Community champions: Guna sea savior Leyson Navarro


Leyson out at sea to monitor marine megafauna in Guna Yala

“I want to support my community members by using my knowledge for their wellbeing and for a better use of our natural riches.” Leyson’s eyes fill with pride when he talks about his family, studies and indigenous background. Originally from a small community called Ugupseni (“small beach” in Guna language) located on an island covered by lush forest, the 33 year-old son in a family of five brothers, is the only one who studied marine biology and now wants to give back to his community.

The place he calls home is part of an archipelago of almost 400 islands that make up the indigenous region of Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas) in Panama, only 36 of them are inhabited. The Guna people use the islands’ resources for fishing and hunting. Born and bred in a place surrounded by the sea, Leyson spent most of his free time swimming. He grew up to love the sea and its wildlife, which inspired him to study marine biology.

Lionfish workshop in Guna Yala

Leyson joined MarAlliance in 2017, and has supported our work in the Guna Yala region as a Research Officer ever since by monitoring the area’s sharks and rays, conducting trainings and educational workshops for traditional Guna fishers and raising awareness on how to protect the precious marine wildlife and key habitats of the region. Leyson remembers how it all started, “We built relationships with their leaders and worked with them in areas where they needed us. They told us at first they didn’t care about sharks, but they had a problem with lionfish. So we organized a peer-to-peer training with fishers from Mexico and Belize to show them how to deal with the invasive lionfish.” The successful lionfish project subsequently led to community requests for more education on a range of marine related topics and a keen interest in conducting long-term monitoring of marine wildlife.

Leyson during an outreach workshop with future Guna conservationists

“The work we do is important because we train community members about how the region’s marine diversity can be beneficial to them and how to keep it in good shape. As the indigenous people are the guardians of the islands, the reef and their wildlife, they are gradually assuming responsibility for it. If they manage the marine resources carefully and safeguard their quality, they will be able to continue benefiting from them for generations to come,” he added.

Change is already happening in the communities where MarAlliance works, with fishers adapting their fishing behavior. “Before our work in the region, when the fishers saw a shark, they killed it. Now they tell me that when they see a shark, they don’t harm it because they know the animal is important to the marine ecosystem,” Leyson explained.

However, he feels continued efforts are needed to help Guna people keep their coasts and villages clean, recycle their waste and support the conservation of threatened species in other communities.

Leyson also recognizes that this kind of collaboration only works when it is a two-way stream. Organizations like MarAlliance are learning from the indigenous communities as well, especially from their rich culture, traditions, different local fisheries laws and rules and most certainly from their passion for the wealth of resources nature offers them.

Thinking about the future, Leyson hopes his people will be able to continue to subsist based on the region’s natural resources, like they have always done, thanks to compliance with management plans and regulations, awareness raising campaigns and conservation work. “Being part of an organization that does this kind of work, I can support my community whenever they need me.”

Leyson’s work involves training the youngest community members too

Read more about how we build knowledge and skills across generations of indigenous Guna Yala to save marine wildlife on our Act4SDGs partner page.

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