An indigenous project to build fiberglass-reinforced outrigger canoes and water tanks is gaining momentum in the Pacific Ocean republic of Vanuatu.
A factory is shipping products and upgrading capabilities. In an important contribution, the project received 5 tons of material worth US$18,000 from Australian supplier Fiberglass International.
Vanuatu, an independent country since 1980, is made up of 83 islands - about 65 inhabited - and is about 1,000 miles off the eastern coast of Australia. The CBS reality show Survivor: Vanuatu recently raised the nation's profile.
The arrival of drums of resin and boxes of reinforcement raised the spirits of participants in the South Malekula Development Association's grass-roots project. Fiberglass International is a division in the composites group of Auckland, New Zealand-based Nuplex Industries Ltd., soon adopting Nuplex International as its identity.
``Communities are dependent on the sea and canoes'' for food and communication between isolated villages, said Timothy Drefahl, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, SMDA business adviser and resin industry veteran. ``Traditional wooden outrigger canoes are an essential part of everyday life,'' Drefahl said via e-mail. But deforestation practices have nearly exhausted the hardwood and breadfruit trees and endangered opportunities to fish and travel, he said.
``In the past, if one of the wooden canoes broke, the villagers would use anything, including used motor oil, to coat the outside to keep them afloat,'' Drefahl said. If no suitable repair materials were found, a tree was cut down to replace the canoe.
SMDA organizers are teaching eight men how to make and repair molds and use fabrication processes.
Retired Australian yacht builders Trevor Naylor and Lother Beyer visited the islands during a tour in 2000. A chief asked for their help in building a canoe of fiberglass rather than wood. Naylor adopted the project, and the community donated land for five years and supplied labor and initial building materials.
Naylor approached an Australian agency to fund construction of a building and purchase molds, equipment and start-up materials. The Australian Agency for International Development provided A$61,300 (US$33,300) in grants in 2002. ``We recognize the difficulties faced by people who are living in the remote areas of Vanuatu,'' Steve Waters, Australian high commissioner to Vanuatu, said in a news release. ``Access to transport is not always easy, and the opportunity to earn a living is often very difficult.''
AusAid monitors progress. ``While this was always going to be a high-risk project, there appears to be a high demand for the canoes and the water tanks,'' said Virginia Hillman, an AusAid senior program officer. ``Training and management remain critical to continued sustainability, and learning these skills on a remote island will take some time to fully appreciate.''
During 2003, the shop was completed and outfitted, and the work began.
Deliveries were under way in early 2004, and demands pushed Naylor to seek help from longtime supplier Paul Schott, general manager of Sydney, Australia-based Nuplex Composites. Schott viewed the donation as a step toward improving drinking water, providing ``a safer availability of seafood'' and encouraging other businesses to provide assistance.
The company's October delivery coincided with a resumption of production. ``They have a rain season when all work stops,'' Schott said.
Schott's action garnered praise. ``The donation will impact SMDA greatly, as the project went over budget on construction and did not have enough funds to cover future operational costs,'' said Alick Massing, SMDA chairman.
``Your donation made the difference between success and failure of this project, and ... the Ni-Vanuatu staff wants to extend to you a Bigfala Tankyu Tumas,'' Drefahl said in a message to Schott.
On behalf of the Society of Plastics Engineers' Southern California Section and the Garden Grove Regional Occupational Programs, SPE section President Chris Mitchell thanked Schott for ``the kind and very thoughtful donation.'' Mitchell is district sales manager for Toshiba Machine Co. America. He put Drefahl in contact with SPE members who are helping develop training modules.
In previous industry positions, Drefahl sold resin for WestChem Inc. and Ashland Distribution Co. He arrived in the islands in November 2003.
Fibre Glast Developments Corp. of Brookville, Ohio, agreed recently to allow some of its published material to be used in a training manual written in the local Bislama language. This allows local vocational training centers to develop fiberglass fabrication and mold-making courses that a Vanuatu umbrella training organization can certify.
So far, the project has manufactured and sold eight 22-foot-long canoes and plans a 16-foot version during 2005.
In addition, workers have produced 15 rainwater tanks including six holding 1,300 gallons and nine suitable for 650 gallons.