We have commenced our descent when a strong wind from the north pushes the tiny aircraft headlong into the mountain to our left. Soren, my partner and travelling companion, clamps his sweaty palm hard on to my thigh—he’s always had a fear of flying. As our plane touches down on the barely-paved runway, I breathe a sigh of relief. Surrounded by the lush tropical forests of eastern Panama, we make our way towards Immigration, which is really just a bamboo hut with a few benches. A local man stamps our passports, and children paw at the few bags we’ve brought. It seems like the whole village has made its way to the airport to welcome our arrival.
The Cormaca de Kuna Yala is the semi-autonomous home of the Kuna, located in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. The region is only accessible by aircraft. Rough terrain, combined with annual floods and guerrilla activity to the east, has made it impossible to build roads. Consequently, the Kuna have flourished in relative isolation, maintaining political and cultural autonomy. The area’s inaccessibility has also led to the natural preservation of the ecosystem against development. Simply put, the San Blas Islands are the stuff of postcards. White sand beaches, windswept palms and tiny islands dot the rugged costal terrain. In the early 1980s, the Kuna put aside 60,000 acres as designated parkland, making them the first indigenous group in Latin America to do so. The creation of the protected area was based on their belief in “Spirit Sanctuaries,” a space where spiritual animals, plants, and demons reside. This system, in conjunction with the belief that all living things have a spiritual dimension, forms the foundation for the conservationist efforts of the Kuna people.We board a dugout canoe outfitted with a modern motor engine on the back, and head for the tiny island we’ll call home for the next week. The Kuna pack their communities tightly onto the islands of the archipelago, reserving the mainland for agriculture and hunting. This technique protects the communities from the influx of malaria and yellow fever, which thrive in the jungles but have little impact on the coast. Our own island has seven bamboo huts. There is a communal space for eating and bathing.Over the next few days our guide, Domi, takes us around the region. Sporting Guess Jeans and a baseball cap, Domi speaks little Spanish and even less English, telling us “the mangroves are the life force of the Kuna people. We use them for everything, for making rope, building houses, and to prevent erosion. Ukupseni relies of them for her nature. The mangroves are like a mother.”Emphasis on the balance of the earth, and the great mother is made repeatedly throughout our stay. At the community gravesite, Domi explains the symbolism of the graves. The Kuna do not bury their deceased, but rather pile mounds of earth on top, posting sticks at either end. “The stick posts represent hammock posts, to help the deceased find comfort. The mounds of earth are symbolic of the pregnancy of the mother earth. The deceased will be reborn from the mother and into the natural world.”I am taken by the myth of the Kuna tribe, at one with nature, in perfect balance and harmony. Miles away from the pressures of globalization, these people have carved out a sustainable existence based on coconuts, fresh fish, and local crafts.On our final day in the San Blas, Domi wakes us up early and declares that we will visit the community. I am thrilled to see the life force of this impressive region. As our canoe docks at the tiny island, I immediately notice the hundreds of children. We walk down the dust-covered street between the rows of bamboo huts. It seems the entire community has come to greet us.The children sport western outfits, belly tops, jewellery, some even have Ipods. Almost every girl over the age of twelve is pregnant. A cross looming at the end of the main street proves that the animistic traditions of the Kuna have long been put to rest. I look harder at the children. There is a glazed look in their eyes. One girl stumbles past me, a pop can in one hand, and a comb repeatedly pulled through her greasy hair. She must be about nine years old. I look closer. She’s high. On gasoline. I look around the crowd of children before us. They’re all high. Some of the adults too. I look at Domi who refuses to meet my eyes, a heartbroken look on his face. On our way back to the canoe, we spot a larger boat, docked at bay. Columbian drug runners on their way up the coast to Carti.At night I curl up in my hammock, wind howling through the cracks of our bamboo hut. Tomorrow we will board a plane, back to the mainland. I wonder if I was naive to believe this place should be different than any other. I wonder if it’s my mere presence as a tourist that has rendered the dismal future for the Kuna. It’s dark now; there are no lights for miles. I sink further into the hammock and gaze up at the mystery above.