Aerial shot of a small island

“The Sea is Eating the Land Below Our Homes”

Indigenous Community Facing Lack of Space and Rising Seas Plans Relocation

The tiny island of Gardi Sugdub in the Guna Yala region of Panama. © 2018 Michael Adams


Gardi Sugdub, or ‘Crab Island,’ is a tiny island in an archipelago off Panama’s northern Caribbean coast and has been home to Guna Indigenous people for over 100 years. Originally the island provided the Guna with refuge from mainland mosquito-borne illnesses and colonial restrictions, but today, Gardi Sugdub faces new challenges. With nearly 1,300 people on an island of about five soccer fields, there is no room to expand homes or for children to play. Floods and storms have made life even harder on the island, affecting housing, water, health, and education. Such extreme weather is only expected to become more common as the climate crisis accelerates. While urgent government action can still mitigate the worst climate change scenarios, scientists are also virtually certain of a rise in sea levels globally, undermining the habitability of the island these residents call home. Facing the inevitability of rising seas and surging storms on an island with no space, the Gardi Sugdub community have been contending with existential questions: what is next for our people? Do we have to move? If so, when, where, and how?

Since 2010, the community has come to a reluctant acceptance of what they see as the only real, sustainable solution: relocating to a safer site on the mainland. After years of community- and NGO-led advocacy, in 2017, the Panamanian Ministry of Housing committed to building 300 new homes at a new mainland site already owned by the community. After delays in delivering on this commitment, the president of Panama had repeatedly promised that the new site will be ready by September 25, 2023. Weeks before publishing this report, the timeline was again pushed back to February 29, 2024.

Read a text description of this video

The Guna people have been on the coast of Guna Yala [in Panama] for over 100 years.

The ancestral knowledge and experience of the Guna people contributes a lot towards [fighting] climate change.

We will leave the island and move to the mainland because the circumstances warrant it // due to overcrowding, as we already have a large population on the island, // and many families live in cramped conditions.

That’s why it became a priority for us to move to the mainland.

This is Gardi Sugdub a small island off the coast of Panama, as in 1984. // It’s been home to the Indigenous community for generations.

Nearly four decades on, a growing population and rising sea levels have led the community to make the courageous decision to relocate to the mainland.

They have asked for the government support to do so with dignity.

Almost 50% of the problems we have on the island // are related to housing shortages, lack of proper waste management // infrastructure and water issues.

Climate change is intensifying every year.

The relocation project is the initiative of the people and the Gardi Sugdub community, // and it’s an ambitious project.

It is one of many communities that is currently undertaking relocation related to sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

Panama could be the first country in the Americas to take relocation planning seriously at a national level. // but to date the Gardi Sugdub project is not going to plan.

The president committed to delivering it [the new relocation site] in September [2023], but we doubt it will happen.

The government agreed to build 300 new homes and provide potable water, sanitation, and road access services at the relocation site.

But the new site, which is on the mainland, isn’t finished, and no one has yet relocated.

The Ministry of Housing has once again delayed the relocation date from September 2023 to February 29, 2024.

They [the government] have to support us in relocating 300 families. // That is the first thing we think about, what the move will be like.

Everyone with their canoe, their little boat, // and a significant number of people to move, it’s incredible, incredible.

The government should pay much more attention to that.

Well, my school is not in good condition because the street flood when it starts raining. // Sometimes inside the classrooms, // drops fall which create puddles

inside the room, so we get wet.

Naila’s school is deteriorating from water damage, with walls visibly cracking and crumbling behind large damp areas.

The biggest advantage for us would be to move to the new place [the relocation site] and have a better-quality education.

At the government level, the environment authority is responsible for the environment // but there is no plan, no public policy, or resettlement plan.

We have been waiting for this project for over ten to 15 years.

Some community members feel they have not been included in the planning for the relocation project.

Initially, our idea was to build our traditional homes using thatched roofs and bamboo walls.

But the government, without consulting us, assigned us the housing units.

If they had listened to us and considered our feelings // and the community had been part of it, it would have been very different. // We could have kept our identity.

The Ministry of Housing doesn’t have a plan to address these challenges when Indigenous people want to relocate.

There is a lack of national strategy for climate change.

The government should ensure inclusive community participation, develop policy, and allocate funds

to support Gardi Sugdub and other planned relocations of communities facing sea level rise in the future.

The initiative of the Gardi community to relocate can serve as an example and a model.

However, there is still much to be done, // the government planning and approach should match the communities’ aspirations.

Yes, it has been a great hope, almost 13 years of struggle, // 13 years of work.

Many of the people who started cleaning the land, searching for the ideal place, have passed away.

But we are still here.

It can be a joy for our children, our grandchildren.

It can also be a joy to be the first // because communities that have to move to the mainland // will have a model and will be able to fight to improve the process and fight.

They will be able to demand what they desire.

Producer/Editor – Ellie Kealey; Producers- Erica Bower, Pamela Vacacurva, Blas Lopez: Videographers – Wagua Films, Pamela Vacacurva; Music, Audio Network.


To date, not a single person has moved. Community members doubt that the construction will be complete by even the new promised date, given the government’s track record of unfulfilled commitments to support this community over the past decade. To date, the site still lacks water, sewage and trash management, and a health center.  A nearby hospital was partially built but was abandoned and is deteriorating. A “model school,” originally slated for use in 2014, is still unusable because it lacks water, a sewage system, and sufficient teachers. While the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has supported the relocation planning process, the assistance is technical, not financial, and is time-bound with an approaching end date.

This report – based on over 40 interviews with Gardi Sugdub community members, local authorities, and others who know the issues well – finds that while some aspects of this relocation case are exemplary, ongoing government delays threaten people’s rights both during the relocation process and in the anticipated new site.

A Facebook page captures community frustration: “We see the situation is getting worse. The project is not ready for the month of September [2023] as promised... President, keep your commitment, we expect you to keep your word.” Authorities have not provided a full explanation for the delays to community leaders, who have requested greater transparency on timelines and budgetary changes. Moreover, many of those Human Rights Watch interviewed did not feel their voices have been fully heard in the relocation process. While the community has been well-organized in initiating and preparing for the relocation, some members raised concerns about the inclusivity of consultations by government ministries.

Human Rights Watch found that there are also risks to the rights of residents in the relocation site. For instance, there is no adequate plan for water: the planned wells are insufficient to meet the needs of the community, and no funding has been allocated toward the community-proposed plan for an aqueduct. Plans for long-term sewage and trash management are non-existent. The proposed site for a health center has not been flattened to make construction viable, three months out from relocation. With the promised date of relocation rapidly approaching, now is the time for the relevant ministries to step up and fulfil their promises.

The Panamanian government has national and international obligations to protect people from reasonably foreseeable risks to rights, including due to sea level rise and other climate change impacts. But planned relocation carries its own risks, including threats to people’s rights, and requires policies grounded in dignity and other human rights principles: a planned relocation must at minimum restore, or ideally improve, the standard of living of relocating people and their host communities. 

It is imperative that Panama get this case right to pave a smoother path for others in the future. Gardi Sugdub is not alone: in Panama, it is the first of many communities seeking relocation facing sea level rise; it is also one of an estimated 400 that has completed or is undertaking relocation because of hazards globally. The experiences of Gardi Sugdub provide important lessons to document and build upon in national planning. The Pacific island nations of Fiji and the Solomon Islands have already developed national policies and funds to support community-led relocation; Panama could be the first country in the Americas to take a human rights approach to relocation planning seriously at the national level, but its government is not there yet.

Dark clouds and stormy seas foreshadow future climate change impacts on the island of Gardi Sugdub. © 2023 Pamela Vacacurva for Human Rights Watch

The authorities should support Gardi Sugdub to relocate with dignity by the promised date or provide transparent and timely updates regarding delays. They should plan for the long-term through a national climate-related planned relocation policy that safeguards human rights, accompanied by standardized operating procedures, designated focal point and adequate funding. The Inter-American Development Bank and other international donors should help create conditions for community autonomy and locally led adaptation solutions, including planned relocation, in the projects they support. 

Even under the most optimistic scenarios of planetary warming, sea level rise is inevitable. Inadequate preparation for the relocation of frontline communities may result in abrupt, forced displacement. But planning today will mitigate some of the risks of tomorrow.  Supporting conditions where people’s most basic human rights are protected now will ensure the impacts of climate change have fewer damaging effects in the future. If urgent action is taken, the Gardi Sugdub example may showcase why a human rights approach to community-led planned relocation is a critical investment of time and money for others to follow – in Gunayala, in Panama, and across the world.

