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The Island of Gardi Sugdub: Climate Change Forces Relocation

"Because for the Guna, it was very simple, you just stop damaging Mother Earth," says climate researcher Steven Paton in an interview with CNN. His statement came in response to the relocation of the Guna people of Gardi Sugdub, perpetuated by the rapidly rising sea levels. The incident is among the first major climate-induced relocation efforts.

Three hundred families—more than a thousand people—left their homes of over a  century when they evacuated a sinking Gardi Sugdub to the coast of mainland Panama. Gardi Sugdub, also known as “Crab Island,” is a small island, the size of approximately 5 soccer fields, in the archipelago off Panama's northern Caribbean coast. The people of this island primarily live off fishing, cassava and plantain harvesting, and traditional textile production.

An aerial view of Gardi Sugdub off the coast of Panama. (Image: Edu Ponces and Berta Vicente/CNN)
An aerial view of Gardi Sugdub off the coast of Panama. (Image: Edu Ponces and Berta Vicente/CNN)

The Guna Indigenous people, refugees to the Caribbean islands in the mid-1800s, were originally, as Guna resident Pedro Lopez described to CNN, “from the mountains, from the rivers and from the forests."


The Guna people left their homes in the forests a century ago seeking refuge from a mainland mosquito-borne illness and colonial restrictions. It appears that the Guna people have yet again necessitated to relocate from their present dwellings due to the progressively palpable impacts of climate change.


The vibrant houses and rustic wooden huts now stretch almost to the water's edge, highlighting a pressing concern with alarming overcrowding. This has resulted in the Guna population residing amidst unpaved roads sparsely adorned with trees, lacking access to clean water, adequate sanitation, and electricity, as reported by France 24 in March 2024.


Such circumstances merely become worse when storms, strong winds and heavy rain pummel the island and people's homes. This extreme weather is a result of global climate change.


The link between the two was established by Robert Glicksman who demonstrated the same in his 2006 study, which states that "there is a consensus among scientists that global climate change has already caused ocean levels to rise, creating an increased risk of coastal flooding, and that further warming will increase that risk."


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As can be supported, a similar assertion was made by Jao Teixeria, NASA's AIRS Science Team Leader, where he said, "Within the scientific community, it's a relatively well-accepted fact that as global temperature increases, extreme precipitation will very likely increase as well. Beyond that, we're still learning," he told the Nasata Science Editorial Team in 2020.


Beyond this, studies have proven time and again that climate change co-relates to extreme and unadaptable climate conditions. It can thus be expected that following Gardi Sugdub, many communities will follow in their inevitable trajectory to find a home for survival against climate change.

An important issue to consider is the underlying cause of the rapid rise in sea levels and its connection to climate change. According to a study by Chad A. Greene et al., climate change has caused Greenland's ice sheet—the second-largest after Antarctica—to lose 20% more ice than previously thought. This ice ends up in the tropics, where the excess heat causes the world's oceans to swell, further raising sea levels.

The reported mass loss has impacts on the global sea levels but significantly affects ocean circulation and heat distribution. This would mean thermal expansion of the ice blocks, hence leading to sea levels. Annually, Greenland loses approximately 193 ± 25 km² (63 ± 6 Gt) of ice from May to September/October. This big number raises significant concerns for the rising sea levels.

Gardi Sugdub
(Image: Edu Ponces and Berta Vicente/CNN)

The first victims of rising sea levels, however, will be those in coastal areas. Nobuo Mimura, in his research, asserts that "the sea level rise projected for 2100 is a significant threat to coastal zones in the world. Particularly, when the intensification of tropical cyclones is superposed on sea-level rise, the population at risk from inundation is likely to amount to several hundred million."


He further mentions that the issue of sea-level rise encompasses two dimensions: a rise of several tens of centimetres within the 21st century and the potential for an increase of several metres over the next millennium. Threshold conditions exist for the complete disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which would result in significant sea-level rise. A crucial aspect of mitigation policy is to proactively prevent triggering such a large and irreversible phenomenon.


As for the Caribbean, the sea level rises an average of 3 to 4 millimetres per year. With increasing global temperatures, the expected rise is said to increase by 1 cm or more per year by the end of the century, as reported by the 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report, National Ocean Service. As Vatnajökulsþjóðgarðursuggests, looking at the rate of climate change right now, in the next 200 years, all that could remain, is small ice caps in the glaciers of Iceland.


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A significant concern arising from such events is the survival of populations in underdeveloped or developing regions. According to the Ecological Threat Report, "the world's least resilient countries, when faced with ecological breakdowns, are more likely to experience civil unrest, political instability, social fragmentation and economic collapse."


This highlights the heightened vulnerability of billions living in these regions to nearby ecological disasters. Consequently, the report predicts that around 1.2 billion people could be displaced by 2050 due to the escalating climate crisis.


Gardi Sugdub has been considering such a relocation ever since 2010. After 7 years of delays, the Panamanian Ministry of Housing promised in 2017 that the people of Guna would be relocated to the mainland, and moved towards building 300 new homes on the main island through community and NGO-led initiatives, according to Human Rights Watch.


