Protecting Coral Reefs in Panama Through Local Stewardship
With a precious coral ecosystem under threat from human activities, MarAlliance is engaging the people of Guna Yala to gather data that can help protect it.
As a long isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Panama holds a unique place in the maritime world. Its underwater habitats are special too, and it’s on the reefs of the country’s north-eastern, Caribbean coast that you can find the most biodiverse and healthiest corals in the country. With a myriad of colourful and diverse species living and feeding upon them, these vibrant coral reefs are the cornerstone of the marine ecosystem in the independent indigenous territory of Guna Yala province. What’s more, the reefs also form an integral part of the rich cultural fabric and spiritual beliefs of the Guna people.
Threats to the reef ecosystem
As in many places in the world, there is often a lack of understanding of coral reef habitats in Guna Yala. Local communities and visitors typically lack awareness of the reefs’ fragility and how human impacts are contributing to their decline. Consequently, physical damage from improper anchorage of boats, irresponsible snorkelling, and wastewater pollution are ongoing threats. Moreover, local people directly mine the coral to build up the shores of island communities against increasing sea level rise, destroying the very ecosystem they depend on.
Understanding how these key marine habitats are being affected by people and climate change is critical to designing and implementing effective conservation strategies. But this requires knowledge about the current health of this ecosystem and the marine life that inhabits it, and how it has changed over time. Surprisingly, there is little scientific knowledge about the reefs in Guna Yala, and a lack of technical capacities and financial resources has hindered effective monitoring and management by the Guna General Congress.
The aims of the MarAlliance Project
After 20 years without any surveying, MarAlliance is leading a project to gather critical information on the state of the reef ecosystems needed by local communities and the Guna General Congress.
This project is assessing at least 23 coral reef sites in the most coral-rich Narganá district. At each site, the participants conducted standardized assessments, collecting data on coral coverage, disease, biodiversity, and fisheries.
These 23 sites had previously been assessed 20 years ago, so the new project enables a follow up assessment at each location. By making the new assessments at the same sites, the project can determine changes in overall reef health, and establish a new baseline for the coral reefs’ health and associated biodiversity, which will feed directly into spatial management plans.
Participation of local people
The project began with a period of consultations with local leaders in different Guna communities, to inform them about the coral reef assessment and actively promote it. This also aimed to find potential young leaders who would like to participate and train in coral reef assessment methodology.
Then the data collection began, led by a local team – a mixture of indigenous Guna and non-Guna men and women, who have previously been certified in scuba diving and a range of coral reef assessment techniques. MarAlliance also engaged other local people such as fishermen, university students, and biologists, who made snorkelling assessments at shallower sites.
Support from Hurtigruten Foundation of NOK 50,000 (approx. USD 5,150) helped to fund the initial consultations and assessment preparations. Once the fieldwork is finished, MarAlliance will work on analysing the data to establish the overall current health of the coral reefs and identify any significant changes over the last 20 years.
Overall, the outreach activities, assessments, and subsequent analyses of data were programmed to take place over an eight-week period between June and October 2022 but have now been postponed until 2023. Following the analysis, the team plans to present the results at a workshop and feedback forum in Guna Yala for the community leaders, local fishermen, and the Guna General Congress.
Informing long-term stewardship
With updated quantitative and comparative data on the current status of the coral reefs, as well as feedback from the local communities, MarAlliance hopes to form the basis of a comprehensive coral monitoring and management plan for the Guna General Congress.
This plan should include continuous monitoring of coral reefs and associated fish, by engaging Guna communities in long-term stewardship. Moreover, it is hoped the plan will ensure protection of key habitats and delineation of community-managed protected areas to improve both fisheries and tourism. It will also include next steps, such as restoration initiatives and recommendations for mitigating activities that impact coral reefs.
The improved knowledge on overall coral reef health and status at key sites will thus help guide the locals’ desire to improve locally based tourism activities. At the same time, it will enable the indigenous Guna people to better manage their marine resources. By developing and safeguarding these sources of income – as well as the ecosystem that they all depend upon – MarAlliance is ultimately helping hundreds of families to secure a sustainable future.
MarAlliance explores, enables and inspires conservation action for threatened marine wildlife and their critical habitats. Through this, they hope to inspire a sense of wonder about the ocean, to promote sustainable tourism and to foster the effectiveness of protected marine areas.
Where can I learn more?
You can see more on the MarAlliance website.