Satellite imagery shows the island of Gardi Sugdub and the mainland relocation site in 2013, 2019, and 2023. Image : 3 July 2013 © 2023 Esri Community Maps Contributors, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS. Image : 21 November 2019 © 2023 CNES / Airbus. Google Earth. Image : 3 July 2023 © 2023 Copernicus Sentinel Data


To the Ministry of Housing and Territorial Planning (MIVIOT)

For Gardi Sugdub:

  • Provide immediate support to the Gardi Sugdub community to relocate with dignity, by following through on the existing commitment to complete the remaining construction of houses without further delays.
  • Establish mechanisms for transparency, including fully communicating any further changes in timeline or site development to all community members and making information on funding allocation publicly accessible.
  • Ensure continued access to basic services required for an adequate standard of living for people who remain on Gardi Sugdub, including water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare, and education.
  • Coordinate with relevant ministries to ensure funding and long-term support for basic services essential for an adequate standard of living at the new site, including with:
    • the Institute of National Aqueducts and Sewers (Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales, IDAAN) to allocate funding for an aqueduct and adequate maintenance for septic tanks.
    • the Ministry of Education (Ministerio de Educación, MEDUCA) to ensure the new school has water, sewage management, sufficient teachers, and supplies.
    • the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud, MINSA) to allocate funding for site preparation, construction, and staffing for the proposed health center. Develop plans to raise awareness of and address health risks in the new site, such as increased prevalence of malaria.
    • the Transit and Land Transportation authority (Autoridad del Tránsito y Transporte Terrestre, ATTT) to plan for public transport between islands and the mainland to ensure ongoing access to livelihoods, education, and health services, and to support the physical move of Gardi Sugdub residents to the new site.

For national planning on planned relocation:

  • Conduct a thorough review of the Gardi Sugdub relocation and apply lessons learned from the review to develop a new nation-wide program for future planned relocations of people affected by sea level rise, that:
    • includes greater opportunities for community participation; 
    • is designed specifically for the structural and cultural housing and livelihood needs of Indigenous and other marginalized communities;
    • considers long-term resilience to future climate-related hazards; and
    • recognizes planned relocation as a holistic process beyond housing construction, including cultural, environmental, livelihood, educational, and health dimensions. 

To the Ministry of Environment (MIAMBIENTE)

For Gardi Sugdub:

  • Ensure effective adaptation to climate change impacts in the new site, including through reforestation to prevent erosion, provide shade, and mitigate heat waves.
  • Invest in sustainable livelihoods in the new site, including through educational and retraining programs for eco-tourism and climate-resilient agriculture.
  • Improve climate adaptation planning for people who remain on the islands, through inclusive early warning systems and evacuation procedures.

For national planning on planned relocation:

  • Require comprehensive and integrated assessments of current and future hazard and climate risk in candidate locations before selecting a new site for housing development, in consultation with the affected community.
  • Consider, at a minimum, management of water supply, trash, and solid waste in the standard Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
  • Ensure that planned relocation, and Indigenous Peoples perspectives thereof, are systematically included in all related national planning efforts, including on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development.

To the Ministry of Government (MINGOB)

For Gardi Sugdub:

  • In national and international communications about the planned relocation process, explicitly recognize that the Gardi Sugdub community members have taken ownership and initiative, consistent with their autonomy as Indigenous Peoples, in their planned relocation, and continue to do so.
  • Ensure that all materials are translated into the Guna language, spoken by nearly everyone on the island, and are easily accessible, including for people with low literacy.

For national planning on planned relocation:

  • Develop a national planned relocation policy that safeguards human rights, centers the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples, upholds the right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), and is aligned with the principles of consultation under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
  • Establish a planned relocation focal point with authority to coordinate across ministries and external actors. 
  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) to implement this policy, including institutional responsibilities and relevant coordination procedures.
  • Establish mechanisms to identify and secure planned relocation project funding from domestic and international sources with human rights safeguards.
  • To inform the development of these policies and procedures, consolidate lessons learned from Gardi Sugdub leaders and community members that relocate, those who remain on the island, and residents of nearby communities affected by the relocation.
  • Foster opportunities for community-to-community knowledge transfer and experience sharing, including by providing opportunities for Gardi Sugdub leaders to share their expertise with other communities considering planned relocation.
  • Create a legal environment for protection of human rights in planned relocation by ratifying the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (International Labor Organization Convention No. 169) and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together, these instruments ensure that Indigenous people’s rights to FPIC, adequate housing, water, health, education, culture, and traditional livelihoods are protected.

To the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Other International Donors

For Gardi Sugdub:

  • Extend project timelines to provide ongoing technical support, including for livelihood trainings, cultural heritage, and social cohesion at the new site.

For future planning:

  • Document lessons learned from Gardi Sugdub to inform future technical support for planned relocations in Panama and globally.
  • Support the Panamanian government to develop a national planned relocation policy or guidelines, supported by SOPs and adequate financial support.
  • Conduct training, develop internal guidance, and enhance capacity to ensure an inclusive and culturally appropriate FPIC process in all climate-related relocation planning. 
  • Recognizing that planned relocations are complex and require long-term support, extend timelines for donor support and follow up with ongoing community-led monitoring and evaluation.
  • Create conditions for local and community-led solutions by providing funding and technical support directly to communities leading relocations, specifically those with demonstrated leadership capacity, rather than to government intermediaries.
  • Prioritize institutional support for community-led planned relocation as climate adaptation with human rights safeguards, by incorporating the issue into relevant strategic planning documents, such as the IDB’s Climate Change Sector Framework, the Migration Action Framework, and the Strategy for Indigenous Development.


Focusing on Gardi Sugdub, this report describes the threats to human rights before and during planned relocations due to lack of space and sea level rise in Panama.

In April 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 members of the Gardi Sugdub community and several nearby communities. Of these, 31 were conducted in Spanish and four in Guna with the aid of an interpreter. All interview transcripts were translated to English. Interviews ranged in length from under 30 minutes to over two and a half hours, and were conducted in safe, private locations.  All participants were informed about the purpose of the interview, the ways in which their responses would be used, and that their participation was voluntary. Interviewees consented to have their stories and perspectives shared. The names of some community members interviewed for this report have been disguised with names and initials (which do not reflect real names), in the interest of the security of the individuals concerned.

Human Rights Watch worked with local community members to identify interviewees and aimed to interview people from different backgrounds, including age, gender, disability, and primary means of livelihood. Interviews were semi-structured and covered topics related to circumstances on the island, in the mainland site, and during the relocation process.

In addition, Human Rights Watch conducted six expert interviews with local government officials, United Nations agencies, academics, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who have previously worked with this community.  Documents and data from the Panamanian government, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, NGOs, and academic researchers were also reviewed.

In June 2023, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministry of Housing and Territorial Planning (MIVIOT), the Ministry of Environment (MIAMBIENTE), the Ministry of Government (MINGOB), and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). At the time of publication, we received replies from MIVIOT, MIAMBIENTE and IDB.

While the issues identified in this report apply to many communities considering relocation in Panama, this report focuses primarily on Gardi Sugdub because of the immediate and long-term implications of the relocation project for national planning, including policies and funds that safeguard Indigenous people’s rights. The Gardi Sugdub case is also critical in the context of a broader discussion, in Panama and internationally, about the human rights dimensions of community-led planned relocation as climate adaptation amidst other social and political dynamics.



Climate Change Impacts in Small Islands and Coastal Communities

Faced with rising waters and stronger storms, coastal communities around the world are grappling with critical questions: do we adapt where we are, or do we relocate? Do we move now or later? If we move, where and how?

Some rise in sea levels in the future is certain. There is strong evidence that global mean sea levels have already risen and are doing so at an accelerating rate.[1] While urgent government action can still mitigate the worst scenarios of global warming, communities and governments should start preparing for rising sea levels.

202307americas_ehr_panama_exampleisland_before 202307americas_ehr_panama_exampleisland_after

1984: Image: 12 January 1984 © 2023 National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Public Domain 2017: Image: 23 February 2017 © 2023 Maxar Technologies. Google Earth

Satellite imagery comparison between 1984 and 2017 shows the impact of the rise of the sea level on an island located close to Nalunega, 9 kilometers north of Gardi Sugdub.

Extreme weather events like tropical storms are also expected to become stronger because of climate change, which combined with slower changes like coastal erosion, saline intrusion, and ocean acidification, will make life considerably harder on small islands.[2] These changes will have serious implications for peoples’ safety, traditional livelihoods, and futures. According to the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most authoritative consensus of climate scientists, people living on small islands will experience cascading compound climate impacts in the decades to come.[3]

Planned relocations of entire communities to locations that are less exposed to current and anticipated climate impacts are already occurring worldwide. According to a recent study, over 400 planned relocations related to natural hazards, including those linked to climate change, have already taken place or are ongoing globally. [4] Some cases of planned relocation are initiated by communities themselves, others by governments, through diverse processes and with wide-ranging outcomes. IPCC scientists confirm that “as climate risk intensifies, the need for planned relocations will increase.”[5]

Planned relocations often threaten the human rights of those they intend to benefit. Historically, planned relocations are contentious, with high financial costs for governments and even higher emotional, cultural, and other costs for relocating people.[6]

Planned relocation is usually considered “a measure of last resort,” after all strategies to adapt in place (such as elevating homes or constructing sea walls) are attempted and deemed inadequate.[7] Still, for some communities, planning relocation may be inevitable. As the IPCC states, “improving the feasibility of planned relocation and resettlement is a high priority for managing climate risks.”[8] Approaches to planning for relocation related to climate change that safeguard human rights, including rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, water, livelihoods, health, and education, are sorely needed.

However, like all forms of human mobility, the planned relocation of entire communities occurs for many reasons. [9] While observed damages from floods and anticipation of future climate change impacts are often the most visible drivers, other demographic, political-economic, and socio-cultural root causes, including wealth inequality and settler colonialism, may make relocation necessary.[10] Wealth inequity and lack of access to adequate services contribute to some communities seeking support for planned relocation; marginalized groups living in remote areas far from a nation’s capital are often among the most neglected. Settler colonialism, a type of colonialism in which Indigenous Peoples’ territories were colonized and they were displaced by settlers, is another underlying factor that may contribute to the need for Indigenous communities to relocate. Understanding of colonial legacies of exploitation and forced displacement out of more desirable mainland locations in different countries across the globe provide critical background for why Indigenous communities live in places exposed to climate change impacts today, making them among those affected most severely and sooner than others.[11] Sea level rise may be the immediate catalyst but is rarely the sole reason for relocation, making nuanced context and historical analysis essential.

