Is the business of sustainability for everyone?

Cartí Sugtupu island

The bustling island of Cartí Sugtupu serves as a hub for the Gunas living in the Comarca. Cartí Sugtupu includes a solar-powered school, as well as a hostel and supermarket, among its amenities. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

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Business & Economics, Climate

By Molly Glick

As a toddler, Diwigdi Valiente ogled at the strangers on his family’s remote island. These sailboats brought visitors unlike anyone he had ever seen: blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and “super pale.” As these sailors stopped at his island en route to Colombia, Valiente gathered vegetables from the island garden. “Take, take, take!” He would declare, a natural entertainer. Today, it’s no surprise that Valiente runs an innovative hostel business.

Valiente’s mother is Panamanian and his father is Guna, one of Panama’s eight indigenous groups. Originating in Colombia, Spaniards uprooted the Guna in the 16th century. This spurred centuries of Guna migration to Panama’s San Blas Archipelago, also referred to as the Comarca Guna Yala. Over 360 islands constitute the Comarca, with approximately 49 currently occupied. The Guna peoples’ next move, however, will be propelled by an entirely different force.

Due to rising sea levels, the Guna residents of the San Blas Islands face major flooding and are expected to eventually evacuate to Panama’s mainland. If you ask Valiente when exactly the Guna must pack up their lives and leave, he can’t give a definitive answer.

“That’s a very difficult question. Four years ago, there was a budget to move the island people to the mainland. The (Panama) government changed, and the budget was gone,” Valiente says. “There is not a specific time.”

The fate of San Blas may resemble that of other vulnerable land masses. A 2017 study by the Journal of Coastal Conservation found that islands in the western Pacific Ocean have experienced a rate of sea level rise that is about four times greater than the global average. The climate change-induced factors behind this disparate sea level rise include changes in trade winds and melting ice sheets. As a result of significant flooding, small islands in Micronesia have vanished completely.

As the Guna contend with the repercussions of global industrialization, people like Diwigdi Valiente see opportunity.

“I am committed to building the most sustainable hostel chain in the world,” Valiente says.

He left his job as international tax auditor at Panama’s Ministry of Economy and Finance to found the Bodhi hostel chain in 2014. Valiente and his business partner Allan Lim both consider themselves environmentally conscious. Most importantly, Valiente says, they are equipped to handle the business side of things. Valiente and Lim hold each hold Bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, management and business.

The pair began Bodhi modestly and opened a hostel inside a volcano, in Panama’s village of Valle de Antón. Within its first year, Bodhi El Valle de Antón was named the best hostel in the country.

Valiente says the company is focused on more than just hospitality. Bodhi’s non-profit mission, Burwigan, educates Guna children — a generation of potential climate refugees — about climate change. Valiente accomplishes this through art projects, demonstrating the precarious fate of their islands through watercolor paintings of sea creatures.

“I realize that if we don’t make a change soon, it’s going to be too late for us,” Valiente says. “But I would say the more access to information you have, the better. That’s what I’m trying to do with my project.”

The second Bodhi hostel opened this March at Kalu Yala, a sustainable “town” tucked in the Tres Brazos valley. Eco-inclined tourists, or perhaps those looking for a party in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, can lodge in a hostel run completely on solar panels. If you’re looking for an idyllic beach vacation, you can opt for the Guna’s San Blas Islands.

Just as these islands begin to submerge, an indigenous tourism industry run by Guna families thrives.

“More and more (Guna) people are having businesses in tourism” Valiente says. “People that used to dive for lobster or fish will not do that anymore.”

‘Symbols of resilience’

It’s impossible to traverse Panama without encountering embroidered patches of fabric with striking embroideries that seem to move on their own. Mola art has become an quintessential souvenir, though they represent more than a mere decoration. The molas preserve traditional Guna stories, which are rooted in a reverence for the earth as dictated by prophet Ibeorgun. A hummingbird flits across the mola, delivering the message of the gods. Vertical stripes of thread denote the sun shining through the bamboo walls of the Guna home.

Molas are a symbol of resilience, Valiente says, created after Spanish missionaries demanded that Gunas wear clothing. They display the same patterns historically employed in traditional body art, rooted in the Mother Earth and Father Sun binary that is present in each aspect of everyday life. This notion of living in balance with nature was present long before western notions of carbon emissions and battery-operated cars. Yet, it’s all at risk. As flooding threatens the Gunas, so does time itself.

Nuñez-Davies’ mother sells molas and jewelry on her home of Pelican island to visiting tourists, who often leave traces like plastic bottles behind. The family works to dispose of visitors’ garbage by burning or burying it, which is easier with their own compostable waste. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

“We are losing culture. We are losing the people that know the medicine plants,” says Aresio Valiente López, a lawyer and professor at the University of Panama. He specializes in agricultural, environmental and indigenous law. He’s a consultant. He’s a poet and a dancer. He is also Diwigdi’s father.

López says he has witnessed both domestic and global corporations attempt to take over indigenous territories to develop hotels and hydroelectric plants. It’s no surprise, since 60 percent of forest areas belong to Panama’s indigenous groups. Seemingly-positive initiatives like eco-tourism and renewable energy development are at odds with generations of people who live to defend their land.

But climate change poses an even greater danger to the Guna than corporate exploitation, as they are set to lose their homes in the Comarca. While many Gunas attribute increased storms and flooding to the gods, people like Valiente López are taking action.

