacuation

The Guna Yala archipelago, known to many as the San Blas Islands, is home to roughly 50,000 tribal members of the same name. The entirety of the archipelago is expected to be underwater soon, much of it within the next three decades. But Cardi Sugdub, or Crab Island, won’t last that long — its 1,200 residents are the first group in Latin America to undergo permanent evacuation due to rising seas.

“When the tide goes up, the water enters some houses and the people have to move their belongings to higher ground,” Pragnaben Mohan, a teacher on Cardi Sugdub, told the Wall Street Journal last fall when the situation got a wave of attention. The flooding is so bad that Mohan’s students and fellow teachers often have to wear rubber boots in order to navigate their classrooms.

"Filling, filling, filling all the time, because the water doesn't stop. It keeps going up," resident Augusto Boyd told CBS News this week. "It's difficult. Everything you did here stays behind." Like many of the tribe’s members, Boyd has been attempting to fight the rising waters with rocks and old coral — to no avail.

The beginning of the end: More climate refugees expected in the years to come

The move itself — which is set to take place this year — has been in the works for over a decade. And the Panamanian government recognizes it is only the beginning. The entire tribe will have to be relocated to the mainland by 2050

Ironically, Cardi Sugdub is a densely populated tourist hub that makes do without cars or even motorcycles, CBS News reported. Yet with the loss of their home, the Guna Yala are paying the ultimate price for carbon emissions that they had no part in creating.

The injustice is palatable and mirrors the experience of island-dwelling people around the world — some of whom have already started migrating to higher ground as climate refugees, as well as others who are fighting to stave off the destruction of their homelands. The island nations of the South Pacific are at particular risk, prompting Vanuatu to demand action from the United Nations.

The country of less than a third of a million people has successfully lobbied the U.N. General Assembly to approach the International Court of Justice for both guidance on climate responsibility and to create a path for legal action against those countries that fail to meet their responsibilities. Vanuatu previously advanced a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to the U.N. as well.

Meanwhile, the Pacific island of Kiribati is quickly losing land and is projected to be the first nation to disappear entirely into rising seas. But a lack of immigration agreements with larger nations — many of whom are directly responsible for the crisis — has left its would-be migrants in a lurch, along with the citizens of Nauru and Tuvalu who are in a similar predicament. Indeed, when an Indigenous I-Kiribati man of Kiribati attempted to seek climate asylum in New Zealand 10 years ago, he was deported. Ioane Teitiota eventually entered a grievance with the U.N. Human Rights Committee. However, the committee failed to see any immediate danger to Teitiota’s life and sided with New Zealand, thus keeping the doors closed for climate refugees until further notice.

Traditional culture at risk

In that sense, the Guna Yala are fortunate. Their position as a part of Panama gives climate refugees the benefit of at least having a place to migrate. In fact, it is their own land that is being utilized in the transition. 

Still, the situation is less than ideal for an Indigenous culture that is starkly different from the mainstream one that will absorb it. And while the people are determined to maintain their customs even after moving into the modern, planned community of La Barriada, it’s likely their island home has played a huge role in shielding their matrifocal, gender-fluid way of life

"We carry that here, inside," Cardi Sugdub resident Magdalena Martinez told CBS News of the threat to their traditions. Let’s hope that’s enough to withstand the pressures of assimilation amid suburban life.

Image credit: Benjamin Achrainer/Pexels

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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