The Planned Relocation of Gardi Sugdub

Gunayala, or the land of the Guna Indigenous People, is an autonomous region, known as a “comarca” in Panama, where the Guna practice traditional self-governance.[12] The comarca spans both an archipelago of more than 350 islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast and a mainland mountainous area.

The Guna are known for their high degree of autonomy, strong institutions, and leadership.[13] The history of the Guna is a story of resistance, of negotiation, and of dignity in the face of adversity.[14] They maintained this resilience in 1511, faced with the first colonizers from Europe who arrived on their territory; in 1650, when Catholic missionaries forced them into settlements, prompting migration from Darien to Gunayala; and in the 1700s, when Spaniards threatened to exterminate them. [15] It also served them well in the 1800s when most Guna people opted for life on the islands to escape mainland mosquito-spread illnesses and in 1925 when the newly formed Panamanian government imposed schools and prohibited traditional clothing, which culminated in the “Tule Revolution” armed uprising. [16] As the 100-year anniversary of the Tule Revolution approaches, the Guna people’s pride in their history is palpable. Today, new forces of change threaten their future, and the Guna are, yet again, mobilizing to respond.[17]

Cultural and historical museums on Gardi Sugdub. © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

According to a recent report of the Ministry of the Environment (MIAMBIENTE) the sea level of the nation’s Caribbean coast is estimated to rise 0.27 meters by 2050, even under an optimistic emissions scenario of the IPCC’s latest Assessment Report.[18] Islands in Panama’s Gunayala archipelago are among the areas where the report projects the most severe impacts.

While many Panamanian islands face similar challenges, this report focuses primarily on the community-led planned relocation of one specific Guna community: Gardi Sugdub. Initial ideas for relocation of Gardi Sugdub date back to the 1990s, when community leaders first saw reports of projected sea level rise and recognized the growing challenges of lack of space on the island. The relocation planning began in 2010, when Gardi Sugdub leaders created the Neighborhood Committee to organize the process, secure and clear a new site on the mainland donated by community members. The identified land was selected because it was available, at a safer higher elevation, and close to services, the highway, and local ports, although community members did not exhaustively discuss alternative sites.[19] For years the new site was called simply “La Barriada” (the neighborhood) but has more recently been named “Isperyala,” after the Guna word for the loquat tree abundant on the mainland.

While community members led the planned relocation from the earliest days, a Swiss NGO, Displacement Solutions, was a crucial catalyst for the process, as it engaged the community and the Guna General Congress on the potential challenges and opportunities of relocation.[20]  

At the same time, two other parallel projects were being constructed near the new site. First, the Ministry of Education (MEDUCA) promised a “model school” to improve education access for children across all the islands in the western part of Gunayala. It was financed by a June 2012 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loan.[21] Second, in January 2011, the Ministry of Health (MINSA) planned a reference hospital. Although the government promised to finish both projects in 2014, nearly a decade later, the hospital building is incomplete and abandoned and the school is still under construction. The new site for the relocation was selected, in part, because of proximity to the new school and hospital.

Deteriorating building of the reference hospital. Left: © 2023 Enrique Linares. Right: © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

In 2017, seven years after the community began organizing its relocation in earnest, the Ministry of Housing (MIVIOT) committed to the construction of 300 homes and providing potable water, sanitation, and road access services at the relocation site.  Construction began in 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures imposed in response to it brought further delays in 2020 and 2021.

In addition to funding the school, in2018, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) began supporting the relocation process with technical studies, participatory planning, and monitoring.[22] In particular, Project PN-T1188: “Sustainable Guna Relocation Due to Climate Change” is a technical cooperation project (not a loan),[23] meaning the bank provides only technical expertise, with no additional funds. The bank worked closely with human rights lawyers and anthropologists to strengthen communication, planning, and coordination in a culturally sensitive and holistic way that may serve as a model for future community engagement.[24] However, IDB involvement in this specific project will end on July 27 2023, without plans for ongoing relocation support.[25]

At time of writing, over a decade after the planning process began, the construction of the relocation site remains incomplete, and no one has yet relocated. The reference hospital has long been abandoned, and no clinic exists at the new site. The school building does not have basic functioning water and sewage infrastructure and lacks sufficient educational supplies and services, including the hiring of sufficient teachers for new programs.


I. Reasons for Relocation

Environmental threats, such as sea level rise and other coastal hazards, interact with existing pressures on the wellbeing of residents. Residents describe a combination of reasons for wanting to relocate, including overcrowding, a history of flooding, and projected sea level rise, all of which make life considerably harder on a cramped island. Understanding the complex and interconnected ways in which coastal hazards impact people informs what elements a comprehensive human-rights approach to planned relocation involves.[26] Relocation planning must consider protection for people across many facets of their lives.

Overcrowding and Coastal Hazards

Nearly all community members Human Rights Watch interviewed mentioned the lack of space as the most urgent reason why relocation was necessary. About 1,300 people live on the island. Hundreds more come to the island each day from neighboring Indigenous islands to attend school or visit the island’s rudimentary clinic. The secretary of the Neighborhood Committee, Magdalena Martinez, 72, told Human Rights Watch:

We are already too many in this town and we don’t fit. There are too many people and there are no places where children can play, where new families that are getting married can live alone … there isn’t any more room.[27]

This tiny island has a high point of just one meter above sea level. Today, the island is approximately 300 meters (984 feet) long and 125 meters (410 feet) wide, the size of slightly more than five soccer fields.[28]  However, when it was originally settled, it was half the current size and covered in mangroves. Over time, the surface area of the island has nearly doubled, because of a practice of “filling,” whereby residents take whatever they can find – most often coral, but also rocks, plastic garbage, cement blocks – and build out the base of the island for more space. While this “filling” practice has the added benefit of elevating homes and building defenses to adapt to climate change impacts, the practice also destroys coral reefs and inadvertently exacerbates the island’s exposure to storms and strong currents. 

The practice of 'filling' with coral on a neighboring island. © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

Residents described how, every November and December, heavy rains and high waves flood the island. Floods remain for up to two weeks at a time. Those living on the edges and in lower parts of Gardi Sugdub are most affected.

Flooding occurs every year and has been occasionally intense. Eustacio Valdez, a man in his late 50s passionate about coral preservation, shared his experience of a fierce storm in 2008:

First it was a drizzle, but little by little, the wind began to change. Then the strong, strong, strong, strong, strong winds began. Then… it was raining hard… When I got home the pier and the toilet had washed away. The canoes were gone. There were high waves. It was flooded for a week. School was suspended.[29]

Sea level rise will further restrict space in the future. According to the IPCC, global mean sea level has already increased and “it is virtually certain that [global mean sea level] will continue to rise over the 21st century in response to continued warming of the climate system.”[30]  MIAMBIENTE’s recent report confirms that the islands of Guna Yala will face a rise of sea levels in the upcoming decades.[31]

Some community members said that they have already experienced these changes, while many anticipate that there would be such changes in the future. Twelve-year-old Carmen G. learned about climate change in school and from watching TV with her grandmother. She expressed fears about the future: “I worry about the sea. If the sea rises and floods the island, will we drown? I also worry about dogs and cats. Where will they go?”[32]

Flood map drawn by community leaders. © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

Community elders acknowledged that maybe they won’t witness the impacts of climate change in their lifetimes, but that concern for future generations requires action today. Dallis Morris, 68, a teacher at the island school and the treasurer for the Neighborhood Committee, told Human Rights Watch: “Maybe we won’t see sea level rise in my lifetime and people don’t want to accept it. But I worry about my people and my grandchildren.”[33]

Lack of space and coastal hazards threaten standards of living for current and future residents of Gardi Sugdub, with implications for housing, health and sanitation, access to potable water, education, and traditional livelihoods such as fishing.

Adequate Housing

As the population grows on an overcrowded island, existing houses are subdivided between siblings, at times with bed sheets, because there is nowhere else to go. Community members spoke about challenges arising from these circumstances, including a lack of privacy and tensions between family members and neighbors. Delfino Davies, a 50-year-old man, described housing on the island in the following terms: “Some families have 15 or 20 people living in a single small home. It's very hot. Sometimes people sleep in hammocks strung above one another because there is no space.”[34]

Coastal hazards further impact housing on the island. Community members described how their houses and belongings, including furniture, have been damaged in past by extreme weather events and slower-onset erosion and salinization. As student leader, Rosa M., 19, put it, “the sea is eating the land below our homes.”[35]

Living conditions on the island of Gardi Sugdub. © 2023 Pamela Vacacurva for Human Rights Watch

Water, Sanitation, and Health

Household water supply is inconsistent on Gardi Sugdub. The island has an aqueduct from a mainland water source that runs under the ocean to the island, although the capacity and pressure fluctuates seasonally. When the water supply runs out, the underwater pipe breaks, or there is saline intrusion, families take boats to the Gardi river to fetch water – a round trip of about two hours that is challenging during storms or strong currents. The island’s head doctor said that “the water on the island is not drinkable” and that drinking or using it contributes to the high prevalence of gastrointestinal diseases. [36]

Given the close living quarters, and the large number of people living in many homes, diseases spread fast on the island. This includes respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and Covid-19 from living in close proximity, alongside skin diseases like piodermitis that spread from sharing hammocks.[37]

Another critical challenge on Gardi Sugdub is the lack of space for some desired forms of physical activity, especially for young people who want to play soccer, run, or practice traditional dance.[38] According to the island’s head doctor, this contributes to high rates of cardiovascular problems, obesity, and diabetes.[39] Residents must take a boat and cross all the way to the mainland just to exercise; most people said they lack the time or money for frequent trips.

