For hundreds of years, the ocean has protected the Guna Yala culture on Cardi Sugdub, or Crab Island, located off the coast of Panama.
On the island, every square inch is occupied by about a thousand members of the Guna Yala tribe. There are no cars or motorcycles, people dress in traditional attire, and residents still speak their native tongue. Generations ago, members of the tribe settled on the island to escape aggression from Spanish colonizers and the Panamanian government.
But now, things are changing: Rising water levels are threatening the island and other nearby sites, forcing one of the largest migrations due to climate change in modern history.
Flooding on the low-lying islands has become more frequent due to the effects of sea level rise.
Magdalena Martinez, a resident of the island, told CBS News in Spanish that the flooding is a “sad reality” of life on the island. But in 30 years, scientists predict the islands will be completely underwater. Overpopulation is also an issue, but climate change is hte biggest threat, said Laurel Avila, a member of Panama’s Ministry of the Environment.
Avila explained that increased carbon emissions have raised the earth’s temperature and caused glaciers to melt. This means water molecules expand, eventually leading to flooding like the kind seen on Crab Island. In the 1960s, the water around the islands rose at a rate of around 1 millimeter per year. Now, though, it’s rising at about 3.5 millimeters a year, according to tide-gauge data from the Panama Canal Authority and satellite data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“(The tribe has) to be moved. There’s no other option,” Avila said. “The rise of the sea level is not going to stop.”
It’s a reality that the island’s residents have only recently started to accept, after years of putting up a fight. Some members of the tribe see the move as a problem caused by the industrialized world unfairly bearing down on them and the culture they’ve defended.
Some residents, including Augusto Boyd, have put up a fight by using rocks and remnants of coral reefs to try to expand the island and keep the water at bay. However, he’s realized it’s a losing battle and the only option is to leave it all behind.
“Filling, filling, filling all the time, because the water doesn’t stop. It keeps going up,” he told CBS News in Spanish. “It’s difficult. Everything you did here stays behind.”
There is a place for the tribe to relocate to, but it’s a stark, cookie-cutter subdivision with rows of houses that could not be more different than life on Cardi Sugdub. It’s being built on land owned by the tribe, with the majority of the funding coming from the Panamanian government.
While life will be different on the mainland, Martinez says she knows the tribe’s traditions will carry on.
“We carry that here, inside,” she said.
Manuel Bojorquez is a CBS News national correspondent based in Miami. He joined CBS News in 2012 as a Dallas-based correspondent and was promoted to national correspondent for the network’s Miami bureau in January 2017. Bojorquez reports across all CBS News broadcasts and platforms.
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