Today – September 25, 2023 – is the day everything could have changed for the people of Gardi Sugdub, an island off Panama. On this tiny, crowded island, floods and rising seas pose an existential threat. For over a decade, this Guna Indigenous community who lives there has dreamt of relocation to a mainland site out of harm’s way, and Panama’s authorities have assured them support. In fact, Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo has repeatedly promised that, as of this date, 300 new homes would finally be ready for them.
However, today is here and not a single person has moved. Ministry of Housing officials have pushed the move date back, yet again, to February 29, 2024. As Human Rights Watch reported in July, this delay is just the latest in a long string of unfulfilled pledges to this community. The Gardi Sugdub community can’t survive on promises alone. Government follow-through is needed so the community can relocate in a dignified way and rebuild their lives on higher, safer ground. The new site must protect people’s rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, water, health, education, and culture.
These conditions are not yet in place, but with appropriate action by relevant authorities, they could be by February 2024. The people of Gardi Sugdub – and the international community – are anxiously waiting.
Gardi Sugdub is not an isolated case. Many of Panama’s other coastal communities facing sea level rise may need to move, and around the globe hundreds of additional communities will find themselves in a similar position. The experience of Gardi Sugdub shows that planned relocation is complex, time-consuming, and risky. A lot can go wrong. But it doesn’t have to. Forward-looking, rights-respecting planning at a national level is essential. That requires policies informed by human rights principles of nondiscrimination and informed consent, adequate funding, and support over time.
Every country with a coastline needs to take the issue of planned relocation of communities facing sea level rise seriously. Governments, including Panama, should act today to prevent foreseeable rights violations of tomorrow. Following through on promises to the Gardi Sugdub community is an essential step.