Unpacking the interface of modernization, development and sustainability in indigenous Guna communities of Panama.

Published online
11 Aug 2023
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Lam, R. D. & Gasparatos, A.
Contact email(s)

Publication language


This study elicits the main development challenges for the indigenous social-ecological system (SES) of the Guna people in Panama, which is characterized by rapid change and a unique governance system. We elicit the key challenges in the region through a combination of expert interviews with key actors in Gunayala's development and surveys with local communities. Current development centred on tourism and government support provide new livelihood opportunities, access to better education and healthcare. However, the shift from a subsistence-based economy characterized by strong community cohesion to a lifestyle characterized by capital accumulation has had undesirable consequences. The current modernization and development trends have degraded some of the core values within the Guna belief system and worldview, and ultimately degraded elements of the SES. This is despite the strong institutions and self-determination in Gunayala, which are commonly identified as strong buffers against unsustainable change in indigenous settings. Our study shows that merging the perspectives of national experts and Indigenous communities can help provide complementary lenses to identify how modernization processes, development aspirations and socioeconomic and environmental change intersect. Arguably this can provide valuable insights to inform effective and sensitive development programmes and mitigate unintended consequences.

Key words