Test Design Lighthouse

Panama: Sustainable Use of Marine Recources in Kuna Yala

Digir is a picturesque island with a village of traditional huts and a natural beach, with many sections of the coast being protected. It is especially beautiful at the “Punta Turística”, with the Cabaña huts for visitors and a marine reserve established by the village community.


Report by Renate Sponer


The Cabañas at Digir Dupu are part of a tourist project run by the community. Revenue earned through renting the Cabañas to tourists directly benefits the people of this community. What awaits the visitors is a gorgeous, attractive travel destination, where they can experience the culture of Guna, explore the spectacular natural environment, discover the local and national cuisine or just relax in the Cabañas on the beach before the ocean, all the while supporting the people who live there, who have committed themselves to the sustainable use of the island's resources.


As in Digir, five other communities on the Caribbean coast of Panama the project are working on the sustainable use of marine resources. These communities have formed commissions responsible for implementing the measures.


Strengthen communities in the process of self-administration of the project

It is fair to say that since the outset of the project in 2005, MPA commissions of all participating communities have come a long way in promoting the sustainable use of marine resources and environmental protection in general. MPA commissions have earned themselves respect in their communities, having managed to establish themselves as institutions which work side by side and in coordination with other institutions. In one community, the MPA commission has ascended to be the commission for the environment and tourism. Commissions now take full charge of the planning, administration and execution of the project. They submit their work plans and reports using standard forms which now rarely cause any problems. They also submit monthly financial reports in their own communities. Each commission now has a digital camera to document their activities, both to us and in their communities, using bulletin boards. Every three months, when project coordinators visit the communities, work plans and reports are turned in, materials delivered (particularly educational) and work progress is discussed. According to the 3-month work plans and budgets of each commission, funds are deposited in their bank accounts in the Narganá branch of the Banco Nacional.


MPA management

The running of Marine Protected Areas includes their maintenance (e.g. putting in place signposts and buoys, and extracting rubbish), policing, monitoring, promotion and educational activities, purchasing of materials, planning and accounting. This work is accomplished mainly by MPA commissions however, policing is sometimes done by all community members, through a rotational scheme. MPAs are now well established, community members respect and value them and illegal extraction of marine life is rare. The only method of fishing allowed within MPAs is by hook and line.


Environmental education

Since the outset of our work in 2004, environmental education has been at the heart of this project and a constant feature of our work. All parts of this project have educational components, all have important messages related to the sustainable use and conservation of the environment, kuna traditions, sustainable agriculture and food security, among others. Educational activities are as varied as the ideas of the people who teach and those who are taught. They are directed at all groups and ages, e.g. pupils, women groups, sports clubs, community leaders, fishermen, lobster divers, teachers, etc., and using the most appropriate materials and methods available according to the groups addressed (e.g. through seminars, videos, snorkeling outings, posters, bulletin boards). Educators include project promoters and MPA commissionaires who receive training and materials through the project. An emphasis is made on the equal importance of both, kuna and scientific knowledge and where possible, we compare and combine the two.


Sustainable Agriculture and waste management

MPA commissions make full use of the support in sustainable agriculture they get through this project: each commission has several plots on the mainland for different produce (bananas, manioc, maize, sweet potato, rice, pineapple, cocoa, coffee, sugarcane and citrics), as well as vegetable gardens on the island (which produce tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and herbs). Products are distributed among the families of the commissions, used for the school kitchen and for special occasions, like visiting sailas. In some communities this initiative brought the first locally produced cooking bananas (platano, massunnad) on the tables, after years of absence. Coffee and cocoa, once important products have become scarce in recent years and for this project their seeds/seedlings had to be imported from the Comarca Kuna of Madungandi.


Construction of a field station in the offshore islands of Maoki

The construction of a field station on the island of Duiladup, in Maoki, was delayed by lengthy discussions about the use of materials and type of building that would be most convenient and by what became clear to be a weak and disorganized 6 Pueblos. Since these 6 islands are some 2 hours boat ride apart, communication is an issue, given that formal meetings take place only once a month, but are often postponed and thus less frequent. After several months of planning, the field station was constructed, however using some materials of inferior quality than planned and desired. The roof of the building is currently not yet finished. The administration of the funds also caused problems and questioning and when an audit was ordered by the assembly of the 6 Pueblos, it was found that receipts were still missing. This scandal led to the dismissal of the former board of directors, with the new board having taken over in January of the present year.


