Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Survival of the Log Canoe

Persistence of Logboats in Latin America: a framework to assess prospects of survival
(This essay is slightly modified from one written for a course in the maritime aspects of culture at University of Southampton.)


Vernacular watercraft are disappearing from many parts of the world (McGrail, 2001:201, 211; Blue, 2003:334; Pham et al., 2010:274), under pressure from a variety of forces often related to modernization. As vernacular boats represent living parts of the world’s maritime heritage and may, through the practice of ethnoarchaeology, offer insights into maritime archaeology per se, it is important to document as many of them and their uses as possible while they remain (Figure 1). With an unknown but large number of boat types at risk, a method by which to assess the level of threat in each instance would be useful, so that documentation efforts might be prioritized.

Measuring a logboat (McGrail, 2001:209)
Figure 1: Documenting a boat type threatened with extinction. (McGrail, 2001:209)
This essay proposes a simple framework of supply-and-demand-based factors to assess the survival prospects of traditional boat types. The essay examines examples of logboat use in Latin America found in recent literature to test the method’s utility, but the framework will accommodate all vernacular boat types and locales.

Craft traditions

A boatbuilding craft tradition embodies “a system of ideas about what boats and ships are and how they should be designed and constructed. This will impose constraints in terms of design parameters on the practice of construction” (Adams, 2010:301, 2013:24). But, Adams notes, while traditions exist to protect “best practice,” they are also capable of adapting in response to outside influences.

As will be shown below, the construction of logboats in Latin America occurs within craft traditions. Although these traditions vary from one society to the next, common among them is the conception of the boat as a tree that is felled and hollowed by one’s own labour or with the assistance of others in the community, using hand tools. Changes might occur in building methods over time (for example, the adoption of power tools) without fundamentally impairing the tradition of producing boats of a generally similar type by generally similar means. But at some level of change, a tradition becomes defunct. For example, a boatbuilder who shifts from the one-off production of logboats to the mass production of fiberglass hulls could not maintain the same conception about how boats are designed and built.

Understanding how a logboat building tradition responds to change is therefore central to assessing its prospects for survival.

Supply and demand

For a technology to persist in any society, there must be a sufficient number of people who want or need it, and a sufficient number of people willing and able to provide it. In other words, supply and demand must both remain positive. In most cases, this involves monetary payment or barter for goods or services of comparable value, although there are instances in which logboats are exchanged on other terms – for example, through a generalized practice of reciprocity (described below).

As noted by Lemmonier, “the rejection or adoption of technological features” (1993:18) – in other words, demand for technology in a given form – is not solely a matter of practical utility and economics, but also involves issues of status, group identity, social relations, and symbolism. Considering logboats, then, as a specific form of the general technology of “small boats,” an analysis of demand, and of the forces of supply that respond to it, requires that we look at a variety of factors, some straightforwardly utilitarian or economic in nature, and others ideological.

Demand factors

Although supply and demand are inextricably intertwined, it is convenient to address them separately. This section explores the positive and negative effects of various social and economic phenomena on logboat demand.


In several locations where logboats traditionally have been used as fishing craft, fewer individuals now fish for subsistence and more fish commercially, using larger boats and boats that are otherwise better suited to fishing with modern equipment (McSweeney, 2004:642; Heyman and Granados-Dieseldorff, 2012:139; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:192; Orofino et al., 2017:2783-2786), reducing demand for logboats. Decline in demand has also been attributed to an overall drop in fishing effort (Orofino et al., 2017:2785).

On the other hand, new niches occasionally arise which can be exploited effectively with logboats. This was the case in Santa Catarina, Brazil (Orofino et al., 2017:2789), and in Central America’s Mosquitia region (McSweeney, 2004:642), where logboats came into use as platforms from which to dive for lobsters for an emergent export market.

Construction and materials

Users may shift from logboats to other boat types because they perceive advantages in other boatbuilding methods and materials, notably plank-on-frame, glass-reinforced plastic (i.e., fiberglass), and metal (McSweeney, 2004:642; Orofino et al., 2017:2783, 2784-2786). Although a full discussion of the performance advantages and disadvantages of these methods/materials relative to logboats is outside the scope of this essay, it is relevant that all three can be used to build larger craft than is possible with logboats, and the latter two offer superior durability.