Other sanitation challenges include that the island has no septic or sewage system due to limited space. Instead, defecation in toilets on piers over the oceans means children often swim near floating feces. During storms and floods with high waves, residents told Human Rights Watch that it can be dangerous to access the toilets, which as 40-year-old mother Edilbertina González observed, is “especially hard for pregnant women.”[40]  

A latrine on the island that empties into the open ocean. © 2023 Pamela Vacacurva for Human Rights Watch

Current perception of overcrowding by community members comes, in part, from the fact that they feel overwhelmed by garbage: not organic waste they are used to, but plastic, glass, and tin and aluminum cans that accumulate on the island. According to a community member who worked for the national census, most Gardi Sugdub residents said they usually dispose of plastic, paper, and glass garbage by throwing them in the ocean. [41] This is particularly problematic when floods come, as trash from the open water flows directly into people’s homes. Despite locally led education efforts and a project, known as “Basura Cero,” to install containers, there is no adequately used or enforced system for trash collection on the island.


Access to education is restricted on the island, because of both lack of space and coastal hazards. With 653 primary and secondary students currently enrolled, the school is at capacity.[42] It cannot longer accept new students from other islands; new students who want to enroll have been turned away since there is no space for students to study or board during the week.[43]

Lack of space restricts educational opportunities on Gardi Sugdub in other ways. To accommodate all the students in limited classrooms, there are two phases of school per day: younger grades convene in the mornings and older grades meet in the afternoons, meaning all students have a limited number of hours of school. Teachers told Human Rights Watch that it can be uncomfortable to teach in crowded classrooms without sufficient chairs or tables to write on, requiring students to improvise with makeshift options.[44]

But some classes don't have rooms at all, and instead use the local library and any other available space. One class meets on a dock using a whiteboard as a makeshift table for students; during inclement weather, there is no instruction.[45]

One of the buildings, Pavilion II, is falling into the water due to erosion of building materials. Teachers expressed concerns over these cracks, which they said would become worse over time.[46] When Pavilion II floods, teachers and students must wear rubber boots to enter the classroom. Students told us how school supplies also become damaged by the water.[47] Teacher Dallis Morris said, “When it rains, we are there with umbrellas in the classroom.”[48]  

The school director is concerned about safety of students and sends students home during storms.[49] Coastal hazards also mean that Gardi Sugdub follows a different calendar than other schools across Panama: the school year is a few weeks shorter because classes are canceled during weeks where strong winds, heavy rain, and high waves make boat passage for students coming from other islands dangerous. [50]  

Coastal hazards affect school and classrooms on the island. © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

Culture and Traditional Livelihoods

The subsistence lifestyle of fisherfolk on Gardi Sugdub has become more precarious because of climate change and overcrowding. One contributor is the destruction of coral reefs, used as filling to expand the island and protect against waves. Saila (religious leader or chief) and fisherman Tito Lopez described how, in his youth, he could find sardines to use as bait right off the pier, but today there are no more.[51] Lobster and other fish species have also moved further afield.[52] As fishing becomes more challenging, community members increasingly turn to tourism. However, autumnal floods make island-based tourism hard to sustain year-round, and anticipated impacts of sea level rise threaten the long-term sustainability of this income stream.

Unlike on less-populated neighboring islands, there is no longer any space for traditional vegetable gardens on the island. Instead, community members have agricultural fields on the mainland, but access is challenging during extreme weather. Coastal hazards also interfere with traditional ways of cooking, in which a wood fire is built directly on the floor, a practice that is not possible during floods. Community members told Human Rights Watch that when floods persist for days, sometimes women travel all the way to the mainland just to cook, and then commute back to the island carrying prepared meals – a journey that costs a day’s fishing income and takes hours.[53]

Community Views on Relocation

Most of the community members Human Rights Watch interviewed expressed a desire to move, a goal they have mobilized toward for over a decade. However, a small minority are undecided or intend to stay. Some will remain because of recent inheritance of homes, island-based livelihoods, or deep attachment to a place that is familiar.[54]

Among government officials and planners, there is a dominant assumption that everyone will move, and hence the school, hospital, power generator, and all climate adaptation and other services on the island would no longer be needed.[55] Yet for most of the island’s residents, relocation does not mean permanently leaving the island; many families intend to split up across two homes, often with young people moving to the mainland and the older generation remaining on the island. Some community members shared visions of what will, in effect, be two connected but separately functioning communities, with two houses of congress and sets of leaders (Sailas).[56] Others said they will commute back and forth between sites on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. This is a continuation of the status quo as residents already practice diverse livelihood strategies that include visits to the mainland for agriculture and use of the island for fishing. Authorities need to support them to maintain these strategies, including through improved access to land and maritime transportation, neither of which is regular nor subsidized.

Regardless of people’s intentions to move or to maintain multiple place attachments, many residents acknowledged that relocation would involve painful changes. While lower flood risk and more space will improve their quality of life, many will miss having constant access to the sea, the experience of living in a place that is familiar, and traditional ways of life on the island.


II. A Decade of Delays and Promises Unfulfilled

The relocation process has been characterized by obstacles and delays. The government’s track record is unconvincing: in 2011, MINSA promised a reference hospital near the site; in 2012, MEDUCA with financing by the IDB promised a model school; and in 2017, MIVIOT promised 300 houses. All have been initiated but not completed.

For the MIVIOT-funded houses specifically, the timeline committed to in 2017 “shall not exceed 450 Calendar Days, from the date of the Order to Completion,” according to the original plan.[57] Yet, six years later the project is not complete. Dillion Navarro, community focal point for construction and interactions with MIVIOT, said, “The government is not complying with what it agreed to for this project. Look at that delay. That is not fair.”[58] 

The Panamanian president, Laurentino Cortizo, has visited the new site on three separate occasions and repeatedly promised that the project would be delivered in September 2023. MIVIOT recently updated the commitment, yet again, announcing a new relocation date of February 29, 2024.[59] However, community members were already skeptical that this earlier commitment would be upheld. The president of the Neighborhood Committee, Albertino, 70, shared:

The government promised 25 of September [2023] but I laugh about it. Maybe December. Every year I’ve been telling people that we will eat the turkey in the new neighborhood; now they don’t believe me, they call me a liar.[60]

He is not alone in feeling frustrated by these delays. Saila Jose Davies, a chief who has lived on the island for nearly all his 82 years, told Human Rights Watch: “I might not even see this relocation happen in my lifetime. All other leaders who started the project have died in this process.”[61]

Many factors have caused delays, including changes in administration, Covid-19 restrictions for supply of labor and materials, and poor budgeting including the lack of a budget item to pay the contractor.[62] MIVIOT also purportedly reallocated funds from this project to another region. [63] However, the government has not provided a full and clear reason for the delays to community members, who requested greater transparency on timelines and budgetary changes.

The delays and budget re-allocation challenges with MIVIOT housing programs extend beyond the Gardi Sugdub project. MIVIOT commitments have purportedly been made without money to follow up with contractors on schedule,[64] and former officials have been convicted for embezzlement. [65]

Given this history, community members expressed concerns about whether international support to Panama – including climate change funds – will ever reach community members on the frontlines.[66] One community elder stated, “Money is coming from foreign countries, but the government is taking a cut. Governments are taking advantage of indigenous people, and this money is not getting to us.”[67]

Community leaders also expressed frustrations about the time-bound nature and type of support provided by the IDB and international donors. The construction of physical infrastructure is critical but is only part of what is required to support a dignified and rights-respecting planned relocation. Ongoing technical assistance with cultural preservation, social cohesion, and finding new livelihood opportunities at the new site is also sorely needed.  A community member underscores this point: [68]

They come and finish and leave… we feel abandoned. The infrastructure itself is [two thirds] complete. But it’s the technical assistance part that the community needs support with. [When they leave] we are at zero, no one is helping us.

Community Autonomy, Leadership and Participation During the Relocation Process

Residents of Gardi Sugdub have, despite obstacles, led the planned relocation process from the beginning. Interviews with civil society representatives suggest that progress to date is largely a testament to their fierce love of community and dedication to building a better future for the Guna people.[69]

Gardi Sugdub is a community of skilled professionals: sociologists, biologists, planners, and people who do the essential and often undervalued translational work integrating Indigenous values and world views with modern science and engineering. The relocation project itself has influenced young people’s career trajectories; multiple community members have decided to pursue higher education specifically to gain skills required to support their relocation.[70]

The community has demonstrated their autonomous leadership in a range of ways, from planning, to coordination, to resource mobilization and fundraising. For example, the relocation committee treasurer has collected payments from families that intend to relocate over many years to prepare for community needs in the new site, such as a fence.[71] Responsible management of funds is one important indicator of leadership capacity.

