Kuna Yala in danger


“The winds have changed, the north breeze is blowing in January
and our rivers are overflowing. Nature is disorderly and the sea rises.”

Long admired by ethnologists and ecologists alike for their cultural resistance and exemplary management of the environment, the Kunas have seen their traditions and ecosystem disintegrate as a result of frenzied global consumption.

The Kuna Yala, home to the Kunas, is an archipelago of 365 islands situated along Panama’s Atlantic coast, between the canal and the Colombian border. Multiple environmental and financial problems now endanger its 45,000 islanders, who must contend with global warming and cocaine trafficking.

In 1925, this archipelago was acquired by the Kunas following a violent rebellion. They were given voting rights in Panama as well as territorial self-governance, which hold true to this day. The Kunas hence became the most independent indigenous population within the Americas.

Despite recent transformations brought upon by the tourism industry, the Kunas still tightly regulate tourism and continue to earn a livelihood from fishing and agriculture, cultivating cassava, plantain and exchanging coconuts – as best they can – for basic foodstuffs with Colombian merchants.

Kuna Yala in danger - Portraits © Matthieu Rytz, 2011

“The winds have changed, the northern breeze blows in January and our rivers overflow. Nature is disorderly and the sea is rising up. Seasons are delayed and that scares me. The mountain is our final refuge. We can cultivate the land and live there quietly. But our home is on the islands. We have lost love, everything has changed.”

In times past, the Kunas used to live on dry land. An epidemic forced them to flee some 200 years ago for the islands, where they established a new form of social organization. Today, however, they face a new danger that threatens to bring about yet another forced migration: climate change.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute* has shown that the sea level has risen 15 cm over the past 50 years and that within a generation, the archipelago as a whole could be submerged. In order to protect their islands (which are overpopulated), the Kunas collect all kinds of materials, from sand to corals and rubbish to build precarious barrier dams along their homes. But in doing so, they’re merely accelerating rising sea levels by ripping out the very coral reefs that naturally function as protection, thereby destroying the marine ecosystem. Fish are becoming scarce while seawater flooding continues unabated.

Along with populations in Papua, Fiji or the Maldives, some 45,000 Kunas are thus on track to soon become climate refugees. Evacuation plans are under discussion with the Panamanian government but the situation nonetheless remains complex. The Kuna mainland along the coast is covered by the bonigana, a sacred forest for the Kunas but also one of the world’s best-preserved old-growth forests, protected under conservation treaties. How might the Kunas one day resettle in their own forest when they’re forbidden from cutting down so much as a single tree?

Kuna Yala en péril - Portraits © Matthieu Rytz, 2011

“When I was young, I would play at the white sand beaches. Today, they’ve been converted into garbage dumps. In the olden days, we believed that the earth was just like us: it breathed like us, it suffered like us, it had the same heart as us. To protect the earth, we must come together and spread that message.”

In addition to these numerous environmental issues that Kunas will have to face in the medium term, cocaine constitutes a much more visible threat in the immediate future, and one that’s far more destructive than rising sea levels. The drug is currently devastating Kuna Yala.

In recent years, the United States has been sending drones off the coast of Kuna Yala to destroy Colombian speedboats and their cargo. Many fishermen have thus caught the white powder in their nets. The drug is then resold for the bargain price of $2 a gram to Kunas by fishermen turned drug traffickers.

Kuna Yala en péril - Portraits © Matthieu Rytz, 2011

“When I was small, I remember all the women in the community getting up at sunrise to clean the village and make it pretty. Our bodies and our village are one and the same; we must wash them daily. In the past, we would only eat natural products and our rubbish would disappear into the ocean. Now, everything has changed. Our food waste pollutes our villages and the sea. Our bodies become dirty and get sick. The beach used to be made of sand that held back the sea. Nowadays, the beach is nothing more than a garbage dump, so the sea is taking us over.”

—This reporting, initiated in 2011, was not easy to carry out. The Kunas are extremely protective of their archipelago and I was met with resistance from their spiritual leaders during my first visit. They required that I obtain a special permit or spiritual approval for each island I wished to document. Very quickly, I was asked to leave the site.

I returned starting in 2012 on two occasions, this time with the necessary permits, and was able to travel from one island to the next with local guides by my side to document the Kunas’ way of life. Despite the seemingly blissful beauty and calm of these islands, the Kunas spend the bulk of their time collecting trash, corals and everything they believe to be suitable to build makeshift barriers along their homes…which the water invariably reclaims mere hours later. A majority of Kunas believe that the islands are indeed disappearing. This worrisome topic is on everyone’s lips and the reason for the daily efforts put into this truly Sisyphean task.

Kuna Yala en péril - Portraits © Matthieu Rytz, 2011
“The bones in my body are like the coral in the sea that protect life. The blood that courses through my veins is like the rivers that flow into the ocean. Our body, the earth and the sea are one and the same. Everything has changed. The coral are dying, the fish have left, the sea is rising up and our rivers are overflowing. Our bodies are getting sick. Everything has changed. Today, I am old and I am suffering.”

Plus d'informations

Additional information


This series was exhibited at the Espace Tohu Bohu, Montreal, CA — Jan-Feb 2013
and in the Atrium of the Centre for Sustainable Development, Montreal, CA — March-April 2013

Related projects:
Kuna Yala in danger – Contemporary Issues
Kuna Yala in The NY Times

*Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Natural Disturbances and Mining of Panamanian Coral Reefs by Indigenous People, 2003

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work!

Please upgrade today!