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[Travel] Kuna Yala: The Climate Change Generation

In collaboration with BURWIGAN

"Burwigan means 'kids' in Guna language and through art we tell the stories of the first future climate change refugees in Panama, the Guna Kids. We inform, engage and inspire artistic and scientific action on climate change in the islands of Guna Yala and Panama City. Our ultimate goal is to raise awareness and draw the attention of authorities, of the Panamanian national government and international organizations to this urgent problem in order to raise funds to move our community to the mainland. These kids are the ones who have the power to change the negative patterns in our society and protect our environment." (Burwigan Founder - Diwigdi Valiente |
Diwigdi Valiente
Diwigdi Valiente

Photography by Leygh Allison

We’re up without sleep on a jet plane soaring over this plastic world. I’m gazing out the porthole with wrinkled eyes over a Panama city skyline that’s bleeding sunshine across a now extinct paradise.

The coast is long, mountains gash up from a native earth and nestle wild over a crashing turquoise blue coastline. Our six man jet smashes down on top of patchy concrete and faces emerge from rundown cement shells with old paint, leaving the past in the mystery that it is.

A stout man with a crew cut smiles, his black shirt reads; ‘Paradise’.

Our bags are swept from the mud puddled runway and he’s off jogging across a jagged rainbow land bridge into the community of Playon Chico.

They are the Kuna Yala, the only indigenous peoples to not be colonized in the region, and one of the places worst affected by sea level rise in Panama.

According to scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (, "sea levels around the islands are rising,.. and that the islands will be underwater in the next 20 to 30 years.”

Most of the island doesn’t know this and most of them won’t until it’s too late, some things hurt too much to hear. Lazy waves lap up on the wavering shoreline, sandy alleyways wind a matrix through the thatch hut bungalows that hold home to the islands 1,849 residents.

A grandmother who is beyond the age to remember her own years is wielding a machete and tells us, “These days the weather is different. Our food isn’t growing.”

On occasion, there is the backyard banana tree which peaks over the bamboo-built fence.

A feeding mother sits with two chicos on her lap and the other 5 spin circles in the sand. Next door another young mother threads burgundy fabric into the shape of an angelfish and her daughter hangs by playing with nothing and laughs anyway. “Hola!” they shout. We smile, our eyes freeze in the wake of a culture shock, it’s lunchtime by now and our house is a home.

The grandmother Celina sits like a queen in her and she is dangling over dust atop an old beat-up white chair. Rainbows of orange and blue beads run up her calves and arms and she wields a machete which slams down rhythmically into the yucca in her bare palm. Her eyes are serious and sweet and her son-in-law tells us a villager has just hunted a wild boar off from the nearby mountain. I’m vegetarian and he asks me with the sun in his eyes “Queras?!” (You want?).

With regret and respect, I nod, “Si amigo, gracias.”

I let honor surmount righteousness.

The plate swings out from the street steaming and black hairs wave out from the muddled hunk of flesh as I gulp and smile into the thirsty eyes of my new mom who is awaiting approval. I fake it and we're both happy in our ways.

It’s time to explore and we hit the dirt road, kids run, grandma’s laugh and a green parrot on a thatch roof screams ‘Hola’. A 4-year-old girl rips by me on a push along pink pick up truck circa 1997.

Another batch of kids shoot marbles in the dust and giggle because it’s life their living. I look up to a dozen men that hoist high a long red ribbon that will hang over the street and watch over. “It’s to celebrate the revolution!” our guide says. I did not fully understand then, but I would learn.

We wanted to ask these kids what they love most about their sinking home, a tragedy. We round up 12 ninos and a brave lad named Roddi steps up to the shiny lens. We ask the question, “Que te encanta mas de tu pueblo?” (What do you love most about home?) His brown eyes lock, he’s frozen, a dozen kids stare into him from the background.

Finally, we squeeze out the word; Pescar (to fish).

With our heads in the sand, we trudge back over the land bridge and look out onto the sea towards the dilapidated patch of runway which has now evolved into an amusement park. A hundred kids are swirling around nothing and everything, and laugh with eyes so loud that I’m deaf. We drop our gear and I’m running and everything makes more sense than it did. Because kids don’t have to do anything, they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not, they just are, and it’s as simple as that.

I’m a walking paradox, kids dangle off my boney frame and I have no mind left to be tired. A boy named Carlos catches an eye of the Cannon on the ground and asks to see it, in a moment he’s Speilberg, frames flash and his eyes beam. He’s in a territory he’s never known, in the new, he’s playing.

A wave of curiosity roars across the field and kids now swarm Carlos. With a collected cool he corrals the crowd into pose and we’re in the midst of a photo exhibition. Apple eyed minions with a Hollywood swagger hurl charisma into the camera. A young Ricky Martin with a jet black fade and three shaved lines for what I assume to be aerodynamics stands before me. He is four foot two and is now roaring vocals into the camera.

There is no script but spontaneity and we’re laughing deep inside a place that holds no words. Kids are stacked on my back like Jenga and we tumble into the footage of another new artist behind the lens.

There are no means to ends here, no target markets or potential investors, there is only life and the pursuit of whatever; because they never cared to talk, they wanted to play, because play is who they are.

We walk back over the same land-bridge that once upon a time broke my scripted soul. This time it’s different, the sun’s crashing over the sea and we’re running. A’Celine, a little girl who just an hour ago was too shy to look at me is now yanking on my Hawaiian shirt and demanding “Avion!” (Airplane!).

The button is ripped clear off my shirt and I can’t help but not care; she’s three and shoe less and happier than I’ll ever be. I’m swinging her through the air and everything washes away in this crystal backdrop except for her wild brown eyes and one lonely bucktooth.

Sometimes laughter sounds like crying and maybe it’s in these extremes that we mean the most.

I place her down dizzy and twenty other kids flock me for more. The whole town is outside in ecstasy, old men sit and chat looking off at horizons they’ll never meet, new parents smack volleyballs over one broken net, and a million kids zip by playing a game that could never end.

It’s beautiful and I’m staring at a graveyard. The life is dead. Soon enough this island and it’s ancestors spilled blood runs ruin through this old sand will be erased. The ocean will come and this island will be left to wise tale.

Soon enough they’ll be forced to trade paradise for a city life. They will be washed into the sweeping tides of consumer conformity and jammed into the sardine boxes they hate for food that they need.

All of this because life is changing, the world is changing, the seas are rising and this culture is vanishing.

I walk off to catch a breath from all this, a plastic bag washes in from the beach, it reads in red:

Thank You,

Please Come Again

Written by Brady Williams

(Psychic Garden Co-Founder)




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