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8/22/2012

Migration in the Americas: On the run from water in Panama

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR
A langouste diver in front of Carti Cohabita. Residents of the island are scheduled to evacuate in August.
Thousands of Kuna — indigenous people living in an archipelago off the northern coast of Panama — are facing a drastic lifestyle change because of rising seas.
Kuna Yala, or Kuna Land, is comprised of 365 islands and a narrow, 250-mile-long strip of land on the Caribbean coast. Thirty-six of the islands are inhabited.
In August, the first round of evacuations will force some Kuna to the mainland because of dangerous living conditions, affecting 65 families. Ultimately, all of the islands will be evacuated — affecting 36,000 people — and new dwellings are being built and funded on the mainland by the Panamanian government.
 
 The inhabited islands are chock full of houses built of reeds and palm leaves and no match for storms and rising water. Historically, flooding was comparatively rare, but residents now regularly contend with surging water.
Experts say sea levels rose nearly seven inches over the past century, and levels could rise another two feet by the end of this century.
The Kuna have lived on the Caribbean coast in autonomy for more than 80 years. Two centuries ago, most Kunas lived on the mainland, but they relocated to the islands following an epidemic. They make their living from fishing and farming. They grow manioc, pineapples and bananas in their small fields on the mainland, but their most lucrative crop is coconuts.

The Kuna form a tight-knit community, have their own language, and are well-organized. Decisions are made collectively in the Onmaked Nega — the assembly hall. Meetings are presided over by a saila, a political and spiritual leader.
The coming evacuation was debated at the hall, and was eventually approved after long discussion. Many residents are still afraid of being tricked by the state. Because they have no financial resources to build new accommodations for themselves, they ultimately agreed to the evacuation plans.

Across the water, on the mainland, lies a 4-year-old road — the only one in the vicinity. It used to be a 12-hour walk to reach the Pan American Highway, which connects to Panama City, the country's capital. Now it takes three hours.
As a result, many of the young Kuna have left for the capital city. Conversely many more consumer goods, like televisions and Coca-Cola, now reach Kuna Yala.

NBC News

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