Panama's balancing act: Environmentalism vs. tourism

Guna in San Blas Islands

Diwigdi Valiente says that many older Guna people don’t understand climate change, especially since they have lived traditional lives that contribute very little to the problem. (Alex Schwartz/Medill)

By Jessica Mordacq

Diwigdi Valiente grew up on the San Blas Islands with his parents and relatives, among the native Guna people who now face exile from these islands they have called home for generations. Panama’s independent province of Guna Yala includes some 360 islands located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of mainland Panama. But rising sea levels as a result of climate change threaten to inundate the islands and take them underwater in as little as 20 years.

Valiente lives in Panama City and is co-founder of Bodhi Hostels, which has two locations that bring eco-tourists into natural surroundings. And he has plans for another in the San Blas Islands, where he visits often. Many tourists frequent Guna Yala for vacations. While they help support the economy of the native Guna people living on the islands, they’re also changing Guna Yala’s culture at a time when people need their traditions most. Valiente translates for his father Aresio Valiente López – a lawyer and professor who is also from Guna Yala – as López explains that, for the Guna people, 80% of their $2.5 million annual income comes from tourism.

Abelardo “Tito” Nuñez Davies lives on Pelican Island with his mother in Guna Yala. He says that in recent years, he’s seen a rise in tourism on the islands, resulting in less personal interactions between visitors and their hosts. Valiente says he believes sustainability is important to tourism “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. And we have the choice of making that a good or a bad impact.”

Locals are making a profit by facilitating transportation and hospitality for tourists and many people have transitioned from traditional lifestyles, such as fishing. According to Valiente, tourism “has affected the way families behave and interact, because now they don’t eat the same things they used to eat.” Instead of drinking plantain juice, the Guna people buy Coke. Cans litter the shores of some islands.

Architect for permanent Kalu Yala homes
Ricardo Arosemena, one of the architects for the permanent homes at Kalu Yala, says, “a lot of people tend to go and sort of pass judgment on (the Guna people) like, ‘Oh, their towns are so dirty and stuff.’ But, my response to that is (the Guna) could keep living exactly like that for a million years and they wouldn't destroy anything. And the way that we live, maybe you don't see any garbage, but we just destroy everything.” (Colin B Photography/Medill)

As the way of life is changing, so are the islands themselves. Fifteen years ago, when he came to the San Blas Islands where he lives with his mother, Davies’ house was in the middle of Pelican Island, the size of a football field. Now, the water reaches the edge of his family’s home. As winds and storms worsen due to climate change, tourist boats are unable to come to the island and the family’s income is in danger of decreasing. Does he believe that the storms will get better? Davies responds “Ojalá,” or God willing. The family does not yet have plans to move.

The way of life of the Guna people largely affected Valiente in his studies of hospitality management and international business tourism in Switzerland and his creation of Bodhi Hostels: “I grew up in an environment of socialism, to be honest with you. Within my community, everything was shared. . . . So for me, I’ve seen this kind of lifestyle, which I think is the lifestyle we have to have in order for this planet to survive.” To carry this out, Valiente and his business partner Allan Lim started Bodhi Hostels, an ecotourism business that has had a hostel in el Valle de Antón in Panama for three years and a new one at the eco-community of Kalu Yala that opened in late March.

Kalu Yala ag director Zoe St. John
While it may seem that several Americans and other “foreigners” building a town in the middle of Panama breeches on colonialism, Jimmy Stice and those working at Kalu Yala say they are trying to work with their neighbors to create a sustainable town. Zoe St. John, above, Kalu Yala’s agricultural director, says of neocolonialism, “a lot of it is about intention and a lot of it is about action.” Kalu Yala has a small house in San Miguel where they offer educational and safety programs for locals and as an after-school program. “There’s a reason why we’re an established part of this community and a loved one and it’s because we’re just living here, we’re not saying ‘do this.’ We’re really here just as an example for other people that want to come visit us,” St. John says. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Kalu Yala is a sustainable and growing town in the valley of a rain forest near San Miguel, Panama. Valiente has seen tourism’s effect on both the environment and the community of Guna Yala and Kalu Yala in very different ways. Having experienced both a rural childhood and a Western education and adult life, Valiente says that “the worst thing about climate change is that people in need, people that are not making the problem, are the ones that are going to suffer the most.”

