by Maurizio Sacchi

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has implemented a restrictive measure to address the current crisis caused by drought affecting the water supply to the system of locks linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The transit of ships has been limited to 32 per day. The ACP has controlled the waterway since 31 December 1999. The canal remains one of Panama’s primary sources of income. Prior to the ACP assuming control of the Canal, the Government of Panama launched an international tender to secure a 25-year contract to manage the container shipping ports situated at both the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the Canal. After negotiations, Hutchison Whampoa, a Hong Kong-based shipping company owned by Li Ka-shing, won the contract.

Global warming is also affecting Panama from the sea. Gardi Sugdub, a small island with a population of 1,300, that rises just over a metre out of the sea, will have to be evacuated due to the rising ocean levels. According to data from the Ministry of the Environment in Panama, this part of the Caribbean Sea will rise by 0.27 metres by 2050. As early as 2010, the residents, all from the Kuna indigenous community, identified and cleared a suitable site on the mainland of Gunayala, generously donated to them by other Kuna natives. The government had promised to build a hospital, a school, and 300 homes, and to provide drinking water, a sewage system, and electricity to facilitate the relocation. Isperyala, the islanders’ new home, was originally due to be inaugurated in 2014, then postponed to February 2024 due to construction delays, and now the new deadline of 25th September will not be met.

The Kuna people are originally from the northern coast of Panama but sought refuge in the San Blas archipelago after the Conquest to escape slavery, abuse, and imported diseases. The San Blas Rebellion was an uprising of the Kuna, aiming to declare independence from Panama in February 1925. Traditionally, the Kuna Indians could communicate with Colombia and peacefully live according to their laws and customs. Following Panama’s declaration of independence, the new government sought to exert authority over the Guna Yala region and its people by imposing a westernised, ‘national’ culture. However, this cultural imposition clashed with the Kuna’s deeply rooted traditional way of life. Despite these challenges, the Kuna culture continues to be celebrated for its unique artistic expressions, particularly the molas – fabric works that showcase exceptional inlay and embroidery techniques, depicting expressive figures with a mix of abstract and figurative elements (an example is shown above). Resistance to this power led to the Revolution of 1925, which claimed 27 lives and triggered the peace treaty with the United States that followed.

This revolution was a direct consequence of the repression by the Panamanian government. The Kuna people feared for their ethnic survival as the laws of the Panamanian government directly affected their education, clothing, and traditional customs. During the mediation process, the Kuna received support from the United States for an autonomous region, and they secured the broad degree of autonomy they still enjoy today.

On the cover photo: Aerial view of the Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks © Gianfranco Vivi/