Comarca Guna Yala, known to most as San Blas islands, encompasses a narrow strip of land along on the caribbean coast of Panama and an archipelago of approximately 365 islands. These remote islands have attracted adventurous travelers regularly since the 1960’s. By boat, to go from the furthest southern point, Puerto Obaldia, to the most northern point, El Porvenir is just over 100 miles. Within this expansive natural wonderland visitors enjoy coral reefs that are among the best preserved in NW Atlantic and Caribbean Bio-regions, and a fascinating but somewhat reclusive indigenous population knowns as the Guna. The Gunas total population is estimated at about 60,000 but only a little over 30,000 call the territory their primary home. Since completion of the only road into the territory in 2009 many Guna have left for opportunities in Panama while simultaneously the pristine, white sand islands formed within the safe harbors of these reefs have grown into one of the most popular travel destinations in Central America.
Among the most common questions from visitors of the area are: How did the Guna end up in the islands that they occupy today? and, Is the areas appropriate name San Blas or Guna Yala? Below, I will set out to answer these two question.
THE GUNA MIGRATION
The Guna are indigenous to mainland areas that are now occupied by the countries of Colombia and Panama, stretching from Cartagena de Indio to the Darien jungle. They migrated and settled first in the tropical islands for which they are famous today starting in the mid 1800’s. This migration took place over many years and the motivation for the movement has several roots. Their first transition from the inland mountains and jungles where they originally dwelled came about as a response to encroachment upon their personal safety and traditional way of life by Spanish soldiers and immigrants soon after their arrival to the continent in 1492. Once they became coastal dwellers and encountered the islands they sent men from their mainland communities to grow coconut palms, the fruits of which were traded for other staple goods with merchant vessels that passed through the islands seeking protection from the open ocean..
Though the Guna occupied the land long before the Spanish or Colombians (who were primarily of Spanish descent) it was not until 1840 that they received official territorial rights. The Colombian Act of June 4, 1870 identified the Guna as the owners of the coastal land and islands they continue to occupy to this day. Technically the government still maintained a mechanism of control over the region via a Colombian commissioner appointed by the central government, but because the territory was located in remote terrain far from Colombia’s capital of Bogota the Guna received little to no interference from the government with their traditional way of life, social and political structures.
Prior to 1903 the isthmus of Panama was not a country but rather a far outpost of Colombia. But once Panama gained independence life for the Guna began to change. After separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903 the Act of 1870 was ignored by the new Panamanian government, and the Gunas territory was divided between the two countries. The majority of which remained in Panama, while a small portion remained in Colombia. The suspension of recognition of the Guna as the rightful owners of the land allowed more settlers to move to the coastal region and these settlers quickly began to encroach on the Guna land and way of life. The creation of banana plantations which brought disease, the exploitation of land and sea resources by outsiders in search of gold, rubber, and sea turtles as well as abuse by the colonial police and Catholic missionaries installed in the region by the new Panamanian government caused great discontent among the natives and eventually brought about the Guna Revolution of February 25 of 1925. This successful revolution, which earned the Guna land rights, is a story in itself and will be the subject of future articles.
By 1938 the Panamanians had recognized the Guna as the rightful owners of the territory, but it took until 2001 for Panama’s supreme court to officially offer a measure of political autonomy when the Congreso General Guna became recognized as the ultimate authority inside the comarca. Among other things Congreso formed the “Ley Fundamental Guna,” which bans the sale or rent of Guna lands to outsiders, including Panamanians, as well as non-Guna investments in their territory. However until 2011 to Panama and the outside world the territories official name remained Golfo de San Blas. In 2011, after nearly 10 years of lobbying by the Guna Congreso General the name was officially changed to Comarca Guna Yala in an effort to accurately represent the heritage of it’s owners.
GOLFO DE SAN BLAS
This was the name first assigned by the Spanish, carried on by Colombia when it achieved independence from Spain in 1819 and then by Panama as well when it succeeded to form it’s own country in 1903. Golfo references the geographic natural oceanic gulf area bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the north, the mainland Darien province to the south, the Gulf of Urabá to the east, and on the west by the mainland province of Colón. Saint Blaise is the saint of the wild beast. He is the patron of the Armenian Order of Saint Blaise. In Spanish-speaking countries, he is known as San Blas, and has lent his name to many places including areas, towns or provinces in Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, Malta, Paraguay, Peru, Spain and US. The name seemed fitting to the Spaniards who first passed through because the lush jungles and rugged island lined coastal waters were then, and remain today, home to one of the most biologically rich diverse biomes in the world, on both sea and on land. So translated interpretatively the meaning is Gulf of the patron saint of wild beasts.
COMARCA GUNA YALA
Comarca is a Spanish word for county, and when used in Panama it is in reference to Article 5 of the Constitution 1904 which defines comarcas as political divisions with special reasons for administrative convenience, public service, and legislation on indigenous territories. In short this means greater autonomy for the indigenous populations within their defined territories. As previously mentioned the Guna are the indigenous population that occupy the comarca and Yala is the Guna word for both mountains and land. So translated interpretatively Comarca Guna Yala means The autonomous land of the Guna.
Since 2011 Congreso General Guna Yala has been working to ensure that locals, Panamanians and foreign tourist alike start to identify the comarca as Guna Yala rather than San Blas. However, because the areas was recognized geographically as San Blas for several hundred years, and promoted to tourists as such for more than 50 years, the change is slow. Many people including some Guna still refer to the area as San Blas, but the correct name is in fact Guna Yala.