“People like us, who got a much more western education do believe in climate change…that we have to get organized and be strategically prepared for what is coming to us,” he says. López hopes to form an environmental department under the sovereign Guna government, as well as consultations with Panama’s Minister of Environment. So far, the department hasn’t reached out to any indigenous groups, he says.

The private sector has assisted the Guna, however, by improving access to electricity with the solution of alternative energy. Between 2006 and 2013, the Inter-American Development Bank collaborated with the Panamanian government on the Rural Electrification Program. The effort provided rural areas like the San Blas Islands with “off-grid power systems” like photovoltaic solar panels in its first phase.

The $20.8 million loan doesn’t, however, account for a culture permanently altered by global industrialization. But by any measure of the term, the Guna manage a sustainable culture with modest reliance on energy.

“Why would you have to teach them to live sustainably when they have been living sustainably for all this time?” Valiente says. “We are the ones teaching you.”

Kalu Yala goal: Empowering individuals

And at Kalu Yala, the primarily American and primarily white staff is still learning. At the moment, the town is far from the “Disney World of sustainability” that founder and president Jimmy Stice envisions — there’s a high employee turnover rate and construction on the first round of 20 homes has barely begun. Still, his mission is clear.

“How do you create a place where when you buy a cup of cold brew coffee, you’re actually sequestering carbon, distributing income and creating socio-economic mobility?” Stice says. Kalu Yala’s coffee is grown in nearby Boquete and roasted on-site, by the way.

Stice works with interns and staff to establish a model of living where the residents themselves make up the supply chain, which he envisions would eventually grow to a global market that empowers the individual. Kalu Yala has made small steps in this direction, most notably grow practically all of their own produce. When the intimate community of employees and student interns sits down to enjoy eggplant-quinoa salad and scrambled eggs with plantains, they can track their meal to merely yards away.

Kalu Yala intern Riley Dunn points to the initial construction of Kalu Yala’s residences. For her final project, Dunn imagined the alleys of these future living spaces. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

“Right now I don’t give a shit if this place has 500 people and it’s a cute little village. (If) it fulfills that mission, I’m fine,” Stice says. “If we go and build 20 of these things and they’ve got a 5 million person population, that would be really nice too.”

Stice and his head staff occupy what appears to be an ordinary office plopped into a jungle. If you venture into a particular thicket of palm leaves, you will find a clearing with a humming Wi-Fi router and employees pecking away on their laptops.

In another wooded corner of Kalu Yala, engineering director Sasha Papich can be found tinkering with a distillation pot and fermentation tanks. While he spends the majority of his days working with engineering students, Papich returns to his makeshift distillery late into the night. He is assisting Kalu Yala’s mission by building a sustainable rum distillery. It’s yet another component of Kalu Yala’s business model — the distillery will serve as an attraction for guests and currently provides rum to the town bar.

As a bio-resource engineer, Papich brings a lot to the table. He wants to make the distilling process completely carbon-neutral. In addition to using solar panels for hydrolysis, he aims to use sugar cane juice from local farmers brought over by mules. To render the system carbon-negative, Papich will plant trees nearby to offset emissions. The rum’s methane by-products can be used to extract biofuel from algae, according to recent Kalu Yala intern research.

Papich has found that his engineering niche, particularly his knowledge of renewable energy, makes him a valuable commodity. He says he has witnessed a shift in the corporate mindset. Entrepreneurs like Jimmy Stice recognize that there’s profit in being green. The International Energy Agency found that renewable energy sources provided two-thirds of the world’s net new power capacity in 2016.

“Some companies are doing it for the right reasons, some are trying to profit,” Papich says. “Companies who are trying to work with other companies to make the best product and reduce the most carbon emissions as possible, those are the ones you hear about. As long as they’re making a difference, I’m OK with it.”

The personalities behind this movement are not all behemoths like Elon Musk, captivating the world with visions of electric cars and Hyperloops. Valiente certainly possesses the appropriate charm, and he’s a finance mogul in his own right. He insists that a business can only tout a passion for the environment if it brings in a profit, a win-win partnership of sustainability and sound economics. “Sustainability is actually a way to make money and have an impact on society and environment at the same time,” Valiente says. “If you don’t make money and survive out of it, you are not sustainable.” He slaps the table for emphasis.

Stay or go? And if they stay — how?

The sinking Pelican Island, known to tourists as a idyllic lunch view, is home to Abelardo “Tito” Nuñez-Davies and his mother. (Alex Schwartz/Medill)

Valiente says he has seen Pelican Island, one of the popular San Blas tourism spots, shrink in half since his last visit. Abelardo “Tito” Nuñez-Davies hosts tourist visits to the island, which have included a boat of nudists. He was raised in Panama City and only joined his mother here 15 years ago, after he injured his back in a car accident.

I meet him as he emerges from his thatched palm-leaf home where his mother cooks him breakfast. The house used to sit squarely in the middle of the island, Davies says. Today, the turquoise Caribbean laps at the home’s edges. He recalls one storm that flooded the entire island. During his rescue, Davies did not have time to salvage any belongings. “What can I say?” Davies says. “We’re here because of the grace of God.”

Davies says that, in order to sustain tourism, he’s attempting to build a sea wall and an artificial coral reef that would keep the island intact. This process will kill fish, though, which is the main source of food for Davies and his mother.

He says he hasn’t even thought about leaving. Yet, for many Gunas there will be no other option. They have already moved once, after all. Professor Aresio Valiente López does not necessarily think of this as a bad thing.

“At some point, what we had 100 years ago is not going to be the same anymore,” Aresio Valiente López says. “But cultures (are) dynamic.”

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