Preserving the Biodiversity of Coral Reefs: The Gunadule of Panama

We cant live without natures help, and nature cant live without our help. We must protect our planets biodiversity to safeguard the future of our ecosystems, our climate, our health, and our humanity. In this special series, the UN Foundation commissioned five Indigenous photographers to show how their communities and families are at the heart of the struggle to save the world’s wild places, under threat like never before. Photos by Duiren Wagua.

“The Saglas (spiritual guides) tell us in their songs that we came from great mountains and great rivers,” says Duiren Wagua, a photographer from the Indigenous Gunadule people of Panama.

“We have a recent relationship with the sea, with Muu Bi-li, the greatest grandmother.”

Some 300 years ago, the Gunadule migrated from the forests of northern Colombia to the islands of what is now Panama.

“Our ancestors’ relationship with our greatest grandmother was something that had to be learned,” Wagua says. “Our ancestors had to discover how to deal with the waves, currents, and corals.

“The ancient ones speak of ‘Ised’: taboos found in our legends that tell us about species we must not consume. To do so would take their spirit. They instruct us that we must not eat octopus, tortoise, shark. This practice has led us to conserve marine species.”

The Gunadule were granted full autonomy and sovereignty over their land and coastal waters in 1938. Their territory, named Guna Yala, is now the most biodiverse marine environment in Panama, home to more than 80% of the country’s coral reefs.

By promoting responsible use and traditional conservation practices, the Gunadule strive to protect these reefs for the livelihood and safety of their people.

“The coral reefs make up one of the most productive ecosystems in our Muu Bil-li,” Wagua says. “They also form natural barriers that protect the coastal areas and islands against high and intense waves.”

With villages built so closely to the ocean, and a culture so intrinsically tied to its protection, the Gunadule people have also witnessed firsthand the drastic changes to their marine territory over the past 30 years.

“Global warming is gradually taking away a part of our marine territory: the islands,” says Wagua. “The sea was a great crossroads, connecting us to the world and giving us a home. Now, it is stripping away our skin and our memory a little at a time.”

In recent years, rising sea levels have inundated Gunadule villages and flooded homes. Wagua says many people have begun to look elsewhere for a place to live.

“The sea has reclaimed a significant part of the islands in recent years. As global warming continues to affect us, we need to return to the forests without turning our backs on the protection of the sea that nourishes us.”

Climate change is not the only concern of the Gunadule people. Tourism has exploded in the region over the past three decades as people from around the world come to see the Gunadule reefs and the most abundant sponge and coral populations in all of Panama.

Boasting 25% of all marine species and rivaling the biodiversity of tropical rainforests, coral reefs are vitally important to human and planetary health. They serve as a breeding ground for millions of animals; provide new medicines that treat cancer, HIV, viruses, and other health problems; support vast fisheries both near and offshore; and buffer coastlines from almost 100% of wave energy from storms. The abundant biodiversity that reefs display also generates $36 billion every year from tourism.

Unfortunately, tourists often bring destruction to coral reefs.

In recent years, 75% of global coral reefs have “bleached,” a phenomenon of ocean warming and acidification that kills the living corals and turns them white. Ironically, this means tourists have been flocking to smaller and smaller coral reef areas, such as Guna Yala, bringing with them boats, flippers, garbage, and a limited understanding of the fragility of these reefs.

More and more sailboats and yachts are coming to Gunadule territory, Wagua says, dumping waste and dropping their anchors on coral reefs and seagrasses, two of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.

“The tourists lack awareness that touching or stepping on a coral kills it.”

“For us, the loss of the coral reefs and marine biodiversity means being deprived of our food sovereignty, medicine, and protection against the incursions of the sea. It requires us to go ever farther out to fish in more distant reef systems,” says Wagua.

In the face of mounting threats from climate change and tourism, Wagua speaks of a responsibility to protect the abundance of life in his people’s territory.

The Gunadule people today have an inescapable commitment to take care of the sea and reverse the misguided practices of overuse, promoting instead the rational use of ocean resources,” says Wagua.

“We must once again listen to our forebears, feel the cosmos and return to being part of the biodiversity of the animals, minerals and forests. They are our older brothers and sisters, who protect us and give us life.”


Duiren Wagua is of the Indigenous Gunadule people, who predominantly reside on small islands off the mainland of Panama, in a territory known as Guna Yala. As a filmmaker and photographer, Wagua uses these mediums to tell stories of his people, community, and ancestral life, as well as the environment they inhabit and the biodiversity they seek to protect.

View more of Duiren’s photography at @duiren_wagua on Instagram.

Media content supported by Indigenous led charity If Not Us Then Who?