Rather than presupposing that external experts have answers, community members hope donors would create conditions for locally led climate adaptation solutions. Biologist and relocation leader Elliot Brown, 34, said:

First of all, communities need to be heard more than anything else – that is the main thing. The other thing is to strengthen [Indigenous Guna] Congress … and all its collaborators … on all these climate change issues… by strengthening the communities, then the [professionals] appear.

However, despite the demonstrated leadership capacity of community members, government officials have not always been meaningfully integrated community views in the planned relocation decision-making process. When the community took decisions at the local level, consultation and meaningful participation occurs, but when external government officials had meetings with Gardi Sugdub residents, community members said consultations were more ‘information sharing’ than genuine, inclusive consultation. In particular, the voices of regular members of the community who were not part of the relocation Committee were not always represented. For example, “Carolina”, 43, who works in the island store said that “MIVIOT comes and talks to inform us and then they disappear.”

Other community members reiterated the importance of integrating local and indigenous perspectives in relocation planning at all stages, including Relocation Committee Secretary Magdalena Martinez:

If the government has that spirit of support, they should first speak with the people themselves, ask them what they want … how they would like things to be ... because if they had listened to us from the beginning, things would have been different.

III. Potential Protection Gaps at the New Site

Overall, community members said that while the hard-fought move will improve some aspects of life, it will likely create new challenges. A couple in their late 50s explained: “We don’t know what it’s going to be like, but our mentality is that it’s going to be hard. Once we are there, we are going to find out how.”[72] Site preparations are not yet complete, which means that there are still critical opportunities for the government of Panama to act to mitigate foreseeable challenges and plan for ongoing monitoring and support of the community even after the physical move to the new site is complete.

Photograph of the new site under construction. © 2023 Enrique Linares

Adequate Housing

While Gardi Sugdub leaders were able to provide inputs and pragmatically agreed to accept the “MIVIOT Investment Project” homes because something was better than nothing, community members raised concerns about whether the housing provided will meet their long-term needs. The homes are designed in a standard prefabricated style adapted from a government housing program, “Techos de Esperanza”,[73] and not tailored to match the Guna way of life. For example, most Guna sleep in hammocks strung between supportive beams, yet the new homes lack places for attachment.

These homes are small, designed for a nuclear family of four or five people, not for the large and multi-generational Guna families. Most community members said that they envision building out their own larger traditional homes behind the primary structure. Community members also told Human Rights Watch about another Indigenous community of Embera people in the Bayano Region, where the same style of “Techos de Eseperanza” houses did not meet people’s needs and have largely been abandoned; today, they are used only to store seeds. 

Construction at the new mainland site is not yet complete. © 2023 Pamela Vacacurva for Human Rights Watch
Houses in the new site have a standard design using modern materials, unlike the traditional homes with thatched roofs on the island. © 2023 Pamela Vacacurva for Human Rights Watch

A community leader explained:

We didn't want those houses. First, we wanted to live according to our customs, our houses made of sticks, like we have here, but the government made us other kinds of houses that are made for low-income people: ‘Techos de Esperanza’. We did not want ‘Techos de Esperanza’. But since we didn't have the money, we had to, well, we had to do what they said.[74]
Houses under construction. © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

Another concern about the new site is heat, especially as Panama is among the most at-risk countries for high-impact heatwaves.[75] While some hilltop houses at the relocation site have a breeze, those located at lower elevations are considerably hotter. There are no trees anywhere in the new site to provide shade, as the area was clearcut for ease of construction. The choice of building materials exacerbates risks from high heat in the new site and is a concern for some community members, including Carmen G., a 12-year-old island resident: “I like ‘palitos’ [stick] houses better because the air can go through. I don’t know if that will be the same in the new houses.”[76]

MIVIOT required an environmental impact assessment of the relocation site in 2017. However, it did not include comprehensive evaluation of hazard risk at the new site and was not based on original field work.[77] When Human Rights Watch visited the new site, there was visible evidence of flooding, erosion, and small landslides. Community members expressed concern about risks to children during flooding. While retaining walls are being constructed to mitigate these risks, it remains to be seen whether they hold up when further heavy rains come. This is a concern for biologist Elliot Brown: “On the north side of the neighborhood there is a lot of erosion. When it rained hard, it washed away all the soil. The houses at the lowest end were buried. Well, this is going to be very problematic for us.”[78]

Community members expressed frustration that hazard risk was an afterthought, rather than an integral part of the relocation planning process.  Particularly for planned relocations undertaken to protect people and support climate adaptation, comprehensive assessment of hazard risk before site selection is critical.

Interviewees also underscored the importance of integrating traditional and local knowledge in relocation and site development planning, such as reforesting plants with deep roots to prevent erosion and landslides. If community members’ perspectives were better integrated in site planning and housing design, many of these anticipated threats to adequate housing may have been ameliorated.

Water, Sanitation, and Health

Gardi Sugdub community members consistently noted concerns that the new site lacks an adequate supply of water for drinking, sanitation, and subsistence agriculture. One small well exists, and construction of two others are planned. However, the timeline for the construction of the two wells is uncertain and, even if constructed, the proposed wells will only partially meet community needs.  One recent study found that the ground water supply is limited to 1 to 2 years, a dire indication that the new site is not sustainable in the long term.[79] Community members are already mobilizing for a new aqueduct from another mainland source, similar to the one that currently supplies the island, but they said that government or other funding is urgently needed to support this plan. 

Community members also expressed serious concerns about the lack of a long-term plan for both sewage management and trash disposal. While temporary solutions – such as waste water treatment for a limited duration of two years – have been proposed, the community needs training and adequate support for these to be sustainable solutions. Magdalena Martinez, secretary of the Committee, explained:

We are preparing ourselves as a people to go there and see the improvements that we are going to need to make. But that can’t happen if we don't have a place to deposit our waste, where we can drink water and use the bathroom … These are basic human rights.[80]

Community members and medical officials emphasized that a health center is essential before the move can occur and expressed frustration that it was not considered a top priority in initial planning, especially given that the MINSI-CAPSI hospital project has been abandoned.  A mother and member of the neighborhood board told Human Rights Watch: “We need a health center. This is fundamental. If someone is pregnant, how else will they have a baby?”[81] Adequate funding is needed to ensure the clinic is planned, staffed and the site is flattened and developed.

The relocation site will address many of the health concerns people now face on the island, including lack of space for physical activity and the rapid transmission of diseases in overcrowded living conditions. At the same time, relocation will also present new public health challenges, including a higher risk of malaria, since the carrier mosquitos are endemic to the mainland forest,[82] but are not as prevalent on islands with constant breeze, including Gardi Sugdub.[83]


Community members generally see the new school as an improvement. Concerns about flooding will be mitigated, all students will have access to better education enabled by a full school day, and there will be more space to move and play.[84]

However, at time of writing, the school lacks a water supply and a waste disposal system, top priorities before relocation can occur. The school also lacks a plan to provide food for students and does not have enough teachers to staff the anticipated new high school programs. The school director also raised concerns about the need to secure additional transportation for children who will now need to commute from outer islands to the mainland, and then from the port to the school. After the move, even local students will need to walk up to a kilometer from their homes to school, which may be challenging in both heat and rain. [85]

Model school from above. © 2023 Enrique Linares
Supplies in storage at the new school on the mainland. © 2023 Pamela Vacacurva for Human Rights Watch

Culture and Traditional Livelihoods

Relocation to the mainland presents both opportunities and challenges for people’s access to traditional livelihoods. Agricultural yields may improve given closer access to their mainland plots.[86] There may also be more space for culture-based tourism with a proposed heritage museum and women’s cooperative that would sell traditional embroidered fabrics known as Molas.[87] Yet the move to the mainland will also bring fundamental changes to subsistence ways of life – fisherfolk will need to commute further and spend more money on fuel to access traditional fishing grounds. Keeping fish fresh in transport from the ocean to the new site will also present new challenges without refrigeration.[88] Community members with livelihoods embedded in relations with neighboring islands face challenges. One older woman shared fears that: “Once I move, it’s going to be difficult to have customers. Many of these women will not go all the way to the mainland to buy fabrics for Molas.”[89]

Community perceptions about how relocation will affect collective rights to culture are varied. Elders hope that Guna culture will survive the relocation to the new site. Saila Tito Lopez told Human Rights Watch: “Life will change when we are closer to the river and mountains. But we will never lose connection with our culture.”[90] Ancestral Guna songs and folklore depict life in the mountains; Guna culture endured historical transfer to the islands, and many believe it will endure this return relocation. Yet younger community members, such as tour guide Harold Fernandez, 31, expressed more concern about these changes:

The kids may start to speak Spanish more and more and forget Guna. On the mainland there are banks, there are discotheques. It is not the traditional life. People don’t meet to talk about their culture. Communities on the mainland are like little cities, it’s a different environment. There is not a culture of helping each other. But this depends on each of us… To not lose our identity. To maintain our customs. When we meet to share ideas, we need to remember our Guna identity.[91]

Efforts are underway to ensure cultural continuity in the new site. Plans for building a house of congress and house of chicha (ceremony) have existed since the earliest site plans and will be constructed with a combination of traditional and modern materials, unlike homes constructed only in a modern design.[92] Further, the new school will have a classroom dedicated explicitly for traditional knowledge where the elders can teach Guna culture and language.[93] While some cultural change may be inevitable, proactive relocation planning that integrates cultural dimensions into site development may mitigate losses.[94] Indeed, leadership from within the Gardi Sugdub community has meant that cultural preservation is front and center in relocation planning. After all, as a banner hung in the island congress reads: “A people that loses its traditions loses its soul.”

