A tale of two sustainabilities: Tradition and tourism

By Elizabeth Guthrie

In the pristine beauty of an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama, the indigenous Guna people show tourists to their small cabanas, where they will be surrounded by the sound of the crashing ocean as they sleep. The hosts prepare meals of freshly caught fish to feed their guests, while others crack open coconuts for tourists to sip while relaxing in blue waters.

Guna women sell molas, part of their traditional clothing, and wrap long beaded bracelets around their visitors’ wrists. The Guna people rely on tourism to the San Blas Islands to bring in revenue of $2 million – 80% of their total income.

tourism on Pelican Island in Guna Yala
An artisan makes and sells molas and bracelets on Pelican Island. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

In the next 20 years,  however, many of the islands of this idyllic destination will disappear under the waves.

Climate change is causing rising sea levels across the globe, which means that the ocean is slowly creeping up the shorelines of these small islands. Eventually, they will be uninhabitable, and the Guna people can already see evidence that their homes are shrinking.

“Look at this island: we are not even 30 centimeters above the sea level,” said Diwigdi Valiente, 28, a Guna native who is an environmental activist and an advocate of ecotourism. “The urgency? It’s much more than what you expect.”

Abelardo (Tito) Nuñez Davies first arrived at his home on Pelican Island in the San Blas chain 15 years ago, and he has already watched it transform in this short time span. “This island was much bigger before, and now some of the beach is disappearing,” he said.

Although he can’t ignore the sight of his changing landscape, he hasn’t considered moving away yet and hopes he won’t be forced to. But the Guna government is working to prepare for the day when people who have lived here for generations will no longer be able to call these islands home. These plans are difficult to develop – scheduling a mass exodus of climate change refugees is an unprecedented move.

“Four years ago there was (a) budget to move the island to (the) mainland,” Valiente said. “The government changed, and the budget was gone.” Despite structural changes, the Guna people continue to search for ways to plan for their inevitable move. “They’re applying to have funds (from the) U.N. to develop an adaptation and mitigation plan for climate change for Panama,” he said.

Aresio Valiente López, a law professor at the University of Panama and member of the Guna Congress, wants to create a special environmental department in the congress. “They will be in charge of making sure that the movement from the islands to mainland is going to be organized,” said López, Valiente’s father. (Note: Valiente acted as a translator for López, who was speaking in Spanish.) 

This move is more than physical for the Guna people – it requires a transformation of their industries and economy. To López, this transformation is imperative so that the Guna can continue to have a sustainable source of income. “Our economy has to change,” he said.

“What they are trying to do now is to diversify what the source of income is,” Valiente said. “Right now, the biggest source of income is tourism.”

tourism in action - sailor steers boats full of tourists
Adept sailors steer boats full of tourists traveling across the islands. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

The Guna people don’t have to abandon tourism completely if they can find ways to make it sustainable, which Valiente is pioneering as a founder of Bodhi Hostels.

“Right now, I am committed to building the most sustainable hostel chain in the world,” he said.

He plans to extend his business to the ocean around the San Blas Islands and build a hostel designed to survive the rising sea levels. His experience as a business owner has shown him that profits and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive – within a year of opening, his business broke even and was chosen as the best hostel in Panama. Now, he continues to run his business with both profits and sustainability in mind.

“Right now, my job is to open new hostels, but at the same time, our hostels have a very strong and important focus on solving environmental issues, especially climate change,” Valiente said. “Sustainability is actually a way to make money and also have an impact in society and the environment at the same time. If you don’t make money and survive out of it, you are not sustainable.”

These two goals made Bodhi a perfect fit for the developing town of Kalu Yala, where Valiente and his business partner Allan Lim recently opened a new hostel. Similar to the original Bodhi Hostel, Kalu Yala is a new business endeavor that values both profits and sustainability.


A dog lazes in the warm sun near the Kalu Yala sign. (Grace Wade/Medill)

“Our mission is to build a new town that proves that civilization can live in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” said Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice, an American entrepreneur.

Kalu Yala sits in Tres Brazos Valley a few miles from San Miguel, a small farming town in the Panamanian jungle. Founded in 2011, the town now boasts a coffee shop, a restaurant, a bar, and a store with snacks and sweets centered around a communal town square. These small businesses offer a bit of luxury to the sustainable lifestyle at Kalu Yala, which involves sleeping in open-air ranchos and exploring new sustainable farming practices. The crown jewel of the town is the Kalu Yala Institute, where college students can spend a semester in the jungle studying topics such as engineering, outdoor recreation and media arts.

Kalu Yala town square
The town square at Kalu Yala. (Alex Schwartz/Medill)

The institute is currently the main source of revenue for the town, but Stice aims to build a fully functioning town, complete with a thriving industry of tourism and hospitality. The hostel is the first step for tourism as interns continue to at the institute continue to innovate sustainable energy, culinary, agriculture and water resource solutions for the community. Now, Stice plans to build accommodations that are more comfortable for people who aren’t used to camping in the jungle.

