Burwigan Coral Farm and Museum

Name: Diwigdi Valiente

Age: 30

Country: Panama

Burwigan Coral Farm and Museum

When I was a child, my grandmother bathed me with different herbs, barks and flowers, to protect me and allow my spirit to become strong. In my adult life, I have no doubt her traditional medicine and ancient chants continue to shield, bless and defend me. Honestly, there were times in my life when I felt ashamed to talk about her medicine, because in western cultures our indigenous rituals have been seen as witchcraft - lacking scientific credibility. But today, I could not be more proud of my grandmother's traditions.  I feel extremely gratified, as now such practices are frequently recognized as powerful, even advanced, ways to heal.

My grandmother; her home, community and cultural traditions, are all at risk of disappearing underneath the rising waters of climate change.  The people of the San Blas islands are in serious risk of losing everything, in our lifetime. My name is Diwigdi Valiente.  I am Guna; an indigenous people of Central America.  I was raised on one island of many, Playon Chico, off the northern coast of Panama. With a population of around 2500 people, the island where I come from is the second most inhabited island in Guna Yala (also known as the San Blas islands) and one of the places most affected by sea level rise in Panama. 

In my lifetime, the Guna islands will disappear under the rising sea, creating one of the world’s earliest cases of climate-change refugees.  The children – burwigan in Guna - of my island, are already the unknowing victims. For centuries, the Guna people have fled and fought to preserve our cultural autonomy, revolting in the face of government suppression.  And for centuries, we have won. Across the world, indigenous communities like mine; their history, heritage, strengths and struggles, long risked fading away to global westernization. And now – because of climate change – some risk vanishing all together.

I have always being deeply connected to the ocean and made my life vow to protect it. In 2005 I experienced first hand a Coral Reef Restoration and Shore Protection Project in my island in collaboration with the Global Coral Reef Alliance. At that time I had not finished high school yet and my understanding of the world was limited. However, at age 19, due to my academy qualifications, I got a scholarship to study English, business and tourism in Switzerland. I specialized on sustainable tourism and designed a set of guidelines to develop sustainable tourism in indigenous communities in Panama.

Years later, when I was back in Panama, due to my work on the field of education and access to water in rural communities, I was chosen to be part of the One Young World Summit 2014. The first day of the event I was seating waiting for the first speaker to come to the stage (Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of The Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice). On my phone I started reading about climate change and how it is affecting Panama and realized in that moment that climate change is not something of the future. Before that day, I did not know the importance of Climate Change, specially for Panama and the Guna People. At this summit in Dublin, I was the first Guna to talk about the problems my people face because of climate change. I faced Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and activist on climate change, and asked: how do you tell the Guna people that they have to abandon their culture and find another way of living because of climate change and who should be responsible to fund this movement? After that conference I realized that many people are already working on projects related to education and knew that I needed to focus my efforts on creating a project to make awareness of climate change through art. 

Knowing the risk my indigenous culture is facing, I created the Burwigan project. Through art we raise awareness and draw the attention of authorities of the Panamanian national government and international organizations to this urgent problem in order to mobilize funds to relocate our community to the mainland.

According to Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the islands might be underwater in the next 20 to 30 years. It is known that in the process of fighting the rising tides he coasts my people have been using live coral to build barriers around the islands. This practice has increased our vulnerability to storms and sea tides. Through Burwigan we perform art workshops to teach the guna people that corals are not stones, but ecosystems needed to be protected. As a result, we have seen a change in this practice and there are designated protected areas, where coral cannot be removed. 

In Panama city we have show our work with the community in different venues and over the last year we have had over 2000 attendees at our art exhibitions and our project have been covered by all main panamanian newspapers, TV channels and at an international level in several environmental blogs and vice media. 

The art trips we organize to the islands to work with the communitie have also opened the doors to tourism based on the principles of sustainable development. We are  not only monitoring and managing the positive and negative economic, social and environmental impacts of the industry. Tourism has a privileged position to help local communities, economically and socially, and to create awareness and generate actions aid tools to mitigate the effect of climate change through nature-based solutions. Such as coral reef protection and restoration.

Currently there is no waste management system in the islands so all the waste goes to the ocean. With our project we support the community to enhance and maintain optimal use of environmental resources, keeping fundamental ecological procedures and helping preserve biodiversity. We aim to respect the culture and social genuineness of our hosting communities; preserving their traditional way of living and values. We guarantee feasible, long-term economic procedures, such as income-earning opportunities from tourism and social assistance. 

From a holistic approach our sustainable practices strengthen the benefits of tourism and mitigate its costs. Together with the whole community we have organized several island clean ups. We are also working together with some private companies who are consulting, pro bono, to design a waste management system for the whole region, to prevent all the waste to be thrown to the ocean in order to protect the coral reef. 

We are also working with the communities to grow lobster habitat, grow back eroded beaches, grow corals, seagrass, and mangrove, protect islands with reefs, produce building materials, and also do art! 80% of the coral reef in Panama are located in guna indigenous territory. Due to the environmental conditions around my island, we are building a coral reef nursery/underwater museum with the BioRock Methodology. Through solar powered Biorock reefs we intend to grow back eroding beaches and create a snorkeling reef with sculptures made by Latin American artists. In 1994 it was the first time that my community allowed scientifics to start reef and fisheries restoration efforts. It took 6 years to find funds to start the pilot projects and over the last 13 years the project did continue because of a lack of funding. However, thanks to the alliances I have made with private companies and governmental agencies in the last 3 years and with support from the Global Coral Reef Alliance, a new project, Burwigan Reef and Farm Museum will start at the end of the year. We are creating an art and scientific laboratory that will hold workshops, on islands in the indigenous territory of Guna Yala, to build solar powered Biorock reefs sculpted by international artists. At the workshops indigenous participants learn how to design, build, install, maintain, monitor, and repair coral nurseries and will be helped to design their own projects at their own sites. 

Our farm and museum helps fighting the erosion caused by the effects of tourism and climate change. We will hold workshops on islands where local families have ecotourism projects, and can build solar powered Biorock reefs to grow back eroding beaches. The goal of the project is to build underwater exhibitions composed by sculpture looking snorkeling reef for sustainable tourism.

At a local level we are establishing environmental artistic education programs for schoolchildren and fishermen in order to protect the reefs, but also at a national level I also part of the advisory group for the creation of a law to protect coral reef in Panama. 

In addition to being the first affected by climate change in the region, the Gunas also represent an exceptional case to demonstrate the possibilities of cooperation between the Western world and indigenous peoples.

We are willing to receive support and work together to implement new technologies, to restore ecosystems and manage waste. Once again the Guna people face adversities by reconciling our culture with the technological advances necessary for the future to be bright and our culture to stay alive despite the changes.