Kuna Yala: Slums of Paradise

Slums of Paradise

by Mira Nencheva

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The first time we go to the island of Porvenir to check-in in Panama and Kuna Yala a few days after arriving in the San Blas islands, we find ourselves in yet another different world. Surrounded by pristine sea, isolated in one of the wildest corners of our planet, standing on top of slowly sinking foundations of sand and coral are the large urban settlements of Kuna Yala.

Based on the density of inhabitants per square kilometer, these are some of Earth’s most heavily populated urban areas, where according to modern standards housing, sanitation and the most basic services are substandard, the supply of clean water is a huge problem, and the reliability of electricity is questionable. On a micro scale, some of the big Kuna settlements reflect the global population expansion and pollution of the planet.

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If we thought that the small isolated fine-sand islands with tiny huts among tall coconut palms floating in a sea of crystal teal waters were “paradise on Earth”, the big overpopulated Kuna Yala islands surrounded by smelly garbage reminded us of slums.

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In the San Blas islands most of the Kuna population lives in big organized communities on the larger islands. The difference between the smaller idyllic islands where 2-3 traditional Kuna families live in peace and serenity among coconut palms and coral reefs, and the bigger island-communities, crowded and polluted, is like the difference between a small village in the countryside and a big congested megalopolis within the same country.

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Clusters of houses of bamboo sticks and wooden planks with leaning walls and corrugated patched-up tin roofs, surrounded by plastic buckets and jerry cans filled with stagnant water, makeshift toilets on sticks over the sea, the ruins of a concrete dock. No trees and everything is grey. But mostly- garbage. Stuck between the rocks near the shores, between empty bleached shells of dead corals and conchs- pieces of plastic and foam. Piles of garbage. Things floating in the sea.

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Here the Kunas have gas generators and the expensive electricity is used mainly to watch television and charge cell phones. Television has brought the new generations of indigenous kids a different perspective on life and different “needs”. Now little Kuna girls watch Latino soap-operas, learning the ways of seduction and deception. As we pass by an open door of a home, we witness a group of school girls watching very intensely on a triple-X TV channel an instruction video for pole-dancing in a striptease club. Groups of teenage boys wearing jeans with sleek hairs gather in corners doing nothing; like in the music videos, they are “cool”. Alcohol and drug use have become a big issue.

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But even though globalization and westernization has affected in various degrees life in the big settlements in Kuna Yala, and even though there is lack of proper sanitation, safe water supply, reliable electricity, garbage disposal, hygienic housing and common areas, or other basic human necessities; even though the islanders are mostly poor and unemployed (which are all characteristics of a slum), these communities are organized with well-established traditional social and political order with a strict hierarchy of tribal chiefs and leaders. On each island there is a “saila”, who is the equivalent of a village mayor and the highest authority on the island. But from our personal observation and from what we have heard from others, unfortunately most of the sailas, like most politicians or rulers, have become increasingly corrupt. Indigenous or no indigenous, money is the main interest of these people today and the ways they are trying to get them is not always respectable.

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Every evening the population of each community gathers at “el congreso” at the main square in the center of the island or in the biggest hut of the village where everyone is welcome to express opinions, ideas, or complains. In an event of a crime, like theft or domestic violence, the congreso decides the fate of the criminal, which is usually a monetary fine or a punishment in the form of community work. During the congreso obligatory community work done by all women and men on each islands is organized.

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In oa couple of settlements where we spend a week- the twin islands of Narganá (or Yandup) and Corazón de Jesús (or Akuanasutupu) which are connected by a wooden bridge and are two of the most westernized of all Kuna islands, we meet and talk to a few locals, who tell us more about the specifics and the organization on their islands.

“Every Tuesday all women have to get out to swipe and clean the village at 8:00 a.m. If a woman doesn’t come to clean, she has to pay a fine of $1.” Explains Odalis Brown, who prefers to sleep late and pay the fine instead of cleaning the streets at 8 in the morning. “Every Thursday and Saturday all men have to do community work from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m.- to bring sand and fill the holes in the ground, or to cut wood on the mainland, or to farm.”

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With global warming and the level of oceans rising, some islands have already been eaten by the sea and disappeared. Bringing sand and piling dead corals and rubble at the bases of islands is one of the usual community jobs for men. Contributing food and cooking it together for a community event is the women’s job. And always there is a fine of a few dollars if someone doesn’t do their job. There is fine of $5 even for children who disobeyed and didn’t go to bed at 8:00 p.m. when a man working for the saila blows a sort of a curfew whistle.

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We are impressed by the organization in the communities, but disappointed with the way globalization, westernization, and television has influenced these indigenous people, them too…

But then it is all a matter of perspective. The bamboo houses we- the “civilized first-world citizens”- classify as “substandard” are in fact traditional huts (in most cases) made of renewable materials with the same methods the Kunas used for many centuries before the “civilized” Europeans showed up. The “fresh water problem” is a problem from our point of view- the people who are used to turning on the faucet at home and let the water flow hard for ten minutes while we are brushing our teeth. Paddling to the nearest river with a canoe, bringing river-water in bottles and jerry cans, and boiling it to make it safe for drinking is something the Kunas are used to doing generation after generation and for them it is not “a problem” as much as it is a part of daily life. Being “poor and unemployed” is how we, the wealthy visitors see these people who have always lived without cars, washing machines and big shopping malls, and who spend their time fishing and hunting for food, farming small plots and collecting fruits and coconuts.

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Still, the arrival of modern tools and materials, of electricity and television, has altered the Kunas ways. Can we blame them for using plastic buckets and bottles to make their life easier with all the freshwater hustle? Can we blame them for wanting the same things we want- packaged foods, ready-made clothing, tools and things that make life “easier” and more “comfortable”? With all this comes pollution, and for the islanders and the fragile environment they live in on such a limited territory this new consumerist tendencies spell disaster. The garbage and pollution issue in San Blas needs to be addressed urgently.

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And similarly urgent is the issue of culture loss in the big Kuna settlements due to globalization and the introduction of television. To a big extend, the Kunas have preserved their ways and beliefs, language and rituals. Yet, they are now part of a bigger world and have welcomed civilization and change. Will the young Kunas be willing to preserve the ways of their ancestors, after watching so much glamour and luxury not too far away? Will they see their own lives as tradition or struggle? How will they perceive their own world- as a paradise or a slum?

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

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