A visit to the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of about 370 islands off of Panama’s Caribbean coast, has made it onto many a list of ‘Places to See Before I Die’. And with good reason.
Its islands seemingly pose for the pop culture fantasy icon snapshot, that of a pair of palms sprouting from a white sand beach hidden in romantic seclusion. It’s also the only corner of the planet that I’ve visited where the water is so clear and warm that you can watch the starfish sweat.
Even by 21st century standards, The islands and the immediate Guna Yala semi-autonomous area, spread over 226 kilometers (140 mi), are fairly remote, set in a surprisingly undeveloped area which means your visit won’t coincide with that of too many others.
But start making your travel plans to the islands soon. It’s increasingly likely that they’ll all be gone within the next three decades.
Most of the islands are tiny; only about 45 are inhabited and the vast majority float just a few feet above sea level. According to scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, sea levels around the islands are rising at a rate of about three-quarters of an inch annually. At that pace, the islands will be underwater in the next 20 to 30 years.
That’s a harsh, bitter reality for the Guna (or Kuna) indigenous people who have inhabited this corner of Panama since moving from the Darien Province area to escape the Spanish conquest. Now, 500 years after fleeing the conquistadors, the increased frequency and severity of surging storms and flooding on the islands is forcing them to retreat once again. In 2012 Guna leaders made the decision to move.
“Climate change will sooner or later affect the islands … it’s our responsibility to prevent a catastrophe.”
‘Climate refugee’ began to appear in the lexicon about two decades ago, a term describing those forced to flee the impacts of climate change. Those living in low-lying areas are particularly vulnerable as the polar icecaps continue to melt and sea levels rise.
In Bangladesh, one of the most extreme examples, scientists say that rising sea levels will cover 17 percent of the land and displace about 18 million people by 2050.
The Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Kiribati are expected to disappear by 2100, creating entire stateless populations. The New York Times reported in March that Kiribati has already purchased 6,000 acres on Fiji “to protect its food security as the sea encroaches on its arable land – and possibly, in the future, to relocate its residents.” Fiji itself is already relocating residents from outlying islands to higher ground. The Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean face a similar scenario.
Like Bangladesh, which produces just 0.3 percent of the emissions fueling climate change, these sinking island nations, Panama’s San Blas Islands and many other extremely vulnerable low-lying areas are bearing the brunt of an ecological catastrophe they didn’t create.
That’s not to say that climate change is the only cause in the San Blas Islands; poor resource management on the part of the locals and increased carbon dioxide emissions helped speed up the process. From the international ocean conservation organization Oceana:
Coral reefs that once surrounded and buffered the islands from storm surges and flooding have been destroyed after decades of exploitation (ironically, the Guna mined the reefs to build up the islands). It has been enough, according to Reuters “to submerge the Caribbean islands for days on end”.
The sad tale of the Guna, who are currently managing their retreat to mainland Panama, provides a cautionary tale of how climate change and poor resource management can combine to create disaster. But it isn’t just the direct exploitation of coral that threatens so many similar tropical, predominantly poor, coastal communities around the world. Coral reefs of the sort that once surrounded the San Blas Islands are under threat worldwide from carbon dioxide emissions that, when absorbed by the ocean, make it more acidic. When corals struggle in the more acidic water so too does the kaleidoscopic variety of life that depends on them. These once flourishing paradises may become barren monuments to changing ocean chemistry.
Displacement Solutions, a Geneva-based organization that works with people who have been or will be displaced by climate change, recently studied the Guna Yala situation, and estimates that the number of people that will need to be relocated will reach 40,000.
And moving the fiercely independent Guna, who won fame for their rebellions against conquistadors, pirates and the modern Panamanian state, won’t be easy.
Scott Leckie, director of Displacement Solutions, told the New York Times this past March:
“The government of Panama recognizes that many of the people don’t want to move. The younger the person is, the more likely they are to accept the move. The most able-bodied and highly educated people will move first. Thus, the least employed, the most ill, the oldest and weakest and most disabled, the least willing to move, will be the ones left behind.”
A Guna gallery below.