Some users, however, valorize logboats over other materials because they are perceived as being safer, due to their inherent buoyancy, and quieter when moving through the water, and so less likely to scare away fish (Orofino et al., 2017:2784). The higher purchase price of other types of boats, and the very fact that logboats are not durable in the tropics and so require frequent replacement, also tend to support a steady market for logboats in some areas (McSweeney, 2004:641).


Logboats can thrive where goods and services are exchanged through nonfinancial transactions (Gilmore et al., 2002:12; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:176-181). As boat users become more highly integrated into a modern cash economy, however, they become more likely to purchase ready-built boats of other materials (Heyman and Granados-Dieseldorff, 2012:139; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:220). The reason for this preference is unclear in some cases, as many logboat builders operate in a cash economy, and even those who practice barter may also accept payment in cash (Fuquen Gomez, 2014:173-174). In fact, market economics are central to the practice of some logboat builders (McSweeney, 2004; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:176-177; Orofino et al., 2017:2789). It seems probable that fishers who are not closely integrated in cash economies are more likely to fish for subsistence, and logboats continue to suffice for their relatively small-scale needs. In contrast, fishers who are more involved in modern cash economies may require larger boats to compete effectively.

As lesser-developed societies become more closely integrated within modern market economies, commercial credit becomes available to some individuals, making possible the acquisition of larger boats and thus depressing demand for logboats. However, owners of larger boats often find their costs of operation unsupportable. In response, many downsize to logboats (Emdad Haque et al., 2015:405). Meanwhile, individuals who do not have access to commercial credit may rely upon informal credit arrangements with family and friends. Such loans are typically for smaller amounts and tend to be used to purchase logboats (Emdad Haque et al., 2015:405). Being less costly than other boat types, logboats thus continue to provide utility by which poorer individuals can live by fishing.

Government policy

Government regulations may influence demand for logboats. In Santa Catarina, fishers previously stored their logboats in boat houses to protect them from the sun. When new rules banned boat houses from beaches, logboats became less practical and demand dropped off (Orofino et al., 2017:2784-2786, table 2), because the lack of sun protection significantly shortened the boats’ lifespan.

Although I have found no other published examples from Latin America, one could posit other common forms of government policies that could (and likely do) influence logboat demand. For example, policies that promote commercial fishing might result in reducing the fish stocks upon which artisanal fishers depend, while policies that promote tourism might have the effect of displacing them from the beaches where they operate.

On the other hand, policies that protect artisanal fishing or fish stocks or restrict coastal development could have the effect of supporting demand for logboats.

Transportation infrastructure

Demand for logboats remains strong in many areas that lack terrestrial transportation infrastructure (Gilmore et al., 2002; McSweeney, 2004:641; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:10). The construction of new roads and bridges tends to depress demand (pers. obs.).

Social stability

Where traditional lifeways prevail, logboats play a central role in people’s economic and social lives, and demand for them remains strong. For example, within a remote community of Maijuna people in the Peruvian Amazon, logboats serve multiple purposes, including hunting, fishing, traveling, communication, and carrying agricultural and forest produce. One informant observed:

“(I)t is very necessary to have a canoe [i.e., logboat]. I cannot live without a canoe because you cannot go anywhere (without one) . . . Sure you can go and fish for a little while with a friend’s canoe but you cannot take it for a long time. If you have a family you need to own a canoe” (Gilmore et al., 2002:12).

