In Panama, the rural exodus of indigenous people to urban areas is due to extreme poverty in indigenous territories, which is mainly maintained by absence of development programs, discrimination, lack of any political will on the part of the government to improve life conditions among the indigenous Panamanian and the need for cheap labour in the cities. According to the 2010 census, 60% of Kuna people do not live in the comarcas. In the case of the Embera-Wounaan, only 24% of their population remains in the indigenous territories.

According to Blas Quintero, most permanent indigenous migration seeks education, work and medical services. The Ngabe-Bugle, for instance, migrate temporarily (6 months a year) to Costa Rica to work in the coffe harvest there. In the case of the Kuna, main reasons to migrate are, besides work, the search for education and health services. Internal migration is predominantly rural to urban, and mostlyinvolves people between 15 and 29 years of age.

The Kuna started to migrate to the capital with the construction of the Panama Canal, more than a century ago. However, particularly since the 70s, Kuna people have travelled to Panama City to go to university and to work.  The Indigenous Secretariat was then created as a service to the families traveling to the city in order to study and work. Kuna neighboorhoods were also created, together with support networks for the newly-arrived migrants to the urban context.


lonely building

Kuna Yala, in the San Blas Archipelago, is composed by 49 Kuna communities plus 47 other inhabited locations not considered Kuna. During the last decade, a series of weather-related events have affected the islands of Kuna Yala, highlighting the issue of rising sea levels and climate change. Most documents consulted state that since 1910, there has been an increase in sea level of 15 cm in  Kuna Yala, with an increase of 3 cm over the past 20 years.

There is also a  non-climatic contributing factor pushing Kuna Yala communities to discuss possible relocations: lack of space for the growing population on the islands. The coral reefs surrounding communities have suffered the impact of overpopulation among the Kuna people, who have been expanding the islands by traditional unsustainable practices.  Nowadays the Kuna know the protection the coral offers them and they are looking for help to restore it to its initial state (watch video Tradition and Climate Change, link below). As negative as this practice might be, it does not make the Kunas responsible for climate change, or for the rise of sea levels, as some people have suggested. It cannot be forgotten that the majority of climate displaced people are not responsible for the processes that originated climate change.

According to a recent study, approximately 28.000 people from Kuna Yala will have to relocate to the mainland in coming years, plus another 12.000 Kuna Yala people who currently live in Panama City but are expected to join the relocation process, bringing the total to some 40.000 people.

The Kuna have already make provisions for possible relocations, as it is reflected in the Article 170 of the Kuna Yala Statute:

“Any project to create or relocate a community in Kuna Yala should have a prior environmental impact study (cultural and social), which may be done by Kuna professionals from the community concerned or their representatives”

Unfortunately, the 2014 study previously cited, highlights that the Panamanian government is falling behind the Kuna in its efforts to protect its population, as it does not appear to have any official strategy to address the situation of Kuna Yala island communities.

“The government of Panama has established an impressive national legal and institutional framework for disaster risk management and climate change measures, but none of these have yet been utilised in relation to the climate displacement which already presents an imminent threat in the Gunayala region.”  (Displacement Solutions, 2014)


A signal of good will on the part of the Panamanian government would be to ensure that relevant international instruments on indigenous rights, such as the International Labour Orhanization (ILO) Convention 169, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, are ratified and applied.  Panama is one of the very few countries that has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Community Gardi Sugdud (also called Carti Sugtupu, Carti Suitipo in the map above, located 1.5 kilometers from mainland, population 927, migration planned)

gardi sugdub

In 2010 the community of Gardi Sugdub took the decision to relocate to the mainland.  They created a neighbourhood commission – comision de la barriada- to guide the relocation process.  200 families in Gardi Sugdub have signed up to be relocated, plus 100 other families originally from the island nowadays living in Panama City and expected to join the move too.  17 hectares of land has been donated by several Kuna families for the relocation site on the mainland but will only provide for a small number of those wishing to relocate. According to a study by Displacement Solutions, the Panamanian government is currently building, with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) a new school and a health center in land also donated by the community.

“…it could appear as though these activities were part of a coordinated governmental relocation project.  Unfortunately, that has not been the case, and in reality each intervention has been completely disconnected from the next.” (Displacement Solutions, 2014)

The Ministry of Housing agreed to build 65 houses on the new site but the project has not started. Besides, the design of the houses presented by the Ministry did not take into account cultural characteristics of traditional Kuna housing, which could easily lead to failure of the entire relocation project. Financial resources initially allocated for it -$2.4 million- were diverted for other emergency projects in another province. As the land in Kuna Yala belongs to the Kuna and the system of landownership is complex, with at least 5 different types of property ownership under Kuna customary laws, the proccess of land identification could be very time-consuming.  It is also costly, so public funds should be clearly allocated for it. The community has also expressed concerns about the health implications of relocation to the mainland, where vector-related diseases such as malaria and yellow fever are present.  Environmental challenges of the relocation process relate to the longer-term settlement of thousands of people in what is today the most well-preserved forest in Panama.

Community Mandi Ubgigandub (also called Mandinga Ubigantupu or Soledad Mandinga, population 361 people, migration postponed)

soledad mandinga 3

The community of Mandi Ubgigandub has decided that they will wait to see how long they can stay in their homes, and will also see how the relocation of other communities who have already decided to relocate evolves.

jeffpanamatoturbo 155

Community Usdub (also called Ustupu, -in the map above Ustupo- Isla Conejo Pintado, Ñeque, population 2.180, migration planned) 



Community Yandup-Nargana  (also called Yantupu or Nargana, island on the left in the photograph below, population 1.215, migration approved)




Community Uggubseni (also called Ukupseni or Playón Chico, population 1.849, migration planned)

uggubseni 2

According to a 2008 study, Uggubseni is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea level-rise because the island lies only 1 meter above sea level.  Additionally, it is also vulnerable to changes in sea surface temperature and precipitation patterns, which in turn highly impact on livelihoods activities and the balance of the ecosystem. Fishermen interviewed on the island for this 2008 study agreed that fish found in the area re significantly smaller than they were in the past, and they need to go out at sea much further away from the community to encounter good catches. Coral reefs fulfill two central roles in the community. First, they serve as a natural barrier that protects them from tides and storms. Second, the corals are understood to be shelters for lobsters and fish, providing protection for reproduction and feeding. Many of the informants were aware that if coral reefs disappear, marine animals and fish will as well, endangering the principal source of protein in the local diet and a main economic resource.  Biodiversity loss could be inmense, as Kuna Yala coral reefs represent 82 of the 88 species of coral in Panama (Guzmán et al. 2002).

The migration to mainland has been planned for more than 15 years but has not taken place yet.  Only a bridge has been built from Uggubseni to the mainland, which is only 200 meters away.

According to the 2014 study, there is a serious risk that an extreme weather-related hazard in Kuna Yala end up forcing a sudden, chaotic, and permanent relocation of large numbers of people, for which preparations have not been made.

Documents you may like to check:

Tradition and Climate Change (in Kuna language, subtitles in English)

Uggubseni (2008)

Kuna Statute (Spanish)

La Migración Indígena en Panamá (Blas Quintero, Spanish)

Panama, The Peninsula Principles in Action (2014)


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