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The Guna won their land from the Panamanian government after a revolution in 1925 and have been managing it communally ever since. Here Marcos Ramirez (center) directs members of the Yarsuisuit Collective as they weed a plot that they cultivate in the forest. Photo by Bear Guerra.

Like many of the world’s indigenous groups, Panama’s Guna people are facing formidable challenges: the impacts of climate change, encroaching outside influences, and a younger generation that’s drifting away from its roots.

Yet their situation is not nearly as dire as it might be. One reason is their communal system of forest management, which is emerging as a model of conservation and the sustainable use of resources.

Homelands’ Bear Guerra and Ruxandra Guidi spent time with the Guna this summer and teamed up on a photo essay and article for the environmental magazine Ensia.

Kuna Yala from the air

The Kuna Yala region is home to Panama’s healthiest forests. Photo by Bear Guerra.

Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra recently returned from a two-week visit to the indigenous communities of Kuna Yala, on Panama’s Caribbean coast. They were exploring the Kuna people’s relationship to their mainland forest, which is among the best preserved in the region.

Their trip was supported by a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative fellowship on the role of community forest management in efforts to limit climate change.

recent report by the World Resources Institute looked at deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in the world’s most heavily forested countries. The researchers found that land held by local and indigenous communities tends to be significantly less affected by deforestation–and to produce far fewer emissions–than land managed by governments or private entities.

Rux and Bear will publish their print, radio, and multimedia stories this fall.

Flooded village

Children walk through floodwaters in Ustupu Island village in the Kuna Yala region of Panama. With sea levels rising and storms in the islands getting stronger, indigenous Kuna leaders are planning to relocate entire villages to the mainland. Photo by Bear Guerra.

The environmental website Mongabay.org has selected Homelands producer-members Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra for a Special Reporting Initiative award for their multimedia project on climate change and community forestry in Panama.

Climate Change in Kuna Yala

Ustupu Island chief Leodomiro Paredes (pictured with his wife, Imelda) says developed nations responsible for climate change should help pay for his people’s move. Photo by Bear Guerra.

Ruxandra and Bear have reported from the area before, for The Atlantic. With support from Mongabay, they’ll return to do more reporting this spring and summer. They plan to publish their work later this year under a Creative Commons license.

Other winners of Mongabay’s Special Reporting Initiative awards are Robert Eshelman for his look at deforestation in Indonesia and Dominic Bracco II and Erik Vance for an investigation of sustainable fisheries in China.

Radio and print journalist Ruxandra Guidi and photographer Bear Guerra joined Homelands as producers and board members in February. They co-founded the multimedia group Fonografia Collective.

A new post on the National Geographic blog takes a look at the climate change mitigation strategy known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) from the perspective of two indigenous groups who will be directly affected. The report was produced by our friends Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra of Fonografia Collective, and includes an article, photographs, and multimedia documentaries.

The REDD program, launched by the UN in 2008, is “an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.”

Ruxandra and Bear spent time with the Kuna and Emberá people in Panama. The Kuna worry that a REDD deal under discussion between the Panamanian government and the World Bank could limit their access to ancestral forests as rising sea levels force them to abandon the low-lying islands where most of them now live. Some Emberá, whose own forests have been ravaged by settlers and loggers, are taking part in a pilot tree-planting project that follows the REDD’s basic framework. Both groups are moving cautiously, weighing the economic, political and cultural risks against the potential rewards.

Panama is something of a test case as tropical countries around the world look to cash in on the carbon held in rainforests and other ecosystems inhabited and used by indigenous people. It’s a fascinating and important story.