A similar situation obtains in the community of Coquí, in the Chocó region of Columbia (Figure 2). Although more closely integrated within larger economic systems than the Maijuna community mentioned above, Coquí remains somewhat isolated from the “outside world” by a complete lack of road connections (Fuquen Gomez, 2014:10). Fuquen Gomez observed:

Boats are fundamental for the people of the Chocó littoral. They are seen across the landscape, being used and mentioned daily in a remarkable variety of contexts. They are central to people and their activities. Many such activities cannot be conceived in the absence of logboats and therefore, the role they play in their daily life is essential. Boats allow people to travel to their farms, and to transport back the production of their main agricultural crops for their own consumption or to be traded. They represent a source of income to the boatbuilders and their families, by being themselves a product with a commercial value that is greatly appreciated and widely used. Moreover, the place boats take in the lives of the peoples (sic) is easily perceived, as they are not only physically present but also continuously mentioned in riddles and games, in legends, and stories. Boats permeate all sorts of social spheres both physically and symbolically . . . ” (2014:173).

A logboat on a river in Coquí, Columbia. (Fuquen Gomez, 2014:120)
Figure 2. Logboats play a central role in the lives of the people of Coquí. (Fuquen Gomez, 2014:120)
Conversely, where traditional ways lose adherence, so does the valorization of traditional means of transportation supplied through traditional methods of exchange and produced by traditional craft methods. As a Santa Catarina logboat builder stated, ‘‘The culture has no value, it is dead, it ended, the carpenter is not valued, paid well or hired anymore’’(Orofino et al., 2017:2786). Although referring specifically to the difficulty of recruiting new workers to build logboats (i.e., the supply side of the transaction), the informant is effectively identifying a demand-side problem in his society: boatbuilding pays poorly because users do not value logboats highly.

Supply Factors

As with demand, a single phenomenon can have both positive and negative effects on logboat supply, depending upon the particulars of the craft tradition.

Access to trees

Access to suitable trees is obviously essential for the construction of logboats. In several locales, access is restricted relative to previous times, impairing boatbuilders’ ability to pursue the craft (McSweeney, 2004:650-652; Heyman and Granados-Dieseldorff, 2012:139; Orofino et al., 2017:2783-2786).

Restrictions on access to logs stem from: environmental regulations limiting the cutting of trees (Orofino et al., 2017:2784-2786); over-logging (McSweeney, 2004:646); transfer of ownership of the forest “commons” to commercial forestry companies  (McSweeney, 2004:650-652); the “colonization” of previously common areas by new settlers (McSweeney, 2004:650); and excessive fees charged for timber cutting rights (McSweeney, 2004:650-652).

These restrictions can increase the time builders must spend searching for trees and the distance logs must be transported, thereby increasing their costs (Orofino et al., 2017:2784-2786). On the other hand, improvements in roads and trucking services can make long-distance transport of logs easier (Orofino et al., 2017:2787-2788), ameliorating these problems in some areas.

Where access to trees of the preferred species is restricted, builders may substitute less-favoured species (Gilmore et al., 2002; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:131). Species substitution may force related changes in logboat design and building techniques (Gilmore et al., 2002) (Figure 3). Both of these phenomena illustrate adaptability within the craft tradition, the implications of which are discussed below.

Maijuna boatbuilders expanding a logboat with fire (Gilmore et al., 2002:24)
Figure 3. Maijuna boatbuilders began expanding logboats only after their preferred tree species became unavailable, forcing them to use narrower logs. (Gilmore et al., 2002:24)

Logboat builders report difficulties attracting labour in general and skilled workers and apprentices in particular, these problems being related to low rates of pay and the existence of alternative employment opportunities (McSweeney, 2004:650-652; Orofino et al., 2017:2784-2786), including other forms of boatbuilding (Walter et al., 2017:574-575). As a result, the majority of logboat builders in some communities are elderly (Orofino et al., 2017:2784-2786; Walter et al., 2017:574-575), and age-related health problems and the generally arduous nature of the work causes some builders to drop out of the market (Orofino et al., 2017:2785-2786). In coastal Brazil, the attractiveness and availability of alternative employment opportunities for younger workers is related to their generally higher levels of education, which is a result of government education policies (Walter et al., 2017:574-575).

Age is not invariably an impediment, however. Among the Tawahka Sumu people in Mosquitia, older men possess many advantages over younger ones, including stronger kin relationships (a source of unpaid labour), established business relationships (which gives them better access to suitable trees at good prices), and better access to credit and to information about market conditions in downstream market towns (McSweeney, 2004: 650-652).

