As seas rise, the relocation of Caribbean islanders has begun

Under a light Caribbean drizzle, volunteers load plastic chairs, a chest of drawers and a gas stove into a military motorboat. On board, men in uniform help an indigenous woman dressed in the traditional green-and-red blouse of the Guna people to step down from the wharf.

Residents from the island of Gardi Sugdub rest inside their new homes in Nuevo Carti, on the mainland off Panama’s Caribbean coast, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. About 300 families are moving to the mainland as government officials and scientists expect communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts to be forced to relocate by rising sea levels in the coming decades. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)(AP)

She is, or was, a resident of Gardi Sugdub, a tiny coral island about a kilometre off the northern coast of Panama. On June 3rd the Panamanian government began moving 300 families from the island to new government-built housing on the mainland. A changing climate and rising seas are slowly swamping the island, and 37 other inhabited islands nearby, most of which lie less than one metre above sea level. That level is rising by 3.4 millimetres every year. Storms are becoming heavier and more frequent. Steve Paton of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City says the islands will be uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Gardi Sugdub’s families are the first to move. More may follow if things go well. “This is a historic event,” says Rogelio Paredes, Panama’s housing minister. “It’s the first time in Latin America that, as a result of climate change, a whole community has been moved to a new place. The eyes of the world are on Gardi Sugdub.”

But the notion of climate change driving unfortunate people from their homes is simplistic. Gardi Sugdub’s older residents have certainly noticed the creeping effects of warming; rainy-season flooding has become more frequent, and waters now lap a little higher on the ankle. But for the past 20 years, their main concern has been sanitation, not submersion. A growing population meant several families began to live in each of the narrow, reed-walled houses. Outdoor space in which children could play was squeezed out. Water, supplied by a pipe from a river on the mainland, was scarce and intermittent. The island’s lavatories are shacks at the end of piers which drop directly into the water below.

José Davis, the island’s octogenarian leader, says the community first began planning a move in the 1990s. The idea received financial and technical support from the Inter-American Development Bank as a climate migration project in 2018. The government then tendered contracts for the construction of the new settlement on the mainland.

The new village, christened Isber Yala after the local loquat trees, was built on farmland owned by the community, half an hour from Gardi Sugdub by boat and road. Three hundred beige plastic houses with tiled roofs sit in a grid pattern. Each has two bedrooms, a bathroom with running water, and an ample back garden.

Marcos Suira, head of architecture at the housing ministry, stresses that Isber Yala is the first project of its kind. With bigger budgets, more sophisticated housing developments could come later.

But the relocating residents don’t seem to mind. Within minutes of arriving at Isber Yala, they had strung up hammocks, the Guna’s preferred beds, from the houses’ metal beams.

“It’s pretty, it’s bigger than I’m used to. I love it,” says Yany Prestán, who is 46. On Gardi Sugdub she shared a house with four families; there was little privacy and frequent arguments over food and money. She wants to build a kitchen on the porch and two bedrooms in the garden to house her family of seven. The narrow patch of grass between the pavement and the drainage channel is perfect for a flowerbed.

One street over, 45-year-old Genaro Fernandez arrived early to build a reed fence around the perimeter of his plot. Shoots of plantain and manioc sprout from the ground.

There are problems. The electricity has yet to be connected. There is no rubbish-collection system and no public transport to the port, a big oversight given that most residents work in fishing and island tourism. The concrete shell of a planned hospital lies rotting in the sun.

But next to it is a large, modern school which will be open by the end of the year. With air-conditioned classrooms, dormitories and a soccer pitch, the school is a big draw for the new residents. Classes will be taught both in Spanish and Guna.

The Guna do not feel that the move will cause a major cultural dislocation either. They lived on the mainland 200 years ago, before moving to the islands to escape disease and conflict with Spanish colonists. Many ceremonial songs refer to the rivers and mountains of the mainland.

According to the UN, some 41million people in Latin America and the Caribbean live in coastal areas that are exposed to life-threatening storms and flooding. The Gardi Sugdub move looks like the sort of managed retreat that has a good chance of succeeding, largely because it serves other development goals, such as improved housing, sanitation and schooling. Sabrina Juran of the UN says managed retreat programmes are more likely to succeed when they include communities in the decision-making, thereby meeting numerous needs.

To and fro

After some initial scepticism, most on Gardi Sugdub accept that the waves will eventually claim their homes. But they will not abandon their island yet. Some of the new mainlanders say they intend to visit each weekend. Others say they will let their friends and cousins from crowded neighbouring islands string their hammocks there. One building on the island is being renovated. Its 64-year-old owner, Gustavo Denis, reckons that, with the competition moving to the mainland, it’s the perfect time to open a new shop.

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