Congress hall on Gardi Sugdub. © 2023 Erica Bower/ Human Rights Watch

IV. The First Among Many?

While the Gardi Sugdub community is well-organized and well-connected, it is not alone in facing the impacts of sea level rise encroaching on limited space. Estimates suggest at least 38 other islands in Guna Yala, with a total population of approximately 28,000 people, will require relocation to the mainland given projections of sea level rise and extreme weather events in upcoming decades.[95] Additionally, some 12,000 Guna people who have moved to Panama City are expected to return to the region, bringing the total number of people who potentially need support to around 40,000 people.[96]

These communities span a range of stages:

  1. Communities that have secured support to relocate, so far only Gardi Sugdub.
  2. Communities that intend to relocate but lack a clear approach and plan for relocation, such as Playón Chico, Gardi Muladup, Narganá, Carti Tupile, Aligandi, Achutupu, Ustupu Mulatup, and Ukubseni.[97]
  3. Communities that have considered relocation but have decided that even if given the opportunity, they would choose to remain, such as Norduup and Digir.
  4. Communities that have not yet considered relocation but may need to in future.

Analysis of broader trends in Panama suggest that across the country, populations on small islands are growing and the risk of coastal hazards is rising as the climate crisis accelerates. Confirming these trends, Gardi Sugdub leaders mentioned other coastal communities outside of Gunayala that are already considering planned relocation in the years to come.

These communities may not have had as much attention as Gardi Sugdub, but still need support. One community leader urged the international community to broaden their focus to others: “All the time we have visits from [international actors], but there are other small communities that nobody ever visits, so nobody ever listens to them.”[98]

To ensure support for other communities beyond Gardi Sugdub, Panama and the IDB need to prioritize the issue of planned relocation and allocate resources accordingly. Panama’s disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation laws fail to adequately address planned relocation, let alone incorporate indigenous and local perspectives on how to carry out these initiatives in a culturally appropriate manner. Most climate change laws in Panama do not mention relocation.[99] While the National Strategy for Climate Change 2050[100] and Panama’s Third National Communication to the UNFCCC[101] mention planned relocations of Gardi Sugdub and other communities considering relocation, these instruments fail to provide guidance for how to support or fund such moves. Similarly, a 2005 disaster risk reduction law and a 2010 Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management National Policy (PNGIRD) clarify responsibilities of line ministries, and recent efforts have ensured contingency financing, insurance products, and a national emergency fund – yet none of these instruments refer to disaster-related planned relocation.[102]

Similarly, the IDB’s strategic documents, such as the sector framework on climate change, migration action framework, and Indigenous Peoples policy, all do not reference community-led planned relocation as climate adaptation, let alone include human rights safeguards for how the Bank may engage to support communities.[103]

Planning for relocation that is meaningfully community-led and respects human rights requires long term time horizons. Unlike measures to adapt to coastal hazards in place, such as elevating houses, planned relocation involves longer timescales for planning, implementation, and coordination at a national scale.[104]

Typical timescales for planning and implementing relocation and other coastal risk management measures. © IPCC

While some governments, such as the Pacific Island nations of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, have developed national guidelines for planned relocation, no country in the Americas has yet undertaken a human rights approach to this planning. [105] Given the important experiences with Gardi Sugdub and other neighboring islands in the Gunayala region, Panama could be the first country in the Americas to create such a policy. While initial efforts at consolidating lessons learned are underway,[106] to date, Panama has no national policy or other official guidance to prepare for future planned relocation and safeguard people’s rights in the context of sea level rise. [107]   

Human rights frameworks provide guardrails for actors supporting planned relocation projects – whether government ministries, banks, or NGOs – to create conditions for community-led, autonomous adaptation solutions. Such approaches can empower communities to make their own decisions, supported with adequate funding and technical assistance to pursue their collective goals, on their own terms and timelines. Centering individual and collective rights also raises awareness of potential culture and heritage loss, and positions community-defined values at the core of relocation planning. Panama needs a roadmap to create these supportive conditions. By creating a planned relocation policy, Panama can be a leader on climate adaptation, anchored in their international and national obligations to protect human rights.


Human Rights Obligations

Panama’s Obligations

Like all governments, Panama has international human rights obligations to address climate change, including by adopting and implementing robust and rights-respecting climate mitigation and adaptation policies that are consistent with the best available science. Panama has adopted the Paris Agreement, which in its preamble recognizes that “[p]arties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights… the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities … and people in vulnerable situations.” [108] 

As a state that has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Government of Panama has accepted the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, food, water, health, and education in a non-discriminatory manner.[109] This includes the obligation not to take retrogressive measures that diminish the protection of rights, such as termination of access to hospitals, schools, electricity, and other public services on the island.[110] Many of these rights are also protected in Panama’s constitution.[111]

In the context of climate change, Panama has specific obligations with respect to these rights. In 2018, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the body of independent experts that monitors compliance with the ICESCR, warned states that “a failure to prevent foreseeable human rights harm caused by climate change, or a failure to mobilize the maximum available resources in an effort to do so, could constitute a breach” of their human rights obligations.[112] The Committee reminded governments that their human rights obligations under the ICESCR should guide them in the design and implementation of measures to address climate change.[113]

An element of these obligations is action to protect citizens from environmental harms, such as coastal hazards and sea level rise, that pose a real risk in the reasonably foreseeable future. The more knowledge about a harm’s likelihood and severity, the stronger the obligation. This frame of analysis based on a harm’s “reasonable foreseeability” rather than its “imminence” reflects trends in jurisprudence on international refugee and human rights law[114] and is reflected in decisions of the Human Rights Committee (HRC).[115] 

The Panamanian government has responsibilities to protect people from risks to the enjoyment of a life with dignity that are reasonably foreseeable,[116] including efforts to address already experienced flood-related harms and to minimize exposure to future sea level rise risks. These legal obligations require consideration of infrastructural and other forms of adaptation in place.

However, in circumstances where other options are not feasible, Panama may need to consider another policy option: planned relocation to protect groups of people by moving them out of harm’s way.  As noted in International Guidance on Protecting People from Disasters and Environmental Change through Planned Relocation (2015 Guidance): “States have responsibilities to prevent and reduce disaster risk and exposure to it, and to address the negative impacts of environmental change, including climate change … these responsibilities may require Planned Relocation in order to protect persons or groups of persons.”[117]

The government of Panama should enact rights-respecting planned relocation programs where requested, but equally should not forcibly relocate communities in contexts where this does not align with community needs and preferences. [118] Planned relocation carries its own risks and requires policies grounded in dignity and human rights principles.  According to Panama’s constitutional and international legal obligations, a planned relocation must at minimum restore, or ideally improve, the standard of living of relocating people and their host communities.

Planned relocation is also highly time and resource intensive and requires adequate funding and institutional support to ensure that relevant rights are protected. Various international guidance and tools exist to support national governments to interpret how relevant rights may be protected in planned relocation. For instance, the 2015 Guidance[119] outlines human rights obligations relevant to consider in such circumstances, while a 2017 Toolbox on Planning Relocations to Protect People from Disasters and Environmental Change provides checklists of further specific questions to consider in operationalizing these rights-based principles.[120] The Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement within States are also highly relevant in these contexts,[121] as Displacement Solutions has previously advocated to the Panamanian government.[122] Furthermore, while not directly focused on community relocation, the UN’s 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement[123] and the Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement[124] include helpful considerations that can inform planned relocation efforts.

Panama’s Obligations in Indigenous Comarcas

Panama has further specific legal obligations around planned relocation within Panama’s autonomous indigenous regions. These include obligations to protect individual rights as well as collective rights to land, culture, and self-determination, underscoring the importance of community coherence in the planned relocation process.

The constitution enshrines the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples, and, in line with human rights standards, including those set forth in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), it is essential that climate change adaptation policies not further harm Indigenous peoples who are already among the most impacted by climate change.

Panama recognizes the collective land rights of Guna people: the Gunayala comarca was created in 1938,[125] and its 1972 Constitution recognizes the right of Indigenous peoples to collective property.[126] However, Panama has not ratified the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), which contains important provisions for ensuring protection of land rights, livelihoods, and health services relevant for planned relocations.[127]

In the last few decades, Indigenous peoples in Panama have asserted their collective rights leading to Law 37 approved in 2016, which establishes the right to a process of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) for all measures that may affect Indigenous peoples and their territories.[128] The right of Indigenous communities to FPIC should apply at all stages of the process, including decisions about whether to relocate, site selection, and site development.

The Guna have also developed their own parallel legal framework, with a fundamental law and statute that contains measures pertaining to governing their land and property rights.[129]

The International Community’s Obligations

Aligned with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR),[130] the Paris Agreement requires “continuous and enhanced international support” to developing countries for the implementation of their mitigation and adaptation obligations, including through financial support from developed countries.[131] While the Paris Agreement lacks specificity about what this entails, human rights instruments including the ICESCR provide further guidance. For instance, states commit to the progressive realization of the right to an adequate standard of living, recognizing “the essential importance of international cooperation” in realizing this right.[132]

Consistent with commitments to the Paris Agreement and ICESCR, developed countries should provide developing countries with adaptation assistance to ensure fulfillment of rights to an adequate standard of living, food, water, housing, health, and livelihoods.  This may include providing financial and technical support to enable autonomous, community-led, human-rights respecting planned relocation.