This relocation, which was delayed twice, finally took place in the first week of June 2024, despite concerns from citizens. As Pedro Lopez says to CNN, "There is a lack of planning at a social level, economic level, environmental level, and ecological level." The relocation is merely one of the impacts of climate relocation on the people. They are subsequently compelled to deal with social and economic challenges including settling into new housing, maintenance, systems of governing, etc.


It is not only the loss of homes but the loss of traditions too. Magdalena Martinez, a Guna Resident, told Human Rights Watch, "Initially, our idea was to build our traditional homes using thatched roofs and bamboo walls. But the government, without consulting us, assigned us the housing units."


She added, "If they had listened to us and considered our feelings and the community had been part of it, it would have been very different. We could have kept our identity." Similar sentiments were felt by many of the 40 people the Human Rights Watch interviewed. A piece of land transcends its physical attributes by holding deep sentimental value for its inhabitants; consequently, when natural disasters strike, it presents a profoundly disheartening reality for those affected.


Martinez also said in an AFP News Agency Interview, however, "I feel good but I also feel nostalgic because I learned to live on the island. I have left many dreams, many tears there, but it is also good to be here." In the case of Panama, relocation wasn't just about climate change, but also a concern of overcrowding.


Brauli Navarro, a primary school teacher, told AFP News Agency, "Moving to the school [on the mainland] is going to be very nice because there we have 24-hour electricity and all classrooms are ready." Nadin Morales, a young Guna resident, shared similar perspectives to CNN. Naila Colman, a student representative, said to Human Rights Watch, "The biggest advantage for us would be to move to a new place [the relocation site] and have a better quality education."


Interestingly, despite the evacuation, extreme weather, and rising sea levels, there are mixed views regarding climate change among the residents of Guna. A 24-year-old  Guna resident, Victor Peretz, told CNN that his 60-year-old father believes weather changes are normal and seasonal. Peretz felt differently, saying "climate change is serious" but added that it was overcrowding that was making relocation most urgent.


The fact that climate change is a significant factor in their relocation must be regarded as a serious indication of the repercussions of global warming. The Ecological Threat Report raises concerns for more than a billion people living in 31 low-resilience countries, specifically in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.


Resource-rich countries in the Global North will be more likely to withstand the effects of such a disaster, but will be expected to experience influxes of climate refugees – a rising concern as right-wing and xenophobic ideologies dominate North American and European politics.


"This will have huge social and political impacts," says Institute for Economics & Peace founder Steve Killelea. He adds, "Not just in the developing world, but also in the developed world, as mass displacement will lead to larger refugee flows to the most developed countries."


He further asserts that ecological change was "the next big global threat to our planet". Such a possibility raises concerns for the well-being and rehabilitation of climate refugees. Additionally, their civil protection and cultural preservation remain paramount concerns – both of which are under threat of being lost along the shores.


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As of now, Panama itself has 400 other communities looking to relocate, with Gardi Sugdub being the first. As Human Rights Watch reports, the Pacific Islands countries such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands have already developed national policies and funds to support such a relocation.


Steven Paton, climate researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute said to AFP News Agency in 2023, "The fact is with sea levels rising as a direct result of climate change, almost all islands are going to be abandoned by the end of this century." With reference to Gardi Sugdub, he says, "That island, with the sea level rise that we have today, will not last more than 20 or 30 years."


This brings attention to the critical issue of what measures are being implemented to preserve these islands. Initially, the indigenous Guna people attempted to create barriers between their homes and the encroaching water by mining coral from the ocean and stacking it with rocks. This solution, although temporarily effective, would not alter the long-term future for the Guna people.


For a more long-term vision, it is pivotal that extensive planning for climate relocation is considered. Plans such as “The United States Climate Change Relocation Plan,” or consultations organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the “Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement” could be considered as examples when considering such a mass relocation.


In such situations, as the United States’ Plan enumerates, "Cultural heritage is another important impetus for wholesale relocation" in the context of the impacts of climate change threatening Native American and Alaskan Native culture. It is also essential to consider measures to mitigate potential losses in social cohesion, food security, and cultural heritage in vulnerable communities.


Similar to the Gardi Sugdub, where relocation is not mandatory, Brookings made a statement affirming that "All reasonable alternatives and solutions should be explored first unless communities themselves have identified planned relocation as their preferred option." It is also imperative that the term "well-planned relocation" includes both a form of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. 


Gardi Sugdub's recent relocation is a wake-up call for global leaders that cannot be ignored. Currently, the number of climate refugees stands at 1,000 people in Panama and over 376 million around the world, but researchers predict it could potentially reach a billion by the end of this century.


What follows this relocation is a loss of long traditions, refugee surges, and a risk of civil unrest amongst those societies. Thus, it is imperative to consider this as a sign to take immediate and concrete action to protect all those vulnerable to the wrath of the rapidly changing climate.

Edited by Adi Roy and Veda Rodewald





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