Guna Yala, an autonomous indigenous territory inside Panama, is one of the most unusual places on the planet, where the Guna people have preserved their way of life and the forest around them thanks in large part to their exceptional land rights and sovereignty. At first glance, life on Guna Yala’s dozens of inhabited Caribbean islands seems idyllic — a place without cars, with little crime, where children pass warm evenings playing together in the main plaza while adults visit with neighbors and where elders gather to discuss community issues of the day. But the Guna are now facing formidable challenges to their survival, many of which are also affecting other indigenous communities across the world: the impacts of climate change, encroaching outside influences and a younger generation that’s drifting away from its roots.
Although they are primarily an island-dwelling people, the Guna maintain a symbiotic relationship with their mainland forest — some of the best preserved old-growth forest in all of Central America — which they consider sacred and from which they take only what they need. Since 2008, the Guna’s forest has been at the center of Panama’s REDD+ plan. (REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). This United Nations–backed climate change mitigation scheme relies on carbon trading to transfer money from rich, industrialized (and polluting) countries via carbon credits to the guardians of forests in the developing world to avoid deforestation.
After several years of deliberation, the Guna voted against participation in the REDD+ program in June 2013. Because they are seen as exemplars of indigenous sovereignty by other native communities around the world, this decision sent a powerful message against market-based climate change mitigation solutions, an approach that is often at odds with the values of traditional cultures. Instead, the Guna’s communal system of forest management is emerging as a model of conservation and sustainable resource utilization, as climate change threatens indigenous communities around the world.
These photos offer a glimpse into the ways in which the Guna’s collective sensibility has allowed them to both use and protect one of the planet’s most precious natural resources, while also maintaining a decent quality of life and avoiding poverty, which can often lead to deforestation. By spending time with the Yarsuisuit Collective — a group of 10 men and their families from Ustupu Island who work together for a decent and sustainable quality of life — we witnessed how the Guna can inform discussions about forest preservation in other parts of the world.
This photo essay was funded in part by a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellowship.