SUVA, Fiji— Though it has been more than 15 years since Korovou Vakaloloma built a traditional Fijian canoe, he does not need to refer to any blueprints.
“It’s all right here, eh,” he said with a laugh, pointing at his head and continuing to sand the boat’s mahogany hull.
Mr. Vakaloloma, 61, who is from the island of Ogea in the southern Lau archipelago of Fiji, has spent the last few months in the boatyard at the School of Maritime Studies, part of Fiji National University, working on a prototype for a new canoe that could be both economically and environmentally sustainable for the island nation.
Developed by his cousin Joji Marau Misaele, who teaches mechanical engineering at the university in Suva, the canoe, or camakau, is one of a number of new projects backed by nonprofit groups. Promoters hope the projects will reduce Fiji’s energy consumption, provide far-flung islanders with less expensive and more frequent transportation, keep local traditions alive and potentially create a new source of tourism income.
Canoes have played an integral role in the history of Fiji. Voyaging traders first settled in the islands more than 5,000 years ago, and canoes were the lifeblood of communities, used for everything from trade and travel to fighting against other tribes.
“They were the ocean liners, the 747s, the Internet, the telephone,” said B. Gregory Mitchell, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California and founder of the Pacific Blue Foundation, an organization that focuses on conserving cultural and biological diversity in the South Pacific. “Canoes were everything.”
By the mid-19th century, the use of traditional single-hull canoes waned in popularity as European boats were seen as more efficient and a sign of modernity. There were small resurgences of camakau building and use in the 1930s, during the Depression, and in the 1980s, when global oil prices skyrocketed. But away from the islands in the Lau group, canoe-building traditions in Fiji dried up by the 1970s.
These days, said Paul Geraghty, a professor of linguistics at University of the South Pacific’s Suva campus, it is generally seen as backward to use a camakau.
But as the world potentially sinks deeper into recession and issues of climate change are felt even in the smallest of Fiji’s outer islands, going back to canoeing traditions of the past could prove a financial way forward.
There is very little hard evidence to compare the costs of fishing and trading using a camakau versus a fiberglass boat with an outboard motor. But in conversations with islanders last year, Mr. Mitchell estimated that it cost between 3,000 and 5,000 Fijian dollars, or $1,700 to $2,850, to maintain a camakau over five years; a panga, or fishing boat, with a 30-horsepower motor would cost 4,000 dollars a year in fuel alone, and between 25,000 dollars and 30,000 dollars overall.
“It costs about 40 to 50 dollars to fill a four-gallon tank with petrol, so they have to catch at least that much in fish to make it worth it,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I think that wind power, not petroleum, is an essential part for the survival of culture and the biodiversity of these regions. If they continue to just draw down their resources to pay for their petrol, it will be the end for the traditional lifestyle.”
Mr. Misaele agreed. “If you look at life on the islands, we do not have much money or resources, so paying 15 dollars a gallon to go fishing or to travel to sell your crops, that is a lot of money,” he said. “And fossil fuels, they are running out. So what we are doing is making a boat that is safer, cheaper and greener.”
Camakaus traditionally have a single-hull body, an outrigger and a triangular sail, but the new version has been crafted with a number of modifications. In the past, if the hull of a camakau filled with water, it would capsize, because its design made it impossible to bail out water. In Mr. Misaele’s version, the hull is filled with Styrofoam, which makes the camakau more buoyant. His version of the camakau also uses nails, marine glue and rope, as opposed to coconut husks and tar.
In addition to making the vessel safer, Mr. Misaele, whose older brother drowned 53 years ago when the camakau he was in capsized, also hopes his project will help keep the building tradition alive. Local experts estimate that there are only 30 to 40 people left in all of Fiji who still have the practical skills and experience in building traditional canoes.
After Mr. Misaele’s modified camakau is built and tested for seaworthiness — a race between his canoe and traditional camakaus from Suva to Beqa Island is being planned for the second weekend in February — Mr. Misaele and his carpenters will teach others how to build the canoes. He hopes to start a camakau carpentry class later this year at the university, which has given him a grant of 8,000 dollars for the initial project. He also has plans to hold workshops on islands that have lost the canoe-building tradition.
Mr. Misaele said it would cost villages very little to build the canoe because they could use natural, abundant resources like trees and local pandanus leaves and substitute empty plastic water bottles for Styrofoam.
“People joke with me that I am going backwards,” Mr. Misaele said. “But I want this knowledge to be taught to younger generations so they can keep the traditions alive.”
Mr. Masaele is not the only one promoting the idea. The Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, a nonprofit group that focuses on reviving traditional culture and on environmental education, is working on programs teaching children how to navigate by the stars as their ancestors did.
The society is also working with a New Zealand-based nonprofit group, Sailing for Sustainability, on a pilot program to create an interisland transportation service that could relieve the total dependence on ferry boats to Fiji’s outer islands.
“It’s not just some quaint heritage stuff,” said Steven Hooper, director of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the University of East Anglia in Britain. “It’s allowing communities to participate in the economic life of a nation. For relatively small sums of money, you can have a real, genuine impact on the quality of life.”
Mr. Geraghty agreed. “If properly marketed, camakaus could make more financial sense for people in most islands in Fiji,” he said. “They could still keep their motorboats for when there is no wind, or for the rare occasions when the wind is adverse, but also embrace, for cultural and practical reasons, starting to use the traditional camakaus again.”
One pilot project is already under way. The Fiji Islands Voyaging Society and Sailing for Sustainability are planning to use druas — similar to camakaus, but larger and with two hulls of different sizes — as the backbone for what they believe will be sustainable and economically viable interisland transport.
Fiji has more than 300 islands scattered across 518,000 square kilometers, or 200,000 square miles. That means that the country is still dependent on ferries, with some islands getting ferry service only once or twice a year. Over time, many of the routes have become impossible to maintain because they take very low volumes of freight and few passengers. The ferry routes that survive — subsidized as much as 48 percent by the government — run only to bigger ports. That has meant that people in smaller villages on the same or nearby islands must make their way to the bigger ports to catch a ferry. The extra travel time eats up whatever profit islanders make transporting their goods to market.
Colin Philp, one of the founding members of the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, spelled out the economics: “Take, for example, a taro root farmer who lives on the south of the island of Kadavu who has to pay 200 dollars to hire a fiberglass boat to get to the main port in Vunisea and then pays 55 dollars to get to Suva to sell his produce. Then say he gets to Suva and sells the taro for 500 dollars.” Mr. Philp said the farmer would end up paying half of his revenue in transportation costs.
The project, which will begin in March with the building of a small-scale prototype, will eventually have druas running between neighboring islands at a much lower cost than the ferries. Financed with microlending, they will be built and operated by local communities. The vessels will have capacities of 4 to 10 tons, allowing them to carry 40 or more people on a day trip. Promoters of the project estimate that communities could gross 150,000 dollars in profit a year. Pacific Voyagers, an organization financed by the German-based Okeanos Foundation, has plans to bring the concept to countries across the South Pacific region.
“This is the same problem in many island nations in this part of the world, so this project can be transplanted across the South Pacific,” Mr. Philp said. “We can create an industry building canoes, we can create an industry sailing canoes, and we can create an industry in managing, cargos and logistics work.”
Promoters also see untapped tourism potential. Tourism represents between 25 percent and 30 percent of Fiji’s gross domestic product, and the government projects that by 2021, tourism will contribute 3.7 billion dollars to the country’s G.D.P. Yet while resorts across Fiji offer guests sailing expeditions on Hobie Cat sailboats, few places offer trips in traditional canoes. Mr. Misaele’s reconfigured camakau could change that.
“Cultural tourism is very important,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Offering camakau sailing would empower Fijians to establish small enterprises with these boats, and it could be an important economic element for them.