Climate change and island communities

Neil Snarr - Guest Column

Kuna women watch the annual boat race among Kuna men. The boats are sailboats and the race is around several islands and back.

Kuna women watch the annual boat race among Kuna men. The boats are sailboats and the race is around several islands and back.

Neil Snarr photo

Islands are especially subject to the devastating effect of global warming and rising levels of the ocean. Estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concerning ocean expansion by the end of the century vary depending on the factors included and the models they use. The estimates range up to several feet, but there is no question that the sea levels will significantly increase.

There are dozens of islands and territories primarily in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean that face this impending devastation, and some fear for their very existence. Most of the islands I am acquainted with (Cuba, New Zealand, Tahiti, Jamaica, the Cook Islands and the Dominican Republic) do not face the devastation that low-lying ones do. The degrees of impact all islands will experience depend on their geography, resources and support from the international community.

Two islands not mentioned above will simply disappear. One is in the upper Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territory of Canada where I spent five days on a very small island (ca. a half-mile wide and six miles long) with native people who were fishing for beluga whales. The island is four hours by boat up the McKenzie River from Inuvic where they live. It is only a few feet above sea level and cannot survive the rising ocean. (You may have seen the Public TV program ‘On the Ice Road’ which refers to the frozen Mackenzie River on which the large trucks travel during the winter.)

Inuvic is the most northerly city in North America that can be reached by road; beyond this one must use boats, airplanes, dog sled or snow mobiles. It is 200 miles above the Arctic Circle and during this time of year the sun does not set. The island belongs to these families (probably a clan) as long as they utilize it.

Inuvic was founded in the 1950s by the Canadian government in an effort to settle the ‘first people’ as they are called in Canada to one location. Prior to this they were hunters and gatherers – one season hunting, another fishing and another gathering food.

The native people continue to hunt in order to pass their culture to their children, but with TV, etc. this goal is exceedingly difficult to maintain. They say that food from the whale hunts currently constitutes about 25 percent of their diet. Losing this island will not endanger these people, but it will cut ties to their past.

We ate a great deal of caribou which had been killed during the winter season and buried in snow banks for use during the warm season. They were well aware that the snow cover where they secure their kill does not last as long as in the past due to global warming.

The other group of islands that will mostly disappear is off the coast of Panama in the Atlantic Ocean. Their location is such that hurricanes bypass them, but the rising waters where their islands are located will not be so kind. These people, the Kuna (or Cuna or Guna), are physically among the smallest people in the world excluding pygmies. They became semi-autonomous back in 1925 and have generally governed themselves.

Although there is a Panamanian presence on one of the 350 islands, there is little interruption in their daily lives – a very rare situation for the 350 million native people worldwide. They are citizens of Panama and vote in the national elections. They seem to be well aware of the environmental catastrophe facing them and have been planning for their future.

Fortunately, they also have a significant parcel of land on the mainland in which they have developed ecotourism and agriculture, but recent reports indicate that the ecotourism has not taken off due to limited infrastructure. Agriculture is on the mainland since the water on the islands is brackish.

Most of this land is along the Atlantic coast, below the Panama Canal and in what is called the Darien Gap. This is a virtually impenetrable series of jungles, swamps and forests. It is the only gap in the Pan American Highway that extends from Alaska to Argentina. There are serious efforts to keep this gap closed in order to prevent drug trafficking, hoof and mouth disease, etc. from penetrating Central and North America.

Some of the thousand of Kuna island dwellers soon to be referred to as “climate change refugees”, are already talking about future plans and some have already moved to the mainland due to the constant flooding. Since they have a long history of connections with the mainland they have options rare for native people. Their destination is higher ground on the mainland.

The world has paid little attention to the plight of such people and world leaders have not worked hard enough to cut greenhouse gasses which are blamed for the rising oceans. (We are currently seeing the problems faced by migrants from North Africa and the Middle East and the host countries trying to deal with this influx.)

The many international meetings on climate change sponsored by the United Nations have been working for decades to call attention to the consequences of climate change, but the progress has been very slow and the pace of climate change is not diminishing.

The world must act to assist these people, victims of events to which they have not contributed.

Kuna women watch the annual boat race among Kuna men. The boats are sailboats and the race is around several islands and back. women watch the annual boat race among Kuna men. The boats are sailboats and the race is around several islands and back. Neil Snarr photo

Neil Snarr

Guest Column