By Rodolfo Dam Lam, and Alexandros Gasparatos.
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The rapid modernization facing many Indigenous communities around the world has often caused major transformations in traditional lifestyles, social structures and ecosystems. The Gunas of Panama are a clear example of an Indigenous society transforming rapidly with a few short decades through the increasing connectivity from tourism and infrastructure, the introduction of government-led education and social programmes, and the development aspirations of young Gunas following their migration in cities.
Here we weave insights from experts and local communities to unravel the interface of modernization, development and sustainability in Gunayala. We observe a very clear shift among younger Gunas from livelihoods based on subsistence agriculture, towards formal tourism-related livelihoods. This, combined with the increasing reliance of older Gunas on government assistance, has created the pre-conditions for the observed changes in the food production system, the degradation of ecosystems, and the loss of traditional knowledge and values. What is interesting to point is that these transformations have happened despite the rather strong traditional institutions of the Gunas.
Although these institutions have managed to keep intact some aspects of the traditional lifestyle, they have not guarded completely against the changes brought about by modernization and development. This is rather important when considering the concerted efforts towards strengthening indigenous institutions and self-determination in different parts of the world, exactly to guard against unchecked modernization and development.
We believe that good starting points would be to acknowledge this dichotomy in development aspirations between generations and work closely with external stakeholders to appreciate that seemingly desirable goals such as capital accumulation and infrastructure development, are not necessarily the main aspiration for Indigenous Communities, but means to achieve more important goals such as territorial autonomy, self-determination, and cultural preservation.