By Susan Israel
The plane was completely full - four adults, a baby, two pilots, some backpacks, and boxed food supplies in the tiny cargo area.
We flew out over Panama City at dawn, turned south along the Pacific coast briefly before turning east. Over mountains, we disappeared into white clouds before popping out above the rainforest on the east coast of Panama. I had a preview of some of the tiny coral atolls that make up the Guna Yala archipelago before we touched down on a short tarmac next to a narrow wooden pier that connects the island of Playon Chico to the mainland.
Other than by air, the only access to the island is by boat, or through the mountains on foot.
I had arrived at the Guna Yala Islands, otherwise known as San Blas, where I would make my first international installation. I was excited to be there - to install my “Rising Water” stripes in the landscape to show where future sea level rise would flood the islands. I had brought paint supplies for children, and hoped I had everything else I would need, but knew little else about what to expect.
Diwi has family on Playon Chico, and is a tourism expert, so he had made all of the arrangements, freeing me up to just absorb everything I saw. I had backpacked in Asia a very long time ago, and this community was similar to some places I had been without running water, electricity, sewers or modern infrastructure.
TV satellite dishes and small solar panels were some of the only indicators that this was decades later.
The houses were mostly thatch, with some concrete houses around the edges. After breakfast, we headed out in one of the typical boats, long and low with several rows of bench seats. For locals, dug-out canoes with sails or paddles were typically how they get around. Gas was precious, and we were limited to one round trip daily between the resort island and the community island.
We arrived at my resort island, where two thatched rooms on stilts had been outfitted hastily with small solar panels to charge phones, a lightbulb in the bedroom and bathroom, and a tub of water for washing and manual flushing. The rest of the thatched huts were in various stages of completion, mostly framing on pilings.
I couldn’t tell if they were never finished, or had blown away.
Meals were very simple, served on an open-air platform with half of a thatch roof and railing, and a stupendous view. I was the only guest.
I got to work immediately, and started laying out materials - testing and wrapping pilings with the colorful fabric stripes. I regretted my “leave-no-trace” purity as I struggled to make paste from flour and water strong enough to hold the fabric together in the hardy trade wind that blew constantly.
I finally got the paste to the right consistency, placed the seams in the lee of the wind and slowly started wrapping pilings in orange, green and blue lines that marked sea level rise predicted levels, and stenciled them with 2040, 2060, 2080.
When Mark Goerner, another fellow HATCHER, arrived by boat, he was soaked from a half day boat trip of pounding along the surf. He dried off, ate, and helped me wrap pilings.
In preparation for the trip I had researched sea level rise in Panama, as I do for every Rising Waters installation. The information was nowhere to be found, so I contacted the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where scientists were extremely helpful and gave me the best data available, although it has not been studied much.
The next day a large group of children arrived on my little resort island for the art project. I pulled out paint and brushes, and sent the children to find some palm fronts to use as paper. They were excited, curious and open, and so fun to work with! The children painted fish on the palm leaves, and then directly on the trees at the level of the future water.
I didn’t know how much they knew about sea level rise, and didn’t feel it was my place to tell them something that might frighten them, so I just had them paint and play.
By the time they were done, every blank surface, concrete on the ground, random building materials, and trees, were painted with familiar things: fish, trees, and mountains. They painted with total joy, until liters and liters of paint were gone. I had carried as much as the weight limitations allowed on my flight, and even asked some other HATCHERS to help me bring more.
The next day, when I installed on the community island, rain was looking imminent. With my flimsy flour paste, I was anxious to get it in with time to dry before it rained. A very alert four year old, front teeth fallen out, watched me carefully, and then started helping. We had no common language, but quickly got the thatch house marked with stripes. Every few minutes we had to squish against the house as a pack of children, running in a long line and carrying wooden rifles, came racing and whooping past us.
Children were in constant play and continual motion, a testament to digital-free life.
When I was called away, some mothers who had been watching us took over and finished it up.
Thanks to Diwi, and HATCHER Brandon Pollack who helped with filming, we were able to interview three residents: an older woman, a tribe elder, and a father of young children. They all spoke Guna, and I spoke English. With the help of Diwi’s uncle, who translated, we were able to go from English to Spanish to Guna to Spanish to English as I interviewed the residents.
The story was the same: in October, at the peak high tides, water comes up to their thresholds, even in the center of the islands.
The actual seal level rise seems to be greater than what was predicted, they know they need to leave, there is not sufficient funding to move, the Panamanian government has promised help, and they are afraid that moving off of the islands will end the Guna culture. The children who painted with such joy may be the last generation to be born on these islands, and the elders we interviewed may be the last generation to live their entire lives on these islands. It is a sad story, and one that resonates with many island states across the world.
I promised to tell their story, show the photographs, and help Diwi raise the funds for them to move.
When I returned home, I started placing the exhibition I made from my photographs. First I brought it to EarthDay Texas, where over 130,000 people attended. Next, the exhibition travelled to the United Nations for The Oceans Conference. Other locations are in planning stages while I begin to work on getting the Guna interviews transformed into a series of brief stories.
I hope to travel to other island nations where I will repeat this process, and show yet another place deeply impacted by climate.
Seeing Guna Yala, and meeting her residents, shall remain one of my fondest memories. Perhaps my trip there will, eventually, help them as well.
Edited by Lorin Mallorie
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