Fundación Balu Uala & our Project

BALU UALA is a kuna non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities manage their resources sustainably. The organization was founded in 2002 and has been working in Kuna Yala since 2004, with support from the Lighthouse Foundation. BALU UALA has been expanding its work from originally one to six and recently twelve communities in Kuna Yala. Our approach is to inform people so they can understand the problems, undertake research targeted at resource management and support communities in how to sustainably use their natural resources, particularly of the marine environment.


We started our work in the community of Ukupseni, in May of 2004, on a purely voluntary basis. At this time , one of the objectives of the project was to get a good understanding of the social, economic, political and environmental situation of this community, as an example for Kuna Yala in general. In addition, we wanted to draw people’s attention to the ongoing deterioration of the reefs, by giving seminars to different sectors of the community. Through our seminars, we realized that people had very, very little knowledge about these topics. If we were to improve the health of coral reefs and secure their long-term sustainable use, and in order to raise people’s awareness of the importance of these issues, we would need to undertake a massive public environmental education program.


Throughout the nearly three years since the outset of the project we have done just that: each community has one or two local promotors, who, at the outset of the project were trained in the principles of science, marine biology and ecology, conservation, coral biology, and environmental education and whose job it is to raise awareness and knowledge within their communities. Through the promotors´hard work and monthly visits by the project coordinators at each community, we have been maintaining a slow but steady flow of information on a wide range of marine environmental topics related to coral reefs, to a very broad public. Nowadays, BALU UALA is well-known throughout most communities of Kuna Yala for its environmental work and more communities are interested in taking part in the program. We are currently working in the communities of Wichubwala, Gardi Sugdup, Urgandi, Guebdi, Yandup, Akwanusadup, Digir, Niadup, Ukupseni, Dad Nakwe Dupbir and Ogobsucun, as well as Gaigirgordup, the island of the Congreso General Kuna (CGK), the highest authority within the Comarca.


Our project now contains two main programs: I) fisheries management (in 12 communities) and II) marine protected areas (MPAs) as a tool for coral reef management (in 6 communities), with the following concrete objectives:

  • assure the sustainability of fisheries for commercial species (lobster, king crab, octopus, queen conch) by enforcing the management regulations of the CGK
  • make people understand the necessity of regulating the commercial fisheries by explaining the dangers of over-fishing
  • assist lobster divers to improve their administrational skills as small businesses and protect their health through safer diving practices; assist in the process of forming fisheries cooperatives
  • restore and protect coral reefs for future generations


After intensive training courses during the first years of the project where many personnel were formed as environmental educators it is again time to train the next generation of promotors, since there have been changes of personnel in most commissions.


In order to evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas it is important to carry out formal ecological surveys to compare species abundance, coral health etc. with the base-line data from each reserve.


Those communities with significant tourism activity should work on a better promotion of their MPAs, as a way of working towards self-sustainability


The new Maoki field station is an important addition to our resources and needs to be put to its use. Activities should include the training of personnel of the 6 Pueblos to help ensure optimal protection of natural resources in Maoki and educational field trips to the islands with students and teachers.


Since the discovery that many coral diseases are caused directly or indirectly by the influx of human waste on the reefs, it is important to search for options to reduce this kind of contamination on the reefs of Kuna Yala, where there are currently no mechanisms for its mitigation.






Apartado 0843-01784 Panamá

Teléfonos: 232-7461; Celular: 6510-9177

Email: baluuala(at)cwpanama.net




Kuna Yala Gallery

Fisheries inspector measures lobsters to enforce minimum size-limits set by the CGK.
Under-sized spiny lobster.
Landfills with corals to expand the island and gain building space.
Black-band disease on Diploria strigosa.
Bleached Agaricia tenuifolis.
Algae are overgrowing corals.
Observing plancton in the microscope.
Surveying areas that are to be part of community MPAs for long-term monitoring.
Seminar by a promotor during a quarterly meeting of the project staff for project evaluation and planning.