Guna Yala – A Sinking Paradise

By Nick

Visiting the Guna Yala (San Blas) has been a profound experience. The Guna Yala is a largely autonomous province of Panama stretching for 230 miles of the Caribbean coast until the border with Colombia where we spent two and a half months. It was a privilege to be amongst these indigenous people (‘The Guna’) who’s values towards nature and one another are rooted in a spirit of harmony, peace and co-operation. Attitudes towards community, sharing of resources and ‘work’ that are revolutionary to the western ear are second nature to the Guna.

It’s impossible not to constantly draw comparisons between The Guna and life at home. A commute for a Guna might involve a leisurely sail or paddle to the mainland in a dugout ‘Ulu’ in order to tend to vegetables or collect fire wood for a few hours. A world away from the archetypal frenzied rush to get to work involving packed trains that was the norm for me in my London days.

The Guna people live in an abundance of the important elements of life. Their natural environment (for now) is bountiful and they are able to self-sustain themselves well; but most strikingly the Guna are rich in time. Time for their family, time for community and time for just existing slowly. This is not to sugarcoat or fetishise their lives, they of course have problems and they are not perfect but there is something at the core of their culture that suggests powerfully that these are the type of people that our extractivist culture must learn from if we are to mitigate or slow the effects of the catastrophic climate breakdown we face.

It is the subject of dramatic climate change, specifically sea level rise, that ultimately landed the biggest emotional impact in relation to the Guna. As weeks passed and a love of the islands grew so did feelings of anger and sadness as the reality began to land that soon all the Guna will have to leave their islands for good. All but a small handful of the 300 odd low lying sandy islands are doomed (around 50 are inhabited often densely). Doomed because most of the rest of the world hasn’t shared their respect of nature. A global system that has exploited this planet under guiding principles of greed and accumulation has committed the Guna’s islands to watery graves due to sea level rise. Within a generation this paradisaical archipelago will be gone, vanished, washed away. Even knowing this it takes a while for the facts to sink in. Personally it felt like there was a cognitive reluctance to accept that, for example, my newly born niece will not be able to visit the Guna islands if she waits till she’s my age because they simply won’t exist. There is denial even within some of the Guna communities about their sinking islands. It’s possible that this new hyper impermanence of the natural world is just too hard to accept even if you are watching your islands shrink before your eyes.

The abuse of the Guna by the outside world is not a new phenomenon. After the country of Panama was created by America 100 years ago the Guna’s existence and territory was immediately under direct threat. For America the stealing of the land we now recognise as Panama from Colombia was a natural step in their explicitly racist imperialist project. In 1912 President William H Taft declared “the day is not distant when three stars and stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, one at the Panama Canal and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, is already ours morally”.

America’s interest in Panama of course centred around The Canal control of which represented power over a large proportion of global trade. It was however not just shipping but banking that was set to prosper. It has been described that “in 1903 the administration of Theodore Roosevelt created the country after bullying Colombia into handing over what was then the province of Panama. Roosevelt acted at the behest of various banking groups, particularly JP Morgan & Co, which was appointed the country’s ‘fiscal agent’.” Immediately the new country was used as a tax haven and to this day the trend has continued. Due to secretive banking laws the exact scale of sleaze and thievery hidden in Panamanian bank accounts remains a matter of speculation but it is known to be ‘one of the filthiest money laundering sinks in the world’.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Roosevelt’s Panamanian project became a direct threat to the indigenous people’s way of life. The Gunas’ land and culture were set to disappear as a process of ‘westernisation’ was initiated. Whether through schooling, clothing, policing or land enclosures the Guna were oppressed as subjugation was attempted. This forced assimilation partly came through legislation. In 1919 Panamanian President Porras banned the Guna women from wearing traditional dress, nose rings and leg and arm bindings. There is an incredibly strong link between the Guna traditional dress and their culture. The Gunas rebelled in kind with an even greater number of Guna women than before the ban adopting the traditional dress.

Organised matriarchally, one aspect of Guna resistance took the form of lullabies. Sung exclusively by the women the lullabies were used to educate the children on behaviour and the importance of common sharing. This one just one of the tools along with a rich oral history that was used to educate and empower the youngest generation of Guna’s to resist the cultural assimilation programme.

