Kuna Yala in danger


“Why are our mothers crying? Is it because of hurricanes and earthquakes?
Times are bleak. Who do this?”

Kuna Yala. Panama.

From the outside, one might perceive a quiet paradise. Everything seems so calm, as if time had stopped. But the Kunas are facing realities that are much less idyllic; they are hampered by the disastrous consequences of a globalized world.

The rising sea levels brought about by climate change threaten to completely submerge their archipelago in just a generation, while the cocaine trade plaguing the region is currently destroying their society.

—It’s during a 2011 boat trip from Panama to Colombia that I first came across the islands of Kuna Yala.
Initially drawn by the way Kunas display enormous deference to their traditions in order to preserve their land and lifestyle from external influences, I discovered serious flooding and wanted to explore how the Kunas dealt with these problems. Of course, implicit in such questions are the very environmental challenges that threaten the future of entire nations.

Hailing from what has now become Colombia, the Kunas occupy nearly 40 of the 350 islands situated between Central and South America. For many years, the Kunas fought against mining and development activities that could have disrupted their resources.

Since a bloody rebellion in 1925, they have retained considerable autonomy from both the Panamanian government and modern influence. Their leaders are strict when it comes to protecting their way of life, limiting the development of islands and imposing charges to tourists for interacting with residents. Most islands don’t have electricity and are powered by oil-fired generators supplied to them by Colombian merchants.

After sundown, the Kunas gather for congresos, nighttime gatherings hosted by their spiritual leader, where they take communion and chant traditional songs for hours. The lyrics are imbued with myths and metaphors that show gratitude to their ancestors and praise their land. But in recent years, these congresos have taken on a more sombre mood. After abnormally high tides hit the coast in 2008 and destroyed their homes, hundreds of Kunas were forcibly displaced to locations further inland.

Now, when the Kunas pray to their gods, they primarily ask for better days to come and for protection in preserving their way of life and homeland. The congresos also provide a setting for debating how to handle the ongoing trafficking of narcotics. What to do with the cocaine shipments that drift ashore or get caught in their fishing nets?

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