Sailing to the San Blas Islands – Trip Notebook
Some make their way to the islands from Panama City; I came via a five-day four-night trip in June 2013 over the Caribbean from Cartagena, Colombia, aboard The Independence, an eighty-five foot early 1960s yacht captained by a Slovenian [Website][Facebook].
I’d never been sailing; he’s been plying these waters for over a decade and never had a Slovenian passport-holder on a trip until I climbed aboard.
Michel is a sprightly 72 and recently married a Colombian woman, trained in the Colombian Navy, 50 years his junior. She’s the boat’s very able No. 2.
Although there is some modest lodging available on a small handful of islands (if you’re searching for luxury and regular wifi connections, find another archipelago), most visitors to the area choose the boat trip approach. Many options are available with prices for a five-day journey, with a bunk and three meals, generally running about US$500 per person. It’s worth every cent.
Day 1 –
I was among a diverse group of sixteen passengers, all in the midst of long-term travel. There was a German couple with two small children, ages five and three; a lawyer from Australia and his younger brother; a New Zealander winding down a two-year round the world adventure; four Canadian women on a gap year trip; a German woman touring South America for several months after quitting a job; a German motorcyclist writing a book about his journey up the spine of South America; and two Dutchmen who I’d encounter a few weeks later at a hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica. But that’s another story.
Some two hours after The Independence sailed out of Cartagena harbor, we’re surrounded by nothing but cobalt blue, our setting for the next 28 hours. About two hours before sunset we sail through a school of large dolphins. Immediately after dinner I go outside to lie down and watch a pleasant starry night pass by; I don’t leave my spot until after dawn.
Day 2 –
Land beckons shortly before noon as a pair of birds appear on the horizon. We later anchor within swimming distance of two small islands. On one I see an exquisite mola, the brightly-colored traditional Guna design, for the first time while another, just a little farther away, is home to two small trees that can’t hide a large pile of trash. Some was brought in by the tide, some left by clueless tourists. For dinner we have a fresh, succulent lobster delivered by locals in a dugout canoe that afternoon. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted.
Day 3 –
Much of the day is spent reading, swimming and kayaking. (And beachcombing; a gallery is here.) The water is so warm and clear that you can watch the starfish sweat. During a forty minute journey to our anchorage for the night, we pass a wreck where the handcuffed bodies of a husband and wife were found. Lots of intrigue floats just below the surface here.
Day 4 –
We sail another short distance and anchor among a handful of small islands. Less than a handful are inhabited. On one, Isla Caracol, or Conch Island, an old woman, typically tiny like most Guna/Kuna, sits in the shade sewing a mola skirt. We watch a dolphin swim around the channel looking for a way out of the shallow waters. We end the day with dinner on nearby Elephant Island after the week’s most colorful sunset [Pic 1][Pic 2].
Day 5 –
For the fourth straight day I’m awake at just past six, and the boat is already on its way. After the captain takes care of the immigration chores, we reach land about a kilometer up the still and narrow Rio Barsukum, where we’re stuffed into SUVs bound for Panama City.
For the first hour, we drive over hellaciously steep ascents and descents through the jungles of eastern Panama. Three hours later we arrive in the capital, home to one of the world’s most modern skylines. It’s a raucous symphony of metal and glass that, coupled with the heavily congested streets, is a parallel universe away from the two-tree islands of San Blas. I want to turn around and go back to the archipelago but decided against it.
I’ve still got about 30 years.
And, finally, some of the friendly faces of the passengers and crew. I hope you’re all doing well.
Further reading and resources:
- Rising sea levels: Panama – photos by Kadir van Lohuizen for Noor Images. Excellent collection.
- Planned Relocation, Disasters and Climate Change: Consolidating Good Practices and Preparing for the Future, a report from a consultation co-organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in San Remo, Italy in March 2014.
- The Peninsula Principles in Action: Climate Change and Displacement in the Autonomous Region of Gunayala, Panama. A report by Displacement Solutions, a Geneva-based group that works with climate displaced persons, communities, governments and the UN to find rights-based land solutions to climate displacement.
- Eye on Latin America – Panama: Climate change could force out entire island indigenous community
- Migrating to Adapt – blog by researcher Cristina Alonso who is documenting the Guna Yala migration