In February 1925 the Guna Revolution began involving attacks on Guna islands that were under the control of the Panamanian government and police. The revolt lasted just four days but was formidable enough to force the Panamanian government into negotiations and by 4th March an historic peace agreement was signed followed by a treaty in 1938. The first indigenous people in Latin America to have their rights formally recognised, the Guna Yala was enshrined as a reserve. The fight however by no means ended and attempts to encroach on their land and their way of life have continued ever since. In the last 30 years tourism has presented new battles to fight for example in the form of foreign developers wanting to build hotels and also the more the subtle cultural threat that is presented by increased exposure to ‘westerners’. This has recently been exacerbated by the proliferation by mobile phones although some of the islands (they have a high level of autonomy) have approached this threat head on with bans on television and phones.

The fight for cultural integrity and health is an ongoing process and one fought on many fronts. Nono met up with Signora Antonia, a Guna feminist activist who had been the Guna representative at COP26 recently and discussed, amongst a range of topics, the experience of Guna women that birth in hospital in Panama City. The women are not allowed to be accompanied by traditional midwives, family or partners so they find themselves in an alien environment where the only language spoken is Spanish meaning that those who only speak Guna are completely unable to communicate and therefore disempowered. This is just one example but it’s representative of the second class citizen status they are subjected to by much of the wider Panamanian society.

Given the smiley, calm and humble disposition of almost all the Gunas we met it’s not always obvious at first glance the struggles that they face but some aspects are totally unignorable. One of these elements is the ubiquity of rubbish. This is not a problem of rubbish of their own creation but mountains of plastic that has washed up on their beaches or in their mangroves. It’s visceral to experience the juxtapose of idyllic islands littered with polluting rubbish that has been carelessly sent to the Gunas by winds and currents. As with sea level rise the plastic pollution is emblematic of a global system that cares not about the consequences of its actions. A system that, unlike indigenous beliefs, doesn’t consider it a duty to protect the environment for generations to come.

One thing for the Gunas that is sure is that the future will involve huge changes. They will leave their islands and return to their mountain roots. In this regards they are more fortunate than other vulnerable populations around the world. The Gunas have land, they have the ability and the knowledge to be self sufficient as they have been before but this will surely not diminish from the loss they will feel when they lose their islands. On a personal level it has made a strong impression and will provide easy access to a memory that demonstrates unequivocally the need for immediate radical change. Sometimes the urgency of addressing climate change can be diminished as it’s something that will effect other people first but having met some of those ‘other people’ and looked them in the eye and shared a smile it’s impossible to feel any emotional distance.

To the Gunas I would say simply thank you, we will take you in our hearts always.

6 thoughts on “Guna Yala – A Sinking Paradise

  1. Thank you, Nick, for that thoughtful piece.

    The saddest thing about the climate catastrophe is that so much of the damage is done by perfectly decent and pleasant people. I spoke to a couple yesterday, in a power boat with huge engines. They were telling me of their enviable lifestyle. (I am in New Zealand). They have their home in the middle of S Island. They come up to Northland, probably by air, to spend time on the launch, in which they have a third share. Come winter, they will go and visit their children and ‘grandies’, in London, after which they will fly to Greece to spend time on a yacht, in which they also have a third share. Then they’ll come back to New Zealand. Lovely people, they wanted to invite me over for a meal some time. They said that they admired both my boat and my way of life, but obviously were completely incapable of seeing the damage that they are doing to the planet with their way of life.

    I am trying not to get angry. I hope that AI might prove more intelligent than homo so-called sapiens. And I believe that soon, when our ‘civilisation’ is wiped out by our folly, greed and refusal to accept what is happening, trees and shrubs, growing exponentially on our fertilised land with boundless CO2, will reset the climate to something that will welcome new life forms, and allow those that have survived to flourish.

    It’s the only hope left to me.


  2. So beautifully and eloquently written. Thank you Nick, this is a story so needing to be told and you do it great justice 😢


  3. Thank you Nick, such an eloquent, considered piece of writing. You weave the personal, historical and political so powerfully. This is a story so important for us all to hear when we ponder in an abstract way what ‘sea level’ rise means.


  4. What a delightful heartfelt piece, I was fortunate to come across you charming bunch when you were all still full of the light and wonder that the Guna Yala offered you. It was a privilege that has sparked an interest in both your own adventures and my future ones – I’m looking for a sailboat!


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