Panama prepares to evacuate first island as sea levels rise

GARDI SUGDUB, Panama: Around 300 families are packing up for a significant change on a small island off Panama’s Caribbean coast.

The residents of Gardi Sugdub, generations of Gunas who have lived by the sea, are set to relocate to the mainland next week.

The move is the first of many expected for 63 communities along Panama’s coasts, forced to relocate by rising sea levels in the coming decades.

On a recent day, the island’s Indigenous residents were busy fishing and children were heading to school, some in uniforms and others in traditional colorful textiles called "molas." Despite their strong connection to the island, the rising sea levels are making their homes uninhabitable.

"We’re sad to leave behind the homes we’ve known all our lives and our relationship with the sea," said Nadn Morales, 24, who is moving with her family. "But the sea is sinking the island little by little."

An official from Panama’s housing ministry said some residents have decided to stay on the island until it is no longer safe, but authorities will not force them to leave.

Gardi Sugdub is one of about 50 populated islands in the Guna Yala territory. It’s only about 400 yards long and 150 yards wide. The islanders have tried to reinforce its edge with rocks and coral, but seawater keeps coming.

"The tide now reaches levels it did not before, and the heat is unbearable," Morales said.

Two decades ago, the Guna’s autonomous government decided to consider relocation due to overcrowding. The effects of climate change accelerated this decision, said Evelio Lopez, a 61-year-old teacher.

The government has developed a new site on the mainland for $12 million. Concrete houses sit on paved streets carved out of the jungle, just over a mile from the port. Lpez plans to move there with his family.

Leaving the island is "a great challenge, because more than 200 years of our culture is from the sea," Lopez said. "Now we are going to be on solid ground, in the forest. We will see what the result is in the long run."

Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitoring program in Panama, said the move is "a direct consequence of climate change through the increase in sea level."

"Sooner or later, the Gunas are going to have to abandon all of the islands almost surely by the end of the century or earlier," Paton said.

A recent study estimated that by 2050, Panama will lose about 2% of its coastal territory to rising sea levels. According to Ligia Castro, climate change director for Panama’s Environmental Ministry, the relocation of 38,000 inhabitants could cost around $1.2 billion.

The island has benefitted from year-round tourism, but residents like Braucilio de la Ossa are preparing to move inland. He acknowledged the lifestyle change would be significant.

"Now that they will be in the forest, their way of living will be different," he said.