On a cloudy mid afternoon of 20 March 2014, our small Air Panama plane flew over vast forest of Kuna Yala territory in Panama and lands in a strangely small airport in Ustupo Island which is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. The sea waves breaks on the edge and sides of the runway and the soft and moist winds from the sea swept over continuously. A short boat ride reaches us to the main Ustupu Island, inhabited by the Guna indigenous people of Panama.
Guna elders and women in traditional attires received us as we visit the island for a four day international training workshop on climate change. Traditional Guna houses made from reeds and coconut leaves abound where children and women peek from windows and doorsteps wearing curious looks on yet another 'outsiders' entering their territory. The children's playful and happy laughter permeates the environ in the Ustupu village as they greets us with innocent and happy grin. Many children happily paddle their canoes past their village waters. The village air is filled with bountiful freshness of cool breezes from Caribbean Sea continuously sweeping around. One is simply mesmerized in the freshness of the air and purity of the land.
As the Traditional Chief and villagers of Ustupo welcomed us in the Kuna Congress traditional hut and as the elders of the village shared on Kuna peoples' history of struggles to defend their land from colonial expansionism, to preserve and promote their cultures, survival dependence over their land, forest, waters, one could feel the vision and maturity of the people of this land, a vision which can contribute in healing the wounds of our mother earth.
As days ensured, Kuna Yala territory's enchanting beauty unfolds as the blue sea waters turns silvery in evenings and as the trees sways in unisons in gushing wind. As we traversed its waters, surrounding islands and its deep green forest as part of our training, the life of the land, the synergy between the people and the land, the deep inseparable relationship is revealed further. The Guna people here are blessed with bountiful land and majestic green forest amidst the mighty blue waters. The land here is also blessed because of the people in it. The people and the land complement each other in securing their sustenance and life.
The Guna People are well known all over for rejecting one of the most infamous market based solution to global climate crisis, christened as 'REDD' (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) project, which envisage to target their enchanting forest for Carbon Trading project, which will allow rich developed countries to continue to pollute the earth. The Panama REDD programme is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme, together with the Panama National Environment Authority. The proponents of the REDD program in embarking on false climate change solutions are rendered meaningless in this land, simply by the visionary thoughts and wise resolve of the Guna people, a decision evolved through a series of community oriented consultations, reflections through their traditional institutions.
The Guna people feared once the REDD is implemented, communities will be restricted from their free and unhindered access to their traditional forest with corporate controlling their land. And with the sea level rises, they will have nowhere to settle once their islands are submerged. The perception of forest as mere carbon stocks, rather than as source of 'life', the complexity of the mechanism, the potential for corruption and disruption of community fabric due to involvement of huge amount of money for compensation etc are some of the specific reasons of Guna peoples rejecting REDD projects in their territory and land. Land is life and much dearer to financial compensations.
Guna Yala is, indeed, the land where the ideas of technocrats, economist, corporate and scientists are put into test and where ultimately, the will and wishes of the people to be free with their mind and deeds prevails. The Guna peoples' resolves also exposes the fallacies and nuances of false solutions to climate change. One wonders what guides the wisdom of the people to defend their inherent rights, when many of the world's indigenous peoples are still grappling on how best to respond and as many are caught unaware and rendered helpless by the strong waves of imperialist globalization, development onslaught and brute and reckless militarism. The Guna people consider their land as sacred, as their mother and giver of life, something which is just inseparable for their own survival and being. Without the land and the forest, the people simply cannot survive and they will lose everything, their cultures, their traditional knowledge and most importantly their future.
The decision and resolve of Guna people against REDD is significant as the Government of India and the Government of Manipur through the National and Manipur State Action Plan on Climate Change envisaged aggressive push for REDD+ and creation of reservoirs over river systems of the region to mitigate climate change. However, such initiatives will only limit communities' access to forest land, promote mono plantations and destroy forest and peoples livelihood. Development processes and pursuance of false climate change solutions will only led to more corporatisation and privatisation of the land, commodification and commercialization of indigenous peoples' lives and future. Indigenous peoples of Manipur and India's North East has tonnes to learn from Guna people.
The yearnings for self determination are strong and are unique to the people of this land. Democratic values and practices best prevails here at a time when democratic practices wanes and fast disappears in a fast changing world. This is the land where children plays freely, where the trees sway their branches freely, where waves breaks freely and where people think and act freely. Its people and women are heartious, welcoming and beautiful. This is the land where children dance and sing with their elders and learning their cultures and traditional knowledge in living practice. The land is where values and practices of political functioning best prevail. Determined are the people that they opt nothing less than full defence of their land by themselves. A land where the ever gushing wind drives the freshness of the ideas and new vision that runs deep and one could feel it strong. Guna Yala is where people best expressed their cultures and political belief successfully withstanding strong winds of changes. The people here strongly guarded their wish to decide for them and this is exactly what the people here did while rejecting false climate crisis solutions.
The wise words, caring thoughts of Kuna elders' runs heavy, with endless and limitless space accorded to youths of generations to freshen their mind, to sharpen their thoughts and vision and to develop and strengthen their leadership and wisdom, to nurture their land and future. There's increasing influence of the world, such as its seas accumulates trash. However, guided by the wisdom and care of the elders, Guna's children are learning and practicing to keep the ocean clean, its land pure to keep their future safe.
The Guna people by rejecting REDD had already set a global example. The present day climate crisis is only an outcome of continued pursuance of insatiable greed by profit mongering corporations and imperialist countries and their insistence on over consumption and over production, which led to usurping of indigenous peoples land and resources. The real solution to climate crisis lies in promoting the right to self determination of all indigenous peoples, ending capitalist growth and development model, promoting multicultural models of development as well as sustainable ways of life as practiced by indigenous peoples worldwide. Other Indigenous peoples of Panama such as the Ngobe people also rejected Barro Blanco Dam, which is projected as clean and renewable source of energy under the Clean Development Mechanism of UNFCCC. Such project actually sees 'red' blood flowing from victims of communities killed by Government troopers for protesting the dam.
One hopes the children of Guna Yala continues to play merrily and freely for coming generations and the birds chirp melodiously without fear, and the spirit of the Guna people to defend their land and to determine their future grows stronger as the days descends into future. The political thoughts and beliefs of the Guna today transcends beyond borders and now a guiding light for many reeling in endless uncertainties and darkness. The resolve of Guna Yala had already inspired peoples worldwide and Manipur and the rest of the region can never be an exception.
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