Rising Waters in Panama!


Rising Waters by Susan Israel, Guna Yala Installation 2017

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Susan Israel installed Rising Waters on 3 islands in the Guna Yala (San Blas) archipelago in Panama, home to Guna (Kuna) people, in February 2017. For this installation, Susan used fabric stripes in colors that reference the locally handcrafted Molas, and obtained sea level rise predictions from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. (Note that the evidence we saw and heard anecdotally about sea level rise seems to outpace the predictive data.)  The fabric was installed using flour and water paste to leave-no-trace, with the intent that the fabric would be used in Molas when removed. Young children participated in the installations and an art-making day, and several residents were interviewed.

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On the community island of Playon Chico, children and adults were excited about the artwork, and enthusiastically joined in the installation. An older woman swept the dirt clean, and a four-year-old became deputy installer until it was finished.

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The second island, a tiny spit of land populated only with palm trees and edged  with white sand, is typical of the hundreds of islands where coconuts are harvested for the Guna people’s second largest industry. Susan installed the stripes on the trees to show that the trees will be underwater, and thus have limited years left as a source of income for the Guna.

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The third island, about 400 feet in diameter, is occupied by four thatched guest accommodations on pilings and multiple sets of bare pilings. On the second day, over 25 young children arrived there by boat, and Susan led them through a day of art-making to connect them tactilely with the sea level rise data in a non-frightening way. Children collected dried palm fronds, painted and cut out fish, and mounted them on the stripes. They continued painting fish and turtles directly on the palm trees at the level at which the stripes were shown, and then expanded to paint every smooth surface on the island until all 6 liters of (washable tempera) paint we brought were used up!

Guna Yala land is owned and inhabited by the Guna tribe, the first indigenous people to be recognized in Latin America. They arrived on the islands 125 years ago when fleeing from warring tribes in the mountains, gained autonomy from Panama in 1925, and largely have been self-governed ever since.

The 36 “community islands,” as the towns are called, tiny flat coral atolls topped by narrow dirt paths lined with thatched huts peppered with cement homes and tin roofs, are barely above sea level. The community island Playon Chico is home to roughly 1,400 people, including many large families with young children. There is no infrastructure, such as running water, electricity, sewage or a garbage removal system. Energy is sourced from solar panels placed randomly on hut roofs and posts, water is brought in from the mainland or captured rainwater, and all waste is largely disposed directly into the ocean. Connection to the outside world is through cell phones and direct satellite TV dishes. Cooking is typically over an open fire in thatched huts, and a fire last year spread rapidly through the densely packed village, leaving a large corner uninhabitable. Their main industries are tourism, Molas, and coconuts. They make daily excursions to the nearby mountains to hunt and farm, and still consider themselves mountain people. Total island population estimates vary widely, from 20,000 to 50,000 people.

After installing the artwork, we photographed the islands and people, and interviewed four adults from Playon Chico about their observations of sea level rise. Everyone who was interviewed agreed that sea water creeps up to the center of the island, particularly in October when the seasonal tides are highest. November 2016, Hurricane Otto was the first hurricane to threaten the islands as the southernmost hurricane to occur in recorded history. Islands on the northern end of the archipelago were impacted by high winds and flooding.

The Guna community is well-aware that they need to vacate the islands, and are looking forward to moving to the mainland where they will be close to their food sources, however, they lack funding to make the move. They are hoping for funding from the Panama government to begin migrating as soon as possible, but have been waiting for about a decade for the planning and process to begin. The process seems to be complicated by the autonomous status of the Guna people, and politics in Panama.

Climate Creatives’ goal with Rising Waters is to help publicize the impacts of sea level rise and other climate change impacts around the world. By repeating this participatory installation process connected to local culture, interviewing residents, documenting it, and bringing these stories around the world in photographs and videos, we seek to raise awareness and interest in sea level rise and other climate change impacts such as climate migration. Each country has its own story, and yet there is an overarching similarity that ties these locations together. By participating, and hearing about other installations, communities also learn that they are not alone in battling this onslaught from the sea. In 2017-2018, pending funding, Climate Creatives will install Rising Waters on Haiti, St. Kitts & Nevis, Grenada, Sri Lanka, Maui and additional cities in the US such as Washington, DC and Miami.

The first US exhibitions of the Guna Yala installation will be in April, 2017, at the Costa Rica Embassy in Washington, DC, where all embassies will be invited to an educational programming event and the public invited to the opening reception; and at EarthDay Texas, where 150,000 people are expected to attend. Future exhibitions are in planning.

Climate Creatives is supporting efforts by the Guna people to raise funds and begin migrating by lending all materials from this installation and expedition, which was all performed pro bono. Future materials also will be loaned to communities who may benefit from using them. Many thanks to Diwi Valiente, who expedited community relations and accommodations, and whose extended family resides on Playon Chico; and to the HATCH team who assisted with documentation and installation: Brandon Polack, Greg Hemmings, Leygh Allison, Brady Williams, Allan Lim, Mark Goerner and Xavier DuBois.