Erica Bower, climate displacement researcher in the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, researched and wrote the report. Arianne Orillac, consultant, and Blas Lopez, community liaison, provided essential partnership and support during interviews and community engagement. Carlos Arenas and Michaela Korodimou graciously shared their insightful comments and feedback on earlier drafts.

This report was edited by Richard Pearshouse, director of the Environment and Human Rights Division. Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director, provided program review. Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior legal advisor, undertook legal review. Specialist review was provided by Bill Frelick, director, Refugee and Migrant Rights Division; Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, senior researcher, Women’s Rights Division; Margaret Wurth, senior researcher, Children’s Rights Division; and Juan Pappier, acting deputy director, Americas Division. Léo Martine, Carolina Alvarez, and Sam Dubberley assisted with satellite imagery. The report was prepared for publication by Travis Carr, publications officer. Hellen Huang, associate in the Environment and Human Rights division, provided invaluable support throughout the process.

Most importantly, we are grateful to the Gardi Sugdub leaders and community members who shared their stories for this report, as well as those who continue to face the impacts of sea level rise in coastal communities across Panama. Your willingness to share the lived realities of planning a relocation not only contribute to greater understanding of this complex issue but also serve as a powerful reminder of what forward-thinking, community-centered leadership in the face of the climate crisis looks like.



[1] Fox-Kemper et al., “2021: Ocean, Cryosphere and Sea Level Change” in Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1211–1362, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[2] Climate change is the result of heat trapped by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere and has profound consequences. Sea level rise is among the effects of climate change about which scientists have highest levels of confidence. Other climate impacts with serious effects on coastal communities’ livelihoods include saline intrusion, since salty ocean water can contaminate fresh water supplies, and ocean acidification, since changing acidity in the ocean can threaten biodiversity. For a useful summary of these and other likely impacts of climate change, see IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Frequently Asked Questions. (accessed July 12, 2023).

[3] Hans Pörtner et al., “2022: Technical Summary” in Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 82, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[4] Erica Bower, Sanjula Weerasinghe and Daria Mokhnacheva, “Mapping of planned relocation cases: a foundation for evidence-based policy and practice,” Forced Migration Review, vol. 69 (2022), pp. 48-51, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[5]  Pörtner et al., “2022: Technical Summary,” pp. 65.

[6] Anna Piggott-McKellar et al., “A livelihood analysis of resettlement outcomes: Lessons for climate-induced relocations,” Ambio 49 (2020), pp. 1474–1489, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[7] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Guidance on Protecting People From Disasters and Environmental Change Through Planned Relocation,” October 7, 2015, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[8] Pörtner et al., “2022: Technical Summary,” pp. 96.

[9] Richard Black et al., “Migration as adaptation,” Nature 478 (2011), pp. 447–449, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[10] Erica Bower and Sanjula Weerasinghe, “Leaving Place, Restoring Home: Enhancing the Evidence Base on Planned Relocation Cases in the Context of Hazards, Disasters and Climate Change,” 2021, Platform on Disaster Displacement and Kaldor Centre, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[11] Justin Farrell et al, “Effects of land dispossession and forced migration on Indigenous peoples in North America,” Science 374, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[12] Traditional self-governance involves communities making autonomous decisions about all facets of life, including around land, livelihoods, and culture.  The comarca was created by Law 2 in 1938 and renamed by Law 99 in 1998. Ley 2 of 1938, art. 1. (accessed June 12, 2023); Ley 99 of 1998, arts. 1-3. (accessed June 12, 2023).

[13] Velásquez Runk et al., Pueblos indígenas en Panamá: Una Bibliografía ed. J. Sarsaneda Del Cid (Panama, 2011); Dahl et al., Building autonomies. ed. A. Parellada et al., (IWGIA. 2020).

[14] Carlos Arenas and Anthony Oliver-Smith, “The Cultural Risks of Climate Displacement and Resettlement for Guna Indigenous Communities in Panama” in Nostalgia, Ecalgia, and Topalgia: The Deep Cultural Complexities Behind the Persistent Problematic of Displacement and Resettlement ed. Susanna Hoffman (New York and Cambridge: Berghahn Books, Forthcoming 2023).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] They are organizing at a hyper local level to initiate and plan a relocation, but also at national and international levels. At COP26 in Glasgow, UK, for instance, Guna leaders brought a 40-meter squared sail handsewn in the traditional Molas style, as they advocated for their rights through side events and advocacy at the highest levels of climate change negotiations.

[18] Government of Panamá, Ministerio de Ambiente, “Panamá presenta resultados de estudio sobre proyección de ascenso del nivel del mar,” January 27, 2023, available at: (accessed May 20, 2023).

[19] John Renshaw et al., “Traslado Sostenible de Gardí Sugdub a Tierra Firme: Plan de Reasentamiento,” 2020, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[20] Carlos Arenas, “An Overview on the Relocation of Guna Indigenous Communities in Gunayala, Panama,” Mission Report. Displacement Solutions. 2016, Communities_in_Gunayala_Panama_Mission_Report (accessed May 20, 2023); Carlos Arenas, “One Step at a Time: The Relocation Process of the Gardi Sugdub Community in Gunayala, Panama,” Mission Report, 2015, (accessed May 20, 2023); Carlos Arenas, “The Peninsula Principles In Action: Climate Change And Displacement In The Autonomous Region Of Gunayala, Panama,” Mission Report, 2014, AND_DISPLACEMENT_ IN_THE_AUTONOMOUS_REGION_OF_GUNAYALA_PANAMA_MISSION_REPORT (accessed May 20, 2023).

[21] Inter-American Development Bank, “PN-L1072: Innovation in School Infrastructure,” (accessed July 12, 2023); Inter-American Development Bank, “PN-L1143: Program to Improve Efficiency and Quality in the Education Sector,” (accessed July 12, 2023).

[22] The project has three main components: technical studies including on social economic and cultural aspects of relocation; participatory planning, strengthening and coordination; and monitoring, communication, communication management. Inter-American Development Bank, “PN-T1188: Sustainable Guna Relocation Due to Climate Change,” (accessed May 20, 2023).

[23] A technical cooperation refers to the transfer of “technical know-how and expertise for the purpose of supplementing and strengthening the technical capacity of entities in the developing member countries,” Interamerican Development Bank Website, “Technical Cooperation,” (accessed May 20, 2023).

[24] Carlos Arenas and Anthony Oliver-Smith, “The Cultural Risks of Climate Displacement and Resettlement for Guna Indigenous Communities in Panama.”

[25] Human Rights Watch Interview with IDB Gender and Diversity Specialist, Ana Grigera, Online, July 12, 2023.

[26] Such an approach considers threats to people’s rights before, during and after planned relocation. Before relocation was deemed necessary, this may involve threats to people’s adequate standard of living, housing, food, water, livelihoods, health, and education, as well as collective rights to land and culture. During the decision-making process about whether and how to relocate, for Indigenous communities, this may involve rights to free, prior, and informed consent and self-determination. After relocation, this may involve restoration – or ideally improvement – of an adequate standard of living. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “A Toolbox: Planning Relocations to Protect People from Disasters and Environmental Change”, July 18 2017, (accessed May 21, 2023).

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with Magdalena Martinez, Gardi Sugdub, April 6, 2023.

[28] For reference, a FIFA World Cup recommended field of play is 105 by 68 meters, or 7,140 square meters. By contrast, according to calculations using Google Earth Engine, Gardi Sugdub is 300 by 125 meters (37,500 square meters), or approximately 5.25 soccer fields.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with Eustacio Valdez, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[30] Arias et al., “2021: Technical Summary” in Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 33-144, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[31] Government of Panamá, Ministerio de Ambiente, “Panamá presenta resultados de estudio sobre proyección de ascenso del nivel del mar,” January 27 2023, (accessed May 20, 2023). This is also confirmed in a letter from MiAmbiente to Human Rights Watch, July 4, 2023, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with Carmen G., Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Dallis Morris, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Delfino Davies, Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa M., Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Norberto Villalaz, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with Dallis Morris, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Norberto Villalaz, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with Edilbertina González, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with Marta F., Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with Dallis Morris, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with Francisco Gonzalez, Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Dallis Morris, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with Sonya T., Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Dallis Morris, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Francisco Gonzalez, Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Human Rights Watch Interview with Tito Lopez, Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Eustacio Valdez, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Delfino Davies, Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[54] Some were skeptical that project would work and opted not to request a house when originally asked, but now, in hindsight, see a missed opportunity. But the 300 houses have already been allocated, and new families are no longer eligible, raising critical questions about the equity of housing allocation over time. Still others have not waited for the official relocation project to manifest, and instead built their own homes on the mainland.

[55] “MIVIOT does not have an adaptation plan for Gardí Sugdub Island, for people who decide to stay, since the main objective is for the island to remain uninhabited.” Letter from MIVIOT to Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2023, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[56] The political structure of Guna communities, on islands or the mainland, involves internal self-governance by elected traditional leaders known as Sailas (chiefs) and Argars (translator or spokesperson for chief).  Meetings in the house of congress are held daily to discuss all community affairs, blending both secular and religious elements.  

[57] Government of Panama, MIVIOT, “Pliego de Cargo: Especificaciones Técnicas,” 2017, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Dillion Navarro, Panama City, April 12, 2023.

