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Panama Moves Closer Towards First Climate-Related Relocation

Government Still Needs to Address Water, Sanitation, Health

Aerial view of houses for the new community where the residents of Gardi Sugdub will be transferred in Kuna Yala, Panama, October 12, 2023. © 2023 Adri Salido/Getty Images

Next month, the Guna people living on the tiny Panamanian island of Gardi Sugdub will – if the government keeps its word – be given keys to their long-awaited new homes on the mainland, as the compounding challenges of rising seas and overcrowding make moving essential. That we are so close to this historic moment is a testament to the community’s concerted efforts for more than a decade to plan this relocation.  

The community did not relocate to the new mainland site, called Isber Yala, September 25, 2023, as originally planned, but considerable progress has occurred since Human Rights Watch reported on the situation in July. All 300 houses in the mainland site are now built, and walls to retain erosion are being constructed. Because of community leadership’s advocacy, cultural gathering spaces, including the house of congress and chicha (ceremony), are completed in the traditional style. And, critically, the vice minister of Panama’s housing ministry visited in October to hear community concerns. Such engagement is a positive development and should continue at regular intervals, with follow up action, through the move and beyond.

Despite this progress, government action is needed. Most concerning is the lack of an adequate, sustainable water supply at both the school and the main site. Community members have proposed an aqueduct, but this requires government or other financing. “There is nothing, nothing,” said Gardi Sugdub leader Blas Lopez about the lack of water, which is a fundamental right. “Where are we going to cook? To wash? To drink?”

“We can go and sleep one night. But we cannot stay there … without water,” he said.  

There are also still no long-term plans for sewage management and trash disposal. A planned health clinic has not been constructed, which is all the more essential since a nearby hospital project has been abandoned. These omissions are increasingly consequential as the relocation date of February 29 approaches.

There is still one month to address these gaps. Will the Panamanian government set up long-term plans and adequate financial resources for water, sanitation, and health care at the Isber Yala site? We’ll know soon whether this case goes down in history books as an example of a rights-respecting relocation, or yet another illustration of what can go wrong when the needs of a to-be-relocated people are not front and center.

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