Builders in some societies have access to unpaid labour through kin obligations (McSweeney, 2004:650), mingas (Gilmore et al., 2002:20; McSweeney, 2004:650; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:217-220; pers. obs.), or less formalized modes of cooperation. The minga is a common phenomenon in rural Latin America, in which members of a community are enlisted by an individual to assist with a specific large-scale task (such as hauling a log from the forest or carving it), with an implicit promise that the favour will be returned at an unspecified time in a manner also unspecified. Unpaid labour obviously enhances builders’ ability to supply logboats.

Materials and methods

The presence of alternative boatbuilding materials and methods (i.e., plank-on-frame, fiberglass, metal) does not directly impair a builder’s ability to produce logboats, but it has negative supply-side effects nonetheless. Many builders now choose to work exclusively with the newer methods (Walter et al., 2017:574-575), evidently because there is stronger demand for them in their local markets.


Logboat building remains remunerative for some builders (Fuquen Gomez, 2014:177). It can provide a better income than small-scale agriculture and, if pursued only part-time, can provide important incremental income and income during periods of agricultural “down time” (McSweeney, 2004:652-653; Orofino et al., 2017:2789).

To the extent that builders are willing to barter for goods or services (Fuquen Gomez, 2014:176-181), they make logboats easier for users to obtain and thereby strengthen demand. The casual nature of the business thus works in some ways to preserve the craft. But because logboat building tends to be practiced on a small scale, its practitioners have limited access to commercial credit with which to obtain logs and equipment (McSweeney, 2004:650-652), and this, of course, works against its persistence.

Social structures

Among the more powerful forces for the logboat’s persistence is the fact that its construction occurs within a craft tradition, and traditions are by definition conservative. For example, the Tawahka Sumu’s very identity is “tied to the production and export of canoes. Their regional reputation in this regard dates from at least the 1820s, continues to the present, and remains a source of some cultural pride” (McSweeney, 2004:648, internal references omitted).

Logboat builders have strong connections with their communities. They may be themselves fishers or otherwise use the boats in the same ways as their “customers” (Gilmore et al., 2002; Fuquen Gomez, 2014:147-153; Orofino et al., 2017:2775), and so feel emotionally bound to provide the service of logboat building to their communities (Orofino et al., 2017:2782).


Another characteristic of craft traditions that works toward the persistence of logboats is adaptability or flexibility. Among examples noted above, flexibility in selection of tree species and adaptability in production methods to accommodate them, as well as flexibility in terms of exchange, represent positive factors for supply.

On the other hand, builders’ adaptability can also function against the logboat’s survival. Where demand shifts toward other kinds of boats, some builders shift production accordingly. For suppliers, this may not represent the abandonment of tradition: it may be a logical adaptation within their tradition as boat builders, as opposed to logboat builders. Along the Rio Napo in Ecuador, end-users make little distinction between logboats and plank canoes of similar form (pers. obs.), and builders may have a similar perspective. A builder who has adopted a chainsaw for felling trees may see it as a natural transition to use the chainsaw to mill planks, and thereby produce more boats and greater profit from a given tree.


This paper proposes supply-and-demand as a framework within which to assess a vernacular boat type’s prospects for survival in a given society. It has focused on logboat production in Latin America because an appropriate number of examples was found in recent literature for convenient analysis, not because they represent a single, coherent tradition. (They do not.) For the framework to be practically applied, a detailed ethnographic description of a boat type’s role in a single society is necessary. Such a description exists in Fuquen Gomez’s thesis (2014). This paper uses examples from several societies as a heuristic, to consider a wider variety of supply and demand factors and cultural responses to them, and thus further explore the framework’s utility.

As Adams (2010:301, 2013:24) makes clear, ideology and tradition play key roles in craft traditions. As long as these factors are considered along with more obvious utilitarian and economic issues, the supply/demand framework provides a useful tool with which to assess the survival prospects of vernacular watercraft.

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References cited

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