Similar to the way the Guna have lived sustainably for hundreds of years, Kalu Yala’s mission, according to CEO Jimmy Stice, is “to build a new town that proves that civilization can live in a socially and environmentally responsible way.” Stice hired Lim and Valiente to construct a hostel for his growing town because of their similar design languages: Valiente and Lim build the furniture themselves, practice composting, and access the power of solar panels at Kalu Yala. At Kalu Yala, residents use 8 percent of the carbon footprint of the typical American, little running water, and eat farm-to-table meals.

Jorinck Knoester, hospitality and events manager at Kalu Yala, says that the community hostel is a great way to promote ecotourism and encourage guests to learn about Kalu Yala’s mission, taking a sustainable lifestyle with them when they leave. Kalu Yala offers programming, like farm tours or workshops, to guests, who are allowed to stay anywhere from one to seven days at the hostel. As of recent, small homes are being built in an effort to encourage more residents to stay permanently in the town and to establish more consistency at Kalu Yala.

Intern Jorinck Knoester and building project
A current intern stands in front of the frame for the new permanent houses. In a town where interns typically work on projects for only 10 weeks, Jorinck Knoester is looking forward to this project: “Not everybody’s staying for another semester, so there’s a lot of changes, which is still good. That keeps us motivated with a lot of new ideas. But, I think it’s also good to have some more permanent stuff.” The interns who come to Kalu Yala’s educational and research institute play an important role in the development and design of a permanent community. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Wes Stiner, head of design and construction at Kalu Yala, is in charge of building the permanent small houses. Kalu Yala plans to build three houses this year, consisting of 500-square-foot carriage houses behind larger homes. These permanent houses will help contribute to Stice’s goal of a sustainable community of “5,000 people in 30 years.” Stice highlights the importance of permanent residents or people who come down to vacation in the homes. “Right now, we exclude a lot of the wisest people in the world from coming here by the fact that it's not that comfortable.”

Carriage houses sketch
The small carriage houses will be 500 square feet. The larger houses will be mixed Charleston and California Bungalow style with a porch opening up to most rooms, allowing residents to live outdoors. Houses will take up little street space and expand back into the lot. Larger homes can potentially be divided up into four individual living spaces to offer a variety of price ranges for the 100 people who have contributed to the campaign for the houses, allowing them a time share of sorts. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Stiner exclusively is utilizing sustainable resources for the project. The houses are mainly constructed of Amargo Amargo wood, harvested from areas flooded by the Panama Canal, so builders don’t have to cut down new trees. Ultimately, as Stice puts it, “over 50 percent of the world’s solid waste streams are from construction activities, whether that’s roads or buildings.” Kalu Yala’s goal is sustainable building to lessen that number and to have dwellers, both temporary and permanent, take away from Kalu Yala’s projects and overall mission.

Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice
Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice says his worst case scenario is that his developing town would be used as an escapist destination, or “a Disneyland of sustainability.” “If people can go on vacation (and) have their kids be introduced to sustainable practices, I'm not going to feel bad about it. But, I'm also not going to feel like we were successful.” Long-term, Stice hopes “to create an economy here to where you don't have to just come here to be a student, or come here to camp for the weekend, or whatever, (but) to where you can apply for a job here, like any real city.” (Alex Schwartz/Medill)

What the residents of Kalu Yala and Guna Yala know is that the way to work toward fixing climate change it to prove that it’s economically beneficial, especially regarding tourism. Stice elaborates on his view of tourism: “The whole reason that cities exist is a way of pooling human capital and concentrating human exchange so that humans can actually create more value as a civilization by being allowed to exchange. Tourism is the first step in doing that.” In this way, ecotourism can be seen as a sustainable approach as Kalu Yala plans to spread their ideals and their property. While the same may not go for the disappearing San Blas Islands, tourism does serve as a means of profit and a way for people to see the effects of their actions.

Kalu Yala sign
Why wasn’t Kalu Yala constructed in the United States, home for most of its current education directors and interns? Stice attributes Kalu Yala’s building plan in Panama to complicated U.S. zoning laws that might have stymied development and stronger economic growth in Latin American in the coming years. (Grace Wade/Medill)

While sustainable living has always been ingrained in the culture of the Guna people, Valiente sees a disconnect with how tourism affects their traditions. But at the end of the day, seeing how others live – be that the Guna people or the residents of Kalu Yala – helps one realize how to better themselves and their way of living. And that seems to be a goal of both locations as tourist attractions. Stice agrees, as he confirms this mission: “It's a lot easier for you to make an impact by getting 10 people to do 10 percent better, than for you to do 100 percent better.”

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