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A Model for Communal Forest Management

   
Guna Island and Forest (Image 1 of 16)

A view from the air shows one of Guna Yala’s densely populated islands and, on the mainland, the Guna’s sacred forest — some of the best preserved in Central America.

   
Living at the Edge of the Sea (Image 2 of 16)

Situated along Panama’s northeastern coast, the Guna’s islands frequently flood due to severe storms and rising sea levels. After enormous waves flooded a majority of their islands in October 2008, the Guna realized they will likely be forced to relocate in the near future.

   
Men in Cayuco at Dawn (Image 3 of 16)

Soon after the sun rises, the daily journeys of Guna men in their dugout canoes begin as they head out to sea to fish or to their mainland forest plots to harvest.

   
Elder in Cayuco with Landfill (Image 4 of 16)

A Guna elder passes thatched-roof homes along the edge of Ustupu Island as he returns in his dugout canoe with buckets of landfill from his plot of land in the mainland forest. With parts of the island rapidly eroding due to flooding, many families use landfill to keep the water at bay.

   
Flooding on Ustupu Island (Image 5 of 16)

Children walk through a flooded part of Ustupu Island village. Low-lying parts of the village now flood regularly due to a greater frequency of severe storms and rising sea levels. The Guna are trying to plan for the relocation of entire island communities to the mainland.

   
Discussing REDD+ with Elders (Image 6 of 16)

In September 2009, Guna environmentalist Onel Masardule (center) met with an elder in the island village of Malatupu to discuss the UN-backed REDD+ climate change mitigation plan. During deliberations about the plan, workshops took place throughout Guna Yala to educate the community about the potential positive and negative aspects of REDD+. The Guna ultimately voted against the plan in June 2013.

   
Portrait of Leodomiro and Imelda Paredes (Image 7 of 16)

Ustupu Island’s chief saila, or cultural leader, Leodomiro Paredes (with his wife, Imelda) played an integral role in the Guna’s deliberations about REDD+. After five years of discussion, the Guna rejected the plan in June 2013, stating that their forests belonged to the Earth, and could not be assigned a monetary value.

   
Going to Harvest on the Mainland (Image 8 of 16)

Felix Morales (center) and Andres De Leon (rear, steering boat) — the two leaders of the Yarsuisuit Collective — head to their mainland plot to harvest bananas just after sunrise one morning in July 2014. In addition to the land they cultivate together, the collective members own and operate two large boats, a bakery and a store.

   
Entering the Forest (Image 9 of 16)

With woven sacks and machetes slung over their shoulders, members of the Yarsuisuit Collective walk along a narrow path through the forest to the plot where they cultivate bananas, coconuts, yucca and other staples of the Guna diet. The Guna have balanced utilization with preservation, and today can serve as a model for communal forest management.

   
Yarsuisuit Collective Gets to Work (Image 10 of 16)

Marcos Ramirez directs members of the Yarsuisuit Collective as they split up to clear weeds in the plot they cultivate in the middle of the forest. Thanks to their exceptional land tenure and a tradition of sustainably managing their natural resources, the Guna possess some of Central America’s best-preserved forests.

   
Bringing the Harvest Home (Image 11 of 16)

After harvesting only what they can carry, the members of Yarsuisuit divvy up the yield equally among all the members. Their collective approach to growing food ensures that all the members have enough for their families (and often, neighbors), and that the group maintains a balance between what they take and give back to the forest.

   
Guna Woman Walks Past the Yarsuisuit Store (Image 12 of 16)

A Guna woman walks past Yarsuisuit’s collectively owned and operated store. The underlying philosophy of the collective is that together it can provide a decent quality of life and support the community without overtaxing natural resources.

   
Working at the Yarsuisuit Store (Image 13 of 16)

Family members of the 10 members of the Yarsuisuit Collective manage the group’s Ustupu Island store. This store is another example of how living and working collectively allows the Guna to have a decent quality of life while protecting natural resources.

   
Kids Playing in the Main Plaza (Image 14 of 16)

With little electricity or Internet in the Guna island village of Ustupu, youth and adults alike still come together to play and socialize every evening in the village’s main plaza.

   
Portrait of Young Boy (Image 15 of 16)

Although the Guna have managed to maintain their traditions and natural resources to an exceptional degree, they now face some of their greatest challenges yet. The impacts of climate change, encroaching outside influences and younger generations that often opt to leave the islands will have a profound impact on the survival of Guna culture in coming decades.

   
Guna Woman at Dawn (Image 16 of 16)

Although Guna elders see difficult times ahead for their communities, they stress that they have managed to preserve their culture this long despite difficult odds, and are confident they will continue to do so.

 

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. View Ensia homepage

This photo essay was funded in part by a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellowship.

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