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Kuna Yala


Conservation benefit: Waste management system for Carti Island communities

Date Approved: 07.2010

Kuna Yala is an autonomous territory or comarca in Panama, inhabited by the Kuna indigenous people. Kuna Yala is 924 square miles and has a population of 36,487 people (2004). About 36 of the comarca’s 365 islands are inhabited by Kuna communities, with an additional 13 communities located on the mainland coast. Kuna Yala also houses a biosphere reserve, the Narganá Protected Area, which covers 386 square miles. Kuna Yala´s beaches are one of the least impacted and best protected nesting grounds for the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle.

Carti is a group of island communities totalling about 1,000 residents located in the western side of the Kuna Yala Indigenous Territory. Relatively easy access to Carti and the incredible beauty of its white sand beaches are the main reasons that tourism has significantly increased. Tourism has brought a problem: a major increase in garbage.

Seacology is providing equipment for a comprehensive waste management and recycling system for the five island communities where the Kuna have installed homestay facilities. In exchange for the equipment, the Kuna Indigenous Congress, along with the Carti community leadership, will draft waste management regulations for the area, comprising more than 7,413 acres of marine, island, and coastal habitat. It is expected that the improvised landfills and the pollution they bring will begin to disappear, helping secure the long-term survival of this mostly pristine natural environment and turning tourism into a more sustainable and less polluting economic activity.

Project Updates

July 2014

Seacology received a final report for the project, detailing the success in establishing the permanent landfill in Arega and the amendment of the local constitution to legally enshrine a waste-management plan.

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June 2013

According to Field Representative Lenin Riquelme, ‘Delivery of equipment has been long completed as plastic bottle crushers and weighing scales have been already handed to local island health committees. More recently, and in compliance with the project´s Community Covenant, the Kuna General Congress has incorporated a chapter on the Kuna Yala Fundamental Set of Laws–the Kuna people´s constitution- that orders local councils to conduct waste management in each Kuna community. The response has been a swift one: garbage collection is increasingly becoming commonplace in each beneficiary island. They have designated “clean points” where project-donated garbage baskets are placed. Kuna women organized in committees – Bundur Gan Kalu in Kuna parlance – have taken a lead in cleaning their communities’ narrow corridors between rows of houses. Periodically this garbage is loaded into boats by appointed garbage collectors – it is then taken to a newly designated 12,891 square meter landfill area located in Arega, near the Ilapopa Hill, 1.5 kilometers from the mouth of the Sugandi River. Collection and sale of aluminum cans is also a new business: school science groups and local dwellers can be seen collecting, crushing, bagging them and taking them to the buyers who stop by the islands.

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May 2012

On March 27, equipment including can crushers, trash baskets, paper and plastic cutters, plastic bottle crushers, plastic bags, and gloves were distributed to specific strategic locations. These included local schools at the islands of Corbiski, Tupile, Mulatupu, Mamitupu, and Yandup as well as at the Niga Kantule customs office (the Carti entrance/departure point on the mainland), Aguja Island tourism facility, local congress office, and local library at Sugdup Island. A general cleanup was conducted on April 4th at Sugdup Island and Niga Kantule terminal, with the participation of 80 students, 30 school teachers, and 20 civil service personnel including the police and the National Environmental Authority. This cleanup has helped change the face of these two sights from unpleasant garbage-choked places to cleaner destinations. The cleanup collected 2,500 pounds of garbage and more than 200 pounds of recyclables; the garbage was taken to a landfill on the mainland while the recyclables are being stored for later sale. Local participants not only came from the beneficiary islands but also from island communities beyond the project geographical scope, such as Acuatupu, Naranjo Grande, Arritupu, and Rio Sidra. More cleanups are upcoming at other islands.

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June 2011

Now that repairs to the roads after the floods have finally been completed and the Kuna Congress has issued permission to proceed, delivery of equipment has recently started. One mid-sized truck is allowed twice a week, leaving the equipment at Nigga Kantule, a coastal pick-up point. From there, Elias Perez – the project´s field coordinator- picks it up and brings it aboard his 25-foot boat to deliver it to the beneficiary island communities. Can crushers, manual shredders and plastic shredders have reached their destinations already while the 55-gallon barrels are steadily being transported, 10 units at a time, given their size and the safety precautions strongly enforced on the road. With road conditions improved and relatively mild weather, delivery of equipment should be completed before late May, when a waste management instructor, already under contract, will conduct training in island communities.

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December 2010

According to Field Representative Lenin Riquelme, all equipment needed to establish the waste management system has been purchased, including 18 can crushers, 12 manual shredders, 12 plastic shredders and 90 55-gallon barrels. Elias Pérez, a Kuna teacher and community leader, has signed a six-month agreement with CONAVI, starting in January 2011, to be the project´s field coordinator. Unprecedented rains and flooding have impacted Eastern Panama, including Kuna Yala, in late November/early December, preventing the delivery of the equipment. The Pan-American highway flooded in several sections along the way to the El Llano-Carti Road that connects Panama City with Kuna Yala. The El Llano-Cartí road closed due to major mudslides, and airplane service to Kuna Yala is scarce as of 12/13/10; the few incoming flights are either delivering emergency food and assistance or taking locals and tourists out of the area. Equipment delivery and related field activities have been put off until weather conditions improve and the El Llano-Cartí road is re-opened, hopefully in early 2011.

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September 2010

Field representative Lenin Riquelme reports that he traveled to Kuna Yala to meet with the community leaders who agreed on a project work plan, installment schedule and fiscal administrator but have not yet signed the community covenant. After a second meeting with 5 of the community leaders and a member of the Kuna General Congress in Panama City, the Congress officially approved the project and the community leaders are ready to sign the covenant. They plan to have a signing ceremony at a community gathering in the Carti area.

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Full or partial funding for this project provided by Seacology UK.