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Natural Disturbances and Mining of Panamanian Coral Reefs by Indigenous People

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Before the 1980s, coral reefs were considered relatively stable and healthy in Kuna-Yala, Caribbean Panama. During the 1980s, however, several natural disturbances changed the reef's community structure. We evaluated historical changes in coral cover and for the first time provide quantitative evidence of a large-scale process of reef degradation. This process started long before the onset of these disturbances as a result of demographic growth and the traditional practices of the Kuna people. Living coral cover declined 79% in 30 years ( 1970–2001 ) while the indigenous population increased 62%. We measured 20 km of seawall built with mined reef corals ( 16,000 m 3 ) and an increase in island surface area of 6.23 ha caused by coral land filling. Consequently, coastal erosion has increased as a result of the lack of a protective natural barrier and a 2.0 cm/year local increase in sea level. Coral-mining and land-filling practices to accommodate population expansion and mismanagement of resources have significantly modified the reef ecosystem and will have serious long-term consequences. We propose eight priority conservation areas within the Indian reserve, based on reef conservation status. The Kuna people and their leaders are considering a cultural change, which may include a gradual and organized migration to the mainland, and have optimistically accepted our results.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Box 2072, Balboa, Republic of Panama

Publication date: October 1, 2003

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