Revitalizing Traditional Knowledge in Ustupu

Ustupu, Guna Yala
2013 - Present

Indigenous peoples have maintained their relationship with their land through traditional knowledge systems deeply rooted in acknowledging the interdependence of culture and nature. These systems of practice, management, and governance are an important source of resilience in the face of great challenges and uncertainties facing humankind today.

However, traditional knowledge systems are increasingly eroding, undermining the capacity of these custodians of the global hotspots biological and cultural diversity to sustain their way of life, and thereby robbing humankind of crucial models for adaptation and resilience. It is now a critical moment to restore, maintain and enhance these systems by documenting, maintaining, and revitalizing traditional knowledge, wisdom, and practices.

Guna Yala, an independent indigenous territory in northeastern Panama, is one such hotspot of biological and cultural diversity and an important source of global resilience.


The Guna people are regarded internationally as pioneers in asserting their rights to self-determination. In response to the extreme policies to “westernize” indigenous peoples after Panama’s independence from Colombia, the Guna Revolution of 1925 ultimately led to Guna Yala’s autonomy from Panama state.

The Guna General Congress is the highest authority of Guna Yala, overseeing more than half a million acres comprised of 365 islands and pristine mainland rainforest – a globally significant carbon sink rich in biodiversity. Meeting twice a year, the Guna Congress dictates that representatives from each community are allowed to participate and that each delegation must include men, women and youth.

Land is Life has partnered with the Guna people for over two decades, supporting their participation at the United Nations and other international fora concerning the assertion of the rights of indigenous peoples, protection of biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable development. The Guna and Land is Life have also worked together on Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change, a project co-founded by Land is Life that documents climate change through indigenous perspectives.



In 2013, the annual celebration to commemorate the Kuna Revolution focused not only on the past, but also on the future of the Kuna people – especially its youth. The Kuna Congress acknowledged that Kuna youth are losing interest in their own culture and history due to an education system that is widely based on and propagated by the dominant society, despite a ruling to promote intercultural and bilingual education in all Kuna Yala schools.

Following the celebration, the Kuna Congress asked Land is Life to work with the community of Ustupo to develop a plan for revitalizing and sustaining traditional Kuna knowledge, through the establishment of a bespoke traditional knowledge school. Thus, the Ibeorgun Traditional Knowledge School of Kuna Yala was conceived. This one-year pilot program is being managed by Ustupo community members who have developed a culturally-rooted educational program for youth to stem their loss of interest in the traditional knowledge of their people. Pilot activities like hosting a training on climate change for indigenous leaders from around the world is already planned for the first year, as part of Kuna Yala’s ongoing partnership with Land is Life.

If successful, the Ibeorgun Traditional Knowledge School will serve as a model to be scaled up within Kuna Yala and Land is Life’s other partner-communities throughout Latin America, North America, Africa, and Asia over the next 3-5 years. 

Through this global Traditional Knowledge School Network, Land is Life and its partners will help ensure inter-generational transmission of traditional knowledge – an important step on the road to sustaining biological and cultural diversity around the world.