[59] Letter from MIVIOT to Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2023, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview with Albertino Davies, Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with Jose Davies, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[62] Letter from MIVIOT to Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2023, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[63] The initial money that was promised was used to carry out infrastructural projects in other parts of Panama. B. Felipe Pérez and A. Tomaselli, “Indigenous Peoples and climate-induced relocation in Latin America and the Caribbean: managed retreat as a tool or a threat?” J Environ Stud Sci 11, pp. 352-364 (2021), (accessed May 20, 2023).

[64] “$800 million was tendered for programs while the MIVIOT budget for 2020 is $200 million.” Adelita Corriat, “Techos de Esperanza nace de la improvisación y la mala planificación,” 2019. (accessed May 20, 2023).

[65] Gustavo Aparaicio, “Condenan a 60 meses de prisión a dos ex funcionarias del Miviot por pérdida de cheques de colaboradores del programa Techos de Esperanza,” 2022, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[66] Such funds include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change fund for Adaptation and, as of COP27, Loss and Damage.

[67] Human Rights Watch Interview with Maria R., Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[68] Human Rights Watch Interview with Jorge N., Gardi Sugdub, April 11 2023.

[69] Human Rights Watch Interview with Carlos Arenas, Online, March 20, 2023.

[70] Human Rights Watch Interview with Elliot Brown, Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[71] Today, this sum acts as a contingency fund to cover public services and community needs in the new site, such as building fences, fixing a water tank, or compensating a neighboring community for territorial disputes. Human Rights Watch Interview with Dallis Morris, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[72] Human Rights Watch Interview with Miguel T. and Alexis T., Gardi Sugdub, April 8 2023.

[73] The model of the houses in the Gardi Sugdub relocation is adapted from the “Techos de Esperanza” program, even though the project overall is a “MIVIOT Investment Project” under a separate legal framework and approach. Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Carlos Arenas, July 11, 2023.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Diana R., Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[75] Vikki Thompson et al., “The most at-risk regions in the world for high-impact heatwaves,” Nat Communications 14, 2152 (2023), (accessed May 20, 2023). Table 1.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Carmen G., Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[77] While there is cursory mention of erosion and landslides, the analysis reads: “According to the map of susceptibility to landslides prepared by the National Civil Protection System of Panama, the area in which the works will be carried out presents a low level of susceptibility,” Environmental Impact Assessment 2017, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[78] Human Rights Watch Interview with Elliot Brown, Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Magdalena Martinez, Gardi Sugdub, April 6, 2023.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with Edilbertina González, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[82] Indeed, historical migration of the Guna from the mainland to the islands back in the 1800s occurred in part to escape mosquito borne illnesses. Carlos Arenas, “The Peninsula Principles In Action: Climate Change And Displacement In The Autonomous Region Of Gunayala, Panama. Mission Report”, 2014.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Norberto Villalaz, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with Francisco Gonzalez, Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Blas Lopez, Gardi Sugdub, April 8, 2023.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Benita García, Gardi Sugdub, April 10, 2023.

[90] Human Rights Watch Interview with Tito Lopez, Gardi Sugdub, April 7, 2023.

[91] Human Rights Watch Interview with Harold Fernandez, Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[92] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Carlos Arenas, July 11, 2023. Letter from MIVIOT to Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2023, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[93] Carlos Perafan and Maria Pabon, “Socio-Cultural Impact Study,” IDB, Guna Sustainable Transfer due to Climate Change (PN-T1188), 2018, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[94] Carlos Arenas and Anthony Oliver-Smith, “The Cultural Risks of Climate Displacement and Resettlement for Guna Indigenous Communities in Panama".  

[95] Carlos Arenas, “The Peninsula Principles In Action: Climate Change And Displacement In The Autonomous Region Of Gunayala, Panama. Mission Report”, 2014.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Some of these communities have already identified preliminary mainland sites (e.g., Narganá intends to move to Ibedón) or are working with international donors (Carti Tupile) while others have not yet taken concrete actions. Government of Panama, “Estrategia Nacional de Cambio Climático 2050,” pp. 81. (accessed May 20, 2023).

[98] Human Rights Watch Interview with Juan D., Gardi Sugdub, April 9, 2023.

[99] A Climate Change Adaptation Framework law proposal that aims to strengthen institutional coordination and the regulatory framework for climate change adaptation, alongside a National Policy for Climate Change Adaptation for 2030-2050, are currently being developed, but it remains to be seen whether these documents adequately include planned relocation and Indigenous peoples’ perspectives thereof. Other laws do not include mentions of planned relocation. See Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. (accessed May 20, 2023).

[100] Government of Panama, “Estrategia Nacional de Cambio Climático 2050.” 

[101] Government of Panama, “National Communication to the UNFCCC N.3,” (accessed July 12, 2023).

[102] Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, “Results in resilience: Enhancing institutional capacities for a more comprehensive and inclusive DRM in Panama,” February 2023, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[103] Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), “Climate Change Sector Framework Document,” (accessed July 12, 2023); Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), “Migration Action Framework,” (accessed July 12, 2023); Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), “Indigenous Peoples Policy,” (accessed July 12, 2023).

[104] IPCC, “Fact sheet – Responding to Sea Level Rise,” (accessed May 20, 2023).

[105] Government of Fiji, “Planned Relocation Guidelines A framework to undertake climate change related relocation,” 2018, (accessed May 20, 2023); Solomon Islands Government, “Solomon Islands Planned Relocation Guidelines,” 2022, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[106] Letters from MIVIOT and MiAMBIENTE to Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2023 and July 4, 2023, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[107] Non-Governmental Organizations have been calling for the creation of such a policy since 2014. Carlos Arenas, “The Peninsula Principles In Action: Climate Change And Displacement In The Autonomous Region Of Gunayala, Panama,” 2014.

[108] UNFCCC, Paris Agreement, 2015, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[109] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, arts. 11, 12, 13. Panama ratified the covenant on March 8, 1977.

[110] UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food;” CESCR General Comment No. 3, The nature of states parties obligations (Art. 2, par.1), 14/12/90.Para 9; CESCR, General Comment No. 13, para. 45.

[111] Government of Panama, Panama's Constitution of 1972, article 118, 117, 110, and 91, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[112] CESCR, “Climate change and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,” October 8, 2018, para. 6, (accessed July 11, 2023).

[113] Ibid., para. 3.

[114] Michelle Foster and Jane McAdam, “Analysis of ‘Imminence’ in International Protection Claims: Teitiota v New Zealand and Beyond,” 71 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 975, September 16, 2022, (accessed July 17, 2023).

[115] Lauren Nishimura, “Adaptation and Anticipatory Action: Integrating Human Rights Duties into the Climate Change Regime,” Climate Law 12 (2022), p. 13, (accessed July 17, 2023).

[116] Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand, “Views Adopted by the Committee under Article 5(4) of the Optional Protocol, Concerning Communication No 2728/2016”, UN Doc. CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016, UN Human Rights Committee, September 23, 2020, para. 9.4-9.5,,HRC,5e26f7134.html (accessed July 17, 2023).

[117] Georgetown University, Brookings Institution and UNHCR, Guidance on Protecting People from Disasters and Environmental Change through Planned Relocation, October 7, 2015, (accessed May 9, 2023).  

[118] While a policy to support community-initiated and community-led planned relocations, such as Gardi Sugdub, is sorely needed, such a policy must safeguard against government or corporate-led forced relocations (effectively forced displacement) in the name of development progress for dams, industry or mining projects. Examples where adequate consultation and consent for relocation of Indigenous communities did not occur include the Chan 75 hydroelectric project, the proposed Fourth Transmission Line project, and the proposed dam on the Indio river in Coclé province for water supply to the Panama Canal. See, OHCHR, “United Nations Expert on Indigenous Peoples denounces human rights violations committed against the Charco la Pava community in Panama,” 2008, (accessed May 20, 2023); CIEL, “Hearing on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas,” 2020, (accessed May 20, 2023); “Panama Canal grapples with climate change threat,” BBC News, (accessed May 20, 2023).

[119] Ibid.

[120] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “A Toolbox: Planning Relocations to Protect People from Disasters and Environmental Change”, July 18, 2017, (accessed May 21, 2023).

[121] “The Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement Within States,” 2013, (accessed May 21, 2023).

[122] Carlos Arenas, “The Peninsula Principles In Action: Climate Change And Displacement In The Autonomous Region Of Gunayala, Panama. Mission Report,” 2014.

[123] United Nations, “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement 1998,” (accessed May 21, 2023).

[124] United Nations, “Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement,” (accessed May 21, 2023).

[125] Ley 2 of 1938, art. 1. (accessed June 12, 2023); Ley 99 of 1998, arts. 1-3. (accessed June 12, 2023).

[126] This right is also protected beyond the constitution. For instance, “Law 16 can be considered a pioneer in indigenous legislation in Latin America to the extent that it recognizes the Guna People as a collective subject with the right to their own territory.”

[127] Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, ILO Convention No. 169. 1989, (accessed May 21, 2023).

[128] Law Number 37. 2 August 216, (accessed May 21, 2023).

[129] Carlos Arenas, “The Peninsula Principles In Action: Climate Change And Displacement In The Autonomous Region Of Gunayala, Panama,” 2014.

[130] The CBDR principle is mentioned in United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) article 3 and article 4. 

[131] Paris Agreement, article 7.13, article 9.1.

[132] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, article 11.1. See also, ibid., art.11.2.