The San Blas islands, sustainable and drowning

When we entered San Blas and anchored under the island Porvenir we couldnot get a better welcome from the Cuna living here: a fresh Pago Rojo, freshly scraped and cleaned!
The San Blas archipelago lies along the north coast of Panama. Only the Guna tribe lives here and that makes it very special.


Historically the San Blas islands  belonged to Colombia, but generally the Guna lived their own life. In the early 20th century Colombia agreed that the San Blas islands would belong to Panama, and Panamese police established on the islands. The Panamese policy was to surpress the culture and language of the Guna. The Guna tribes started a rebellion and that led to deaths on both sides. Then, the  League of Nations (predecessor of the United Nations) agreed to prevent a war, or at least a massacre. The Panamese government sent the army to invade the San Blas Islands, but when facing the threat of an American warship before the San Blas, they decided to start to negociate with the Cuna first. It led to a treaty, resulting in a great autonomy for the Guna tribes.

This is the classic Guna dress. (source Wiki)

Life on San Blas

The Guna have their own language, culture and economy.  Already for centuries they live from fish and from the mulas (clothes, patchwork) they sell. They don’t have properties like the Western do; the land is for everybody. Only the coconut trees and their coconuts are distributed and belong to someone or a family. So never take a coconut from the ground, because you get an argument!

The Guna have their own administration and justice. There is a central ‘Congreso’, but most of the power is on the lower levels, per island or even family. One rule is that a Guna has to marry someone from the Guna tribe, or will get excommunicated. There is no strong monogamy, like in the Jewish-Christian tradition. All this together, leads to more inbreeding, that results in albino children. In their belief the albinos are God sent, to protect the moon from disappearing during an eclipse.

If a judge or the Congreso gives a penalty, it is often a job that helps the community. It can be to bring an amount of sand from a sandbank to the island, to keep the island’s level high enough. (more about this later).

It is a matriarchal society. The groom comes into the house of his family-in-law and lives there. He takes the name of his wife’s family.

For centuries the Guna have a special style of patchwork and embroiding and it is famous all over the world.

With their diet and lifestyle, the death rate of the Guna on hart deseases and cancer is very low.

The Guna fisherman’s boats sometimes have a sail. Here the paddle is there to make speed, but it also helps to prevent drift and is used on lee side to steer.

Sustainable living, but a drowning future

The Guna people live sober. Many catch their fish in their cano, with a paddle and a sail. Only for tourism (time is money) there are some  boats with fossil propulsion. There is no calculation of the Cuna’s carbon footprint, but it is definitely very low.

On this chart the Ya’s position is on the very very left, presente by a red little boat. If you look to the right, you see yellow areas and one assumes that it is all land. Most of the times it is not, because it is just below sea level. On the next foto you see what there is.
This is all the actual land that you see to your right. The rest of the land is just under water.
There are many palm trees planted on this island. The sea level has risen some centimeters and that is enough to kill the first row, of which you see the last remains.

In 2016 it was expected that the San Blas islands will have been disappeared before the year 2100. But in the current pace of climate change that will be much quicker, more like in some decades.

Let us keep the Cuna’s live here on San Blas. With their great sustainable lifestyle, they don’t contribute to the excessive use of oil and gas. What about saying to yourself today to stop using and buying so much? Yes, every minute you get incentives through channels and social (?) media, but finally the decision is in yourself that as of today you only use what you need