To the Kuna Indians, home is a narrow coastal strip in the north of Panama. Cut off from the outside world for a long time, they are now discovering tourism as a source of income – and coming into conflict with their culture in the process.
Piler Stocel glides smoothly from his dugout into the water and takes a last deep breath before diving to the depths. He stays down for an entire minute that feels like an eternity. When he resurfaces, the current has carried him perilously close to the razor-sharp coral. Dangling in the sling at the end of his stick is an orange-brown spiny lobster that’s sweeping its feelers back and forth. Stocel, 21, is not happy with his catch, though: “Too small,” he says, disappointed, and throws the creature back into the sea.
Stocel regularly works the reefs off the island of Digir, combing them meter by meter. But the young man, a Kuna Indian, has a problem: He only earns money when he catches sufficient full-grown crustaceans. And thanks to his people’s self-imposed close seasons, fishing quotas and protected zones, he often returns home with empty cages. The environmentalists are happy, but Stocel stays hungry.
The Kuna Indians’ home is the Guna Yala province of northern Panama: a roughly 200-kilometer strip of land bordering the Caribbean, protected by a ridge in places 750 meters high, and off the coast, hundreds of islands, the San Blas Islands – no one knows exactly how many. Some claim they number exactly 365 – an island for each day of the year. The approximately 32 000 Kuna living here are one of the few Central American peoples to enjoy a large measure of autonomy. They gained their independent status in bloody battles fought back in 1925, when they defended themselves against the colonial police force. Since then, they have been effectively cut off from the rest of Panama. For a long time, the only way to reach the region was to fly there or spend days tramping over hills and battling through the rainforest.
This isolation earned Guna Yala a reputation for being the “last paradise,” and the Kuna were assumed to be the happiest people on earth. All that changed when a crack appeared in their natural shield in 2008: an asphalt highway. Since then, it’s been just a five-hour drive from Panama City to the harbor in Cartí, the gateway to Kuna country. Now more and more tourists arrive every year, so many in fact, that the congreso general, the Kuna parliament, fears a sell-out of the tribe’s culture as capital invades paradise.
Concerns first arose when photos of Kuna women with their typical bob hairstyles were found to be circulating in the capital at two dollars apiece – without the women’s consent. Quite a lot has happened since then: Most Kuna men and young people today wear western clothes, while molas, the Kuna’s traditional, colorful embroidered artworks, have become coveted items in the boutiques of Manhattan’s 5th Avenue. What’s more, only with great effort could foreign investors wishing to build opulent resorts all around the islands be kept at bay.
Many Kuna removed to the hot, humid islands of San Blas in the late 19th century to escape the malaria, jaguars and venomous snakes of the mainland. Whereas there, they had grown yams, corn and cassava, on the islands, they lived mainly from the coconut trade. Even today, the individual clans alternate their harvests month by month. But the trade that once sustained entire families is barely worth engaging in today. Dealers pay just 40 cents per coconut, and 400 is the maximum that can be gathered in a month. The alternative to that starvation wage is tourism.
Stocel also sees doing business with foreign visitors as his only chance of a decent life. For a pound of spiny lobster, the middlemen pay him and the other fishermen a paltry four dollars – income from which they have to cover their children’s schooling, doctors’ fees and the general costs of living. But they also dream of smartphones, televisions and convenience foods.
If Stocel could earn his money another way, he would leave the shellfish in peace. Instead, he would build cabañas, simple beach huts, rent them to tourists and organize boat trips. But no one comes. The last guests to sleep in the handful of cabañas on his native island of Digir came five months ago. The huts, just two years old, are already in a desolate state, their toilets and showers rusting in the salty ocean air – there are too many other dream islands between the harbors of Cartí and Digir.
One of those is Achudub, the most popular destination in the archipelago. It has coral sand as soft as baking soda, palms that sway in the wind, and a shipwreck with clownfish for snorkelers to explore. Hundreds of visitors come every day, most just for one night. A dozen pleasure boats lie unused on the beach. Four young Germans spending a few months traveling Central America enter the postcard panorama. “You really just want to set a stripy tiger duck on the water and keep on singing “Panama is the land of our dreams!” says Martina Furrer, 26, from Stuttgart. “Making this trip was a spontaneous decision after someone at the hostel mentioned the place,” adds her companion, Nick Kohler, “we only found out later that this is where the Kuna live.” They don’t actually come into direct contact with the indigenous people, “but our guide tells us a lot about their culture.”
When Rainald Framhein first visited Achudub in 2008, he slept in hammocks and was the only white person far and wide. Framheim is Swiss but has been living in Panama for 20 years now, where he organizes tours, including some to Guna Yala, and has friends among the Kuna. They find the temptation of tourism hard to resist, he says. “And for the congreso, it’s difficult to take everyone’s interests into account. If only a handful of people profit from the tourists, envy and resentment arise.” Very few stick to the rule banning an individual from operating more than two tourist boats. Refuse and coral bob on the fringe of the densely populated islands, and garbage is piling up even on the small, uninhabited islands.
“Their independence is very important to the Kuna,” explains Framheim, “but that also means that they have to solve their environmental problems themselves.” And the greater the influx of holidaymakers, the more difficult it becomes for the Kuna to preserve their traditional way of life. Gorgidub, a tiny heap of sand in the ocean, is closed at present because it has no toilet – although an application has been filed for one. “It’s only a question of time before the first guesthouse opens here,” Framheim prophesies.
More and more tourists arrive every year – some Kuna fear a sell-out of their culture
Lorenzo Rodríguez, a 45-year-old hotel manager on Icodub, also believes that tourists are the only way to earn money. Icodub is one of the easily accessible islands, where you can see the lights of Panama City shimmering against the sky at new moon. Tourists began coming here 14 years ago, says the man with the resolute voice and freshly pressed polo shirt. His grandparents still produced coconut oil, he says, but after a series of poor harvests, his family has now turned to tourism. The problem is that the island has only 50 tourist beds. “We need to invest,” says manager Rodríguez, “and have put together a million-dollar business plan which we are hoping will earn the congreso’s blessing.” He sees it as the right step to take because it will create jobs. Higher revenues are important because the profits must be distributed among all 82 families, each of which owns an equal share in the island.
The more time you spend with the Kuna, the more clearly you realize that there is no such thing as a simple answer, as right or wrong. And that goes for Corbisky Island, too. Its three blue cabañas stand on stilts in the water, their wastewater draining untreated into the ocean shallows, where stingrays and garfish feed. The upside here is a sense of still undiscovered world. Fish clean the fishermen’s nets and children romp among the boats. The village chief, who also happens to be the medicine man, invites us in to his palm-thatched hut and quietly explains which herbal tinctures he administers to his patients for fever and mosquito bites. Beside him on the dirt floor, a small woman sits stirring a large pot of corn porridge for the school meal, her colorful bangles jingling. That done, she goes into the neighboring hut and helps with the sewing of molas. Younger women with babies look on. They joke and laugh, drawing the black line on each other’s forehead and nose that is believed to ward off evil.
In the stillness of the following dawn, man sits on the jetty beyond the village with his small son in his arms. They are watching the pelicans dive for fish as the sun rises and the village gradually awakens. For now at least, this small paradise belongs to them.