Recently, several of us at EcoAgriculture Partners discussed the need to explore why some groups resist or hesitate to adopt ecoagricultural practices and integrated approaches to landscape management. As the Third International Conference for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) meets in Samoa this week, the case of the Guna people, whose ancestral lands of Guna Yala encompass a narrow strip of land along Panama’s Caribbean coast and the San Blas Archipelago, seems especially pertinent to this inquiry. (Note: Guna Yala is not a UN recognized SIDS member state, although it is a comarca, or autonomous region recognized by Panama, and faces similar environmental and climatic impacts.)
Impacts of climate change on the San Blas Archipelago, Panama
The Guna are already feeling the very real effects of climate change and are especially vulnerable to sea level rise, with the islands experiencing an estimated rise of approximately ¾ of an inch each year. New health and sanitation issues have arisen as crops, schools and homes are increasingly flooded during the rainy season. The islands will be underwater in 20–30 years and the Guna’s way of life will change dramatically during this time as well. The communities must start moving to the mainland and into their rich and sacred forests. Members of the largest island, Carti Sugdub, are already planning to relocate later this year. They worry that their livelihoods and major sources of income—namely subsistence fishing and small-scale tourist enterprises—may cease to exist altogether.
Although the islands are known for their pristine beaches and unique indigenous culture, their inhabitants are equally well known for their independence and strong political voice. It is believed that the Guna have the most sovereignty of any indigenous group in the world, and the islands represent not just a place to live and grow food, but to maintain their customs and traditions. The cultural preservation and sovereignty that the Guna have fostered on the archipelago will almost certainly be jeopardized as they join mainland Panama.
Guna Yala reject REDD+
Despite a very real understanding of how climate change impacts them, the Guna have openly rejected REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), a climate mitigation project that calls for the landscape-scale protection of forests in developing countries to absorb carbon created by industrialized nations. Mainland Guna Yala is home to a high percentage of Panama’s best preserved forests, with high levels of plant and animal biodiversity, which have been sustainably and communally owned by the Guna people for centuries. Recently, the government of Panama offered this land up for REDD+ without consulting the Guna, despite the state’s recognition of their rights and ownership of the same lands. This action led to years of tense debate and the eventual withdrawal of the Guna from all REDD+ discussions. They felt the agreement would have precluded indigenous land management practices that have been in use for hundreds of years. It would have inhibited small clearings of forest for the people’s existing sustainable agriculture practices and required complicated permits for the cutting of trees to make the traditional dugout canoes that the Guna use for transportation and their livelihoods.
Most importantly, if REDD+ were implemented on the Guna Yala mainland, it would have restricted their ability to relocate and grow food as their islands continue to flood. The Guna point out that they don’t need cash incentives and cumbersome bureaucracy to keep the forests healthy; they’ve been using holistic management techniques on their lands for generations and have a strong cultural and spiritual commitment to continue this positive trend. Despite the need to maintain control over this land for their almost certain need to relocate in the future, the Guna are inherently opposed to putting a price on nature in the first place—to them, the forests are more than just carbon stocks.
When the Guna walked out on REDD+ discussions, they became a symbol for the other indigenous groups concerned about their rights and futures under the increasingly unpredictable impacts of climate change, neocolonialism and ongoing, systemic inequalities. Indigenous forest peoples all over the world feel that they are being left out of climate change discussions and foresee potential conflicts over their lands, waters and forests under REDD+ and similar programs. Rather than restrict the use of the resources and ecosystems that have survived and thrived under their management, many believe that more effort should be put into reducing emissions and capturing carbon in the landscapes and forests of industrialized nations. From my personal experience visiting the San Blas Archipelago in 2013, I can attest to the Guna’s lifestyle that contributes very little to global climate change but disproportionately feels its effects.
Lessons for those promoting REDD+ and similar landscape-scale approaches
Of course, this is just half of the story. Many still consider REDD+ to be one of many possible land management tools for mitigating global climate change and lessening the harsh fate of other low-lying nations. It is seen as a tangible solution and action to be implemented on the large-scale, but needs an element of flexibility for special cases like this. Although the Guna have removed themselves from the discussion, there is much to consider as relocation looms in the future and REDD+ offers much needed funds. Is the money worth all the strings attached?
So, what are the lessons for EcoAgriculture Partners and other organizations promoting these landscape-scale approaches? Despite touting the need for participation and recognition of diverse knowledge systems and rights at all levels of these important landscapes, there is much work to be done. There is a serious lack of trust based on deep-rooted, historical marginalization that continues today and goes beyond indigenous communities. Questions must be asked before we act and implement. What do we lose when we scale-up? Whose voices are we hearing and what are their priorities? What ethical considerations are needed when promoting local actions for the greater good? Are we using the right entry points for “sustainable development” and action on climate-smart agriculture and low-emissions progress?Top Photo: Darío Ribelo on Flickr Jes Walton is a member of EcoAgriculture Partners’ communications team. She has a dual masters in International Affairs, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University and the UN Mandated University for Peace and has worked extensively with agrarian communities in West Africa.