“We'll start introducing the small houses, which will allow for people who want to sleep on a real mattress,” he said. People could purchase houses or just vacation in them – “$150 nights is inclusive just like $13 a night is inclusive” for the hostel, he said.

Tara McLaughlin, president of the Kalu Yala Institute for the interns who are helping to develop Kalu Yala, believes that ecotourism and social entrepreneurship are lucrative industries to be a part of right now.

“That current desire to be sustainable, or trying to make a difference, but also having that desire to travel – if you offer a product that allows somebody to do both of those things, then it's a very desirable product,” she said.

With an experimental project like Kalu Yala, it’s possible that it could become a tourist trap rather than an authentic town. Stice likened this potential outcome to a “Disneyland of sustainability,” but that’s the worst case scenario, he said. He wants to balance tourism with other businesses and industries in the town, as well as the educational component.

Marie Stringer is capitalizing on this ecotourism potential by starting a zip line business at Kalu Yala. She believes that Panama is an ideal market opportunity because it currently doesn’t have many zip lines, and the scenic jungle and rain forest surrounding Kalu Yala are stunning.

“There’s a reason why we’re building a million-dollar zip line and it’s paying for itself in two years,” she said.

She plans to hire local people from the nearby town of San Miguel and former Kalu Yala interns to be the zip line guides. One of her top priorities is creating well-paid jobs in the small community and providing her employees with new skills – they will have access to free language classes so that all guides can be fluent in both English and Spanish. She wants to emphasize this social change aspect throughout her business.

However, any social change arising from tourism also brings cultural exchange, which can have unintended outcomes.

“Tourism is about moving people from one place to another,” Valiente said. “When you move people from one place to another, you’re not only moving people: you’re moving experiences, you’re moving culture.”

“We had a group out here partying for Panamanian carnival,” McLaughlin said. “Dealing with that cultural collision, I think was both good for the students and both good for the Panamanians that came out here. They learned a lot about what we're doing.”

Kalu Yala intern prom
Kalu Yala interns dance with local San Miguel residents at “jungle prom,” the celebration of the end of their semester. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

So far this cultural exchange has been positive, but as tourism continues to grow, San Miguel residents may look to tourism as an alternative to the tradition of farming in the area. Valiente has seen the negative effects of tourism in his home on the islands, and this is why he believes it is important for tourists to consider sustainability when they travel, learning about the cultural values of places they visit and minimizing the physical footprint they leave.

“It is important because when we move from one place to another, we affect the place and we make an impact on the place we are going to,” he said. “And we have the choice of making that a good or a bad impact.”

Valiente believes that this impact would be more positive if tourists built relationships with the people whose homes they’re visiting and made an effort to interact with them.

“How do they see you?” he asked. “What do they see that you are coming to do here? Do they see that you are coming just to relax and chill out at the beach? Or do they see that you are coming here to interact with them and be interested in our culture, which is – besides the water and the nice beaches – one of the most important assets we have.”

Despite the fact that the Guna culture is one of their most valuable assets, Valiente has watched it struggle to survive Western influence.

“Unfortunately, in the occidental world we have a very colonial society that forces people to believe that materialism is the best way to live: that buying stuff is what is going to make you feel happy,” he said. “But for the Guna people, we don’t have to be rich in this life, because according to us, when we die we are going to go to a place where everything is gold. So for us, material stuff is not important. But when you start getting people that come here and have cell phones and have TVs and talk about all this stuff that happens in the Western society, then you also start wondering, ‘OK, am I living good here (on) an island in the middle of nowhere? Or should I also get a cell phone? Should I also get a TV? Should I also get cable TV?’”

For this reason, Valiente can see a positive side to leaving the islands. “I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone to embrace a culture that’s about to get lost,” he said. He wants to publish art across Panama that makes people realize, “Okay, that culture is being lost, but it’s time also for us to get it back.”

“Instead of looking it as something maybe bad or very negative, we could look at it as something totally positive and something that could even make our society better,” he said.

Although climate change threatens to push the Guna people away from their island homes, the tragedy may allow them to regain part of their culture that has changed with  tourism, he said. However, it is still unclear how their economy will recover from the loss of tourism or how much of it they can reestablsih with the mainland as a base. In the meantime, only time will tell how the budding ecotourism industry at Kalu Yala may affect the culture of San Miguel.

Despite the challenges that arise from tourism and climate change, López believes that the native cultures in Panama will survive.

“Cultures are dynamic: we’ll lose some of it and then we will integrate new things,” he said. “At some point, what we had 100 years ago is not going to be the same anymore. But cultures (are) dynamic.”

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