Re-engineering the Philippine banca

Gregg Yan, Sophia Dedace

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In the Philippines, a boat for a fisherman is what a carabao is for a farmer – a beast of burden, a source of income, a ride home. Fisheries provide livelihood to about one million Filipinos, or about 5% of the country’s labor force.

STRONGER BOATS. Bancas for the Philippines offers a platform to make a climate-smart technology mass-based. In turn, more fishermen boost their resilience, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency. Photo by Derrick Lim/ Imagine Nation Photography

MANILA, Philippines – Boats connect islands, spread culture, and allow people to harvest the sea’s bounty. A boat for a fisherman is what a carabao is for a farmer – a beast of burden, a source of income, a ride home – and so has it been for thousands of years. As the world’s second largest archipelago with 36,289 kilometers of coastline, the Philippines is home to sons and daughters of the sea whose lives are inextricably linked to the water.

Among the indigenous watercraft our mariners have used to ply our seas, no boat is as familiar and well-loved as the Philippine banca, a durable double-outrigger canoe. “It is a perfect design, honed through thousands of years of trial and error,” said Ramon Binamira Jr, a naval architect and indigenous watercraft expert.

Fisheries provide livelihood to about one million Filipinos, or about 5% of the country’s labor force. Fish consumption in the Philippines is also high at 28.5 kilograms per capita yearly. Fish comprise about half of Filipinos’ protein diet.

Unfortunately, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which ripped through the Visayas on November 8, 2013, destroyed some 30,000 bancas – depriving some 146,700 small-scale fisherfolk of their main source of food and livelihood.

With more than 40% of our small-scale fishers living below the poverty line, it is imperative that long-term, climate-smart solutions be introduced to boost their adaptive capacity.

Shaping new platforms for resilience

We face a climate-defined future, where extreme weather events packing Yolanda’s strength and fury will be the new normal. More storms will come. More boats will be damaged.

FUELING HOPE. Bancas for the Philippines allows small-scale artisanal fishermen devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda to get back on the water and rebuild their lives. Photo by Jamie Lihan/ Imagine Nation Photography

In the storm’s aftermath in November last year, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines) created the blueprint for Bancas for the Philippines to restore food security among local fisherfolk and establish resilience in coastal communities that stand vulnerable to climate change impacts. 

To veer away from band-aid solutions and dole-outs, the program teaches fishermen who lost their boats how to build their own fiberglass bancas and replicate boat moulds for future use, for succeeding generations.

Since its launch in February 2014, Bancas for the Philippines has completed the training of local fishermen and boat builders from at least 8 population nodes in Leyte and Northern Palawan for the production of 600 fiberglass boats.

The fishermen and boat-builders, who received training for a week, can then transfer their knowledge and skills to fellow mariners in their coastal communities. Key resources like boat moulds, tools, and training modules are provided to sustain the building of fiberglass bancas for the long term.

Boat of the future

Days before Yolanda barreled through Samar to Northern Palawan, Binamira knew that small-scale fishermen will be among the hardest-hit sectors. “Just looking at the swath, I immediately knew that thousands of small boats would be destroyed.”

“Fiberglass boats are faster, cheaper, and easier to make,” explained Binamira, who designed the Bancas for the Philippines standard boat model, which is 15 feet long and 14 inches wide, weighing approximately 30 kilograms. Easily lifted by one to two fishers, the fiberglass banca can swiftly be hauled inland for safekeeping whenever a super typhoon approaches a coastal community.

While aware of the challenges of helping fishermen get back on their feet, Binamira and WWF-Philippines also saw Yolanda’s destruction as an opportunity to introduce a climate-smart alternative to build bancas for artisanal fisherfolk. “Fiberglass is now widely available, relatively cheap, and easy to build boats from,” Binamira adds.

BOATS OF THE FUTURE. Naval architect and indigenous watercraft expert Juny Binamira trains fishermen and boat-builders from Tacloban and the towns of Palo, Tanauan, Tolosa, Mayorga, and Abuyog. Photo by Sophia Dedace/ WEF

Fiberglass has been used as a boatbuilding material in North America since the late 1940s. In the Philippines, fiberglass has been available for over 50 years. Because they are watertight, fibreglass boats prevent leaks and reduce maintenance. Unlike their wooden counterparts, fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) hulls are one continuous piece, preventing water from seeping in.

When laid up in the sun, fiberglass boats do not shrink. In contrast, wooden hulls