From above, the island of Gardi Sugdub in Panama might resemble one of the colorful “winis,” or bands of beads, its Guna inhabitants wear around their wrists and ankles. But a closer look reveals something much more ominous—an entire Indigenous community being swallowed by the ocean.
Michael Adams Lozano took this image with a drone in 2018 while he was working on his master’s thesis about the Guna people. When he first approached the community by boat, he was stunned. “No coast, no beach, no border—it was as if it was a floating city,” he said. “I thought, ‘They have nowhere left to go.’”
This is just one of 365 islands in the San Blas archipelago. Guna people moved to about 40 of these islands more than a century ago, when they left Colombia and Panama while trying to escape Spanish colonialism and its impacts, such as disease. During the past 60 years, sea level rise has increased from about 1 millimeter to more than 3 millimeters per year in this region. “These islands will very likely be underwater by the end of the century,” said Steve Paton, director of the Physical Monitoring Program at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This year, hundreds of Gardi Sugdub’s 1,500 residents are scheduled to relocate to a village being built on Panama’s mainland.
This is just one Indigenous community on dozens of islands around the world that could be underwater in the next few decades. Yet the Guna people are refusing to let their culture dissolve. By moving their community together and continuing to practice their traditions, Adams Lozano said, “They are taking steps to prevent that.”