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Panamanian tribe to relocate from coastal island due to climate change: “There is no other option”

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For hundreds of years, the ocean has protected the Guna Yala culture on Cardi Sugdub, or Crab Island, off the coast of Panama.

On the island, every square inch is occupied by about a thousand members of the Guna Yala tribe. There are no cars or motorcycles, people wear traditional dress, and residents still speak their native languages. Generations ago, members of the tribe settled on the island to escape invasion from Spanish colonists and the Panamanian government.

But now, things are changing: rising water levels are threatening the island and other nearby sites, forcing the largest migration due to climate change in modern history.

Low-lying islands have become more prone to flooding due to the effects of sea level rise.

Island resident Magdalena Martinez told CBS News in Spanish that flooding is a “sad reality” of life on the island. But scientists estimate that in 30 years these islands will be completely under water. Population is also an issue, but climate change is the biggest threat, said Laurel Avila, a member of Panama’s environment ministry.

Kardi Sugdub, or Crab Island.

CBS Saturday Morning

Avila pointed out that increased carbon emissions have raised Earth’s temperature and caused glaciers to melt. This means that water molecules expand, which eventually leads to flooding as seen on Crab Island. In the 1960s, the water around the islands rose at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year. It is now rising at about 3.5 millimeters per year, according to tide-gauge data from the Panama Canal Authority and satellite data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“(The tribe) has to be relocated. There is no other option,” Avila said. “Sea level rise isn’t going to stop.”

It is a reality that the island’s residents have only recently begun to accept, after years of struggle. Some members of the tribe see the move as a problem caused by the industrialized world unfairly defending them and their culture.

Some residents, including Augusto Boyd, have fought back, using rocks and remnants of the coral reef to try to expand the island and keep the water at bay. However, he realized that it was a losing battle and the only option was to leave it behind.

“Filling, filling, filling all the time, because the water doesn’t stop. It keeps going up,” he told CBS News in Spanish. “It’s hard. Everything you did here got left behind.”

There’s a place for the tribe to move, but it’s a stark, cookie-cutter subdivision with rows of houses that couldn’t be more different from life on Cardi Sugdub. It is being built on land owned by the tribe, with most of the funding coming from the Government of Panama.

While life on the mainland will be different, Martinez says she knows the tribe’s traditions will carry on.

“We get him here, inside,” she said.

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manuel bojorquez

Manuel Bjorquez is a CBS News national correspondent based in Miami. He joined CBS News in 2012 as a correspondent based in Dallas and was promoted to national correspondent for the network’s Miami bureau in January 2017. Bjorkez reports on all CBS News broadcasts and platforms.