Children in Guna Yala, Panama
Page path:

Panama: Guna Yala, at sea level

What is at issue:

Guna Yala, the land of the Guna, is a semi-autonomous region in the north of Panama on the Caribbean coast. Since the revolution in 1925, the Guna have owned their land and the exclusive right to use natural resources. Its diverse, centuries-old indigenous culture is today subject to many influences.

"Our approach is to educate people so they can understand the issues and work towards improving resource management and helping communities sustainably use the natural resources."

Since 2004, the Fundación BALU UALA and several municipalities in the autonomous region of Guna Yala on the Caribbean coast of Panama have been working together on this project. The pillars of the project at Wargandup, Digir, Niadup, Uggubseni and Dad NaggweDubbir are environmental education, marine protected areas (MPA), sustainable agriculture and waste management.

For the implementation, special commissions have been formed and trained by the municipalities. The main function of these commissions, which are supported by an environmental educator, is to control and promote marine protected areas, the provision of environmental education on relevant topics in the respective communities, the promotion of waste management (eg. through training and clean-up actions), the support of sustainable fisheries under the rules of the self-government Congreso General Guna (CGG) and promoting sustainable local food production.

What's happening now:

Apart from the basic activities, this year´s main project was to start operating the Cooperative Isbergungalu, however it was not to be. Incredibly, IPACOOP took another ten months to approve all our paperwork and produce the final document that recognizes cooperatives as such.

To start out with, the cooperative will work mainly as a market for trading locally and sustainably produced food, like vegetables, grains, fruit and sea food as well as handy crafts. At present, we have completed all the required training and handed in all the necessary documentation which is being checked at the regional IPACOOP office in Colón. We can only hope for a relatively speedy bureaucratic process since the excessively long periods of waiting have a frustrating and discouraging effect.

In 2018, the inhabitants of the island Digir decided to abolish the use of plastic bags and to fine every person that was seen to litter on the island. Guna Yala has a very serious waste problem and this represents a huge step into the right direction! In the rest of Panama there may be talk about the issue but nowhere close to the same decision taking. We are very pleased about this positive development!

BALU UALA was invited to this year´s TERRA MADRE and Slowfish, at Turin, Italy, in September 2018. The President of Fundación BALU UALA, Remigio Morgan was chosen to represent the Foundation at this event. As in previous occasions, the meeting turned out to be of great interest and certainly provided the group with new information, ideas and dreams.

Die Mitglieder der Genossenschaft
The members of the cooperative make their official oath.

What we have achieved:

2008 - 2018

  • In each island community, one or two project members and members of the MPA commissions are now implementing the education program. The educational program has since been extended to a total of 13 island communities.
  • The fisheries inspectors elected by the municipalities supervise the fishery-related regulations. The monitoring of marine protected areas is now common practice of community work.
  • In 2010, a total of nine Marine Protected Areas have been set up so far.
  • The General Guna Congress stopped the good cooperation in 2009 after several conflicts. However, it has accelerated the adoption of the idea of a sustainable use of marine resources as an important project objective.
  • MPA commissions take over agricultural tasks on the mainland and pick up the topic of waste and garbage. Overall, the role of commissions in the communities is becoming stronger and more autonomous.
  • Formation of a cooperative for the education of organic agriculture.
  • The coral reef monitoring shows a relatively intact situation of the corals and in some areas overfishing.
  • Event of the first "Festival del Mar" since 2005.
  • Marine reserves are respected in all communities, lobster fisheries have declined as a result of other sources of income.
  • New focus: pollution from waste and the removal of sand and corals for construction.
  • By the end of 2018, all papers have been approved and the official document recognizing the cooperative Isbergun Galu as such is available.

2004 - 2007

  • First educational workshops on marine biology and ecology, conservation, coral biology and environmental education in six, later twelve Guna Yala communities.
  • In each community at least one volunteer was found and trained as project representative.
  • Special teaching materials, videos, leaflets or posters are developed by Balu Uala
  • Establishing a basic fisheries monitoring program with data collection on number of species, biomass, sex, fishing effort, fishing grounds, own use or export etc.
  • The fishermen in twelve communities were registered and the current fishing practice was reviewed. Every community now has a fisheries inspector who records daily catch, inspects catches and confiscates illegal catches like lobsters that are too small or shiny.
  • Six communities set up Marine Protected Areas (MPA). An MPA commission of 8 to 15 members takes control and is an effective instrument for the coral reef management.
  • Due to the protected areas the number of lobsters, young snapper and gilthead bream increases. Thus, the municipalities interest in participating the project clearly increases


Guna Yala - Back to Land

There has been talk for many years, more than a decade actually, of crossing to land, to escape from the challenges posed by the demographic growth and unsuitability of the islands for the current population level.

A chance for a new beginning at a critical time?

Projektaktivitäten 2017

Projektaktivitäten 2016

Projektaktivitäten 2008-2015

Projektaktivitäten 2004-2007

More information:

Who has done it