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On the tiny island of Gardi Sugdub off Panama’s Caribbean coast, about 300 families are preparing to leave their homes in anticipation of rising sea levels. The Gunas who have lived on the island have decided to voluntarily relocate due to the impacts of climate change. Over the years, efforts to reinforce the island’s edges have not been enough to combat the rising waters, especially during strong storms in November and December. The effects of climate change have not only led to a rise in sea levels but have also resulted in stronger and more frequent storms, making life on the island increasingly difficult.

The Gunas of Gardi Sugdub are the first of 63 communities along Panama’s coasts that are expected to be forced to relocate in the coming decades due to rising sea levels. The Guna Yala territory, which includes about 50 populated islands, has been particularly affected by the effects of climate change. While some residents have chosen to stay on the island until it is no longer safe, others are preparing to move to a new site on the mainland that the government developed at a cost of $12 million. This move represents a significant change for the Gunas, as they have lived on the island for more than 200 years and have cultural ties to the sea.

The decision to leave Gardi Sugdub was made by the Guna’s autonomous government two decades ago, initially due to overcrowding on the island. However, the effects of climate change have accelerated the need for relocation, as rising sea levels have made life on the island increasingly challenging. The upcoming move is a direct consequence of climate change, with sea levels expected to rise significantly in the coming decades. According to Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitoring program in Panama, the islands are only half a meter above sea level on average, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Governments around the world are being forced to take action against the impacts of climate change on coastal communities. In Mexico, a small coastal community moved inland last year after storms continued to destroy their homes. Similarly, coastal communities in Italy, New Zealand, and elsewhere are facing the threat of rising sea levels. A recent study by Panama’s Environmental Ministry estimated that by 2050, the country would lose about 2.01% of its coastal territory to increases in sea levels. The cost of relocating the estimated 38,000 inhabitants at risk of rising sea levels is estimated to be around $1.2 billion.

On Gardi Sugdub, the economy has long been supported by tourism, with visitors coming year-round to enjoy the island’s natural beauty. The move to the mainland represents a significant lifestyle change for the Gunas, who have relied on the sea for economic activities and cultural practices for generations. While some residents have expressed sadness at leaving behind their homes and way of life, they recognize the necessity of relocating due to the impacts of climate change. As governments and communities around the world grapple with the effects of climate change, the need for proactive measures to protect vulnerable coastal areas becomes increasingly urgent.

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