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Panamanian tribes will be displaced from coastal islands due to climate change: "There is no other option"

For hundreds of years, the sea has protected the Guna Yala culture on Cardi Sugdub, or Crab Island, off the coast of Panama.

Every square inch on the island is occupied by about a thousand members of the Guna Yala tribe. There are no cars or motorcycles, people wear traditional clothes, and residents still speak their native languages. A few generations ago, members of the tribe settled on the island to escape the aggression of Spanish colonialists and the Panamanian government.

But now, things are changing: rising water levels are threatening the island and other nearby sites, forcing the largest migration due to climate change in modern history.

Flooding on low-lying islands has become more frequent due to the effects of sea-level rise.

Island resident Magdalena Martinez told CBS News in Spanish that flooding is a “sad reality” of island life. But within 30 years, scientists predict the islands will be completely underwater. Overpopulation is also a problem, but climate change is the biggest threat, said Laurel Avila, a member of Panama’s environment ministry.

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Cardi Sugdub or Crab Island.

CBS Saturday Morning

Avila explained that increased carbon emissions have increased the Earth’s temperature and caused glaciers to melt. This means the water molecules expand, eventually leading to crab island-like flooding. In the 1960s, the water around the islands rose at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year. Now, though, it’s rising at about 3.5 millimeters a year, according to tide-gauge data from the Panama Canal Authority and satellite data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“(The tribe) has to move. There’s no other option,” Avila said. “Sea level rise is not stopping.”

It’s a reality that islanders have only recently begun to accept after years of struggling. Some members of the tribe see this move as a problem caused by the industrialized world’s unfair loss of them and the culture they have protected.

Some residents, including Augusto Boyd, fought back, using rocks and remnants of coral reefs to try to expand the island and keep the water at bay. However, he realizes that it is a losing battle and the only option is to leave it behind.

“Filling, filling, always filling, because the water doesn’t stop. It keeps rising,” he told CBS News in Spanish. “It’s hard. Everything you’ve done here is left behind.”

There’s a place for the tribe to relocate, but it’s a strict, cookie-cutter subdivision with row houses that couldn’t be more different than Cardi Sugdub’s life. It is being built on tribally owned land, with most of the funding coming from the Panamanian government.

Although life on the mainland will be different, Martinez said he knows the tribe’s traditions will continue.

“We carry it here, inside,” he said.

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Manuel Bojorquez

Manuel Bojorquez

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