Panama has relocated islanders affected by rising sea levels — and says many more villages also need to be moved

Panama has built a new village for the residents of Gardi Sugdub, an island in the Caribbean that is expected to sink due to climate change.

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Kids play volleyball in the Panamanian village of Isberyala, while adults swing on hammocks in front of their homes as they try to cope with the tropical heat. 

The cement houses in this new village are small with just two rooms each. But Jennifer Davies, a member of Panama’s Guna tribe, said that she is happy to be here.

“It’s safer for my kids,” Jennifer Davies said. “In our previous community, we were surrounded by water, and the sea would flood our streets sometimes.”

For more than a century, the Guna people have lived on a group of small islands known as the San Blas Archipelago. But the palm-fringed islands in the Caribbean are expected to sink in the following decades, as sea levels rise in Panama and other parts of Central America.

In June, a group of 300 families from Gardi Sugdub, one of the smallest islands in the archipelago, was relocated to Isberyala, a village on the mainland.  

Officials in the nation of 4 million people say that this will be the first of at least 63 coastal communities in Panama that will have to relocate due to rising sea levels. 

On the island of Gardi Sugdub, many homes were right next to the water which makes them prone to flooding.Manuel Rueda/The World

Government studies suggest that Panama could lose up to 2% of its territory by 2050 as sea levels along its coastline continue to rise.

Ligia Castro, the climate change director at Panama’s Environment Ministry, said that although the country doesn’t generate much in the way of carbon emissions, it is vulnerable to warmer sea temperatures and rising sea levels — because the country is so narrow, with oceans on both sides.

As a result, “we need to come up with a strategy for people displaced by climate change,” Castro said. “We need to quantify the investment that will need to be made, and apply for resources from a damage fund that was created at the UN’s climate conference last year.”

Some houses in Gardi Sugdub are right next to the water, which makes them prode to flooding during storms and high tides. Manuel Rueda/The World

Panama’s Ministry of Housing built Isberyala, which cost approximately $12 million. In the new community, there are 300 identical, cement homes with small yards in the front and plots of lands at the back, which can be used for agriculture, or even to extend the small houses. 

Isberyala has a very different feel to Gardi Sugdub, with its dirt roads and homes next to the water and which two or three families often had to share.

Albertino Davies, one of the village’s elders (he isn’t a close relative of Jennifer Davies but many of the villagers share the same last name), said that the lack of space on Gardi Sugdub and the constant flooding during storms and high tides encouraged the community of 1,500 people to look for a solution. 

“Our leaders got organized, and they asked for relocation,” Albertino Davies said as he hung from a red hammock in his new home. “We first presented the idea to the government in 2010 … and finally, it has become reality.”

Isberyala is made of identical concrete homes that have two rooms. The village cost about $12 million to build.

Around the world, there are 400 communities that have relocated, or are planning to move due to weather hazards, according to the UN’s Platform on Disaster Displacement

Experts say that there are many issues that Panama and other countries need to consider as they try to relocate villages affected by extreme weather.

“Planning a relocation is about much more than just rebuilding houses,” said Erica Bower, a researcher on climate displacement for Human Rights Watch.

“It’s about access to education; it’s about access to health care; it’s about preserving cultural heritage; it’s about every dimension of human needs.”

Villagers built a ceremonial house in Isberyala as part of an effort to maintain their traditions.Manuel Rueda /The World

The Guna placed a special emphasis on keeping their traditions alive as they planned their relocation to the mainland with Panama’s government. 

In Isberyala, there’s a school where children will be taught in the Guna language and a large ceremonial house that has a roof made out of thatched palm. 

Jose Davies, the village’s chief, or Saila (and Jennifer Davies’ father), said that the ceremonial house was built by the villagers themselves.

“Here we will hold our cultural events like we did on the island,” he said. “It is also the place where we welcome visitors.”

Johan Hermann said he was pleased with the new village’s public spaces, including a park for kids and a beach volleyball area. Manuel Rueda/The World

The village also has a burial ground, basketball court and park with a beach volleyball area.

But many issues still need to be sorted out in Isberyala. Currently, there’s no public transport to take villagers to a port, where some of them have fishing boats. It’s a half hour walk to get there.

A clinic that was supposed to be built next to the village still hasn’t been completed. And food is also hard to find because there aren’t any stores in the village yet. 

At the volleyball court, Johan Hermann said that he is hoping these issues will be sorted out soon. 

“We are a resilient people,” he said. “We will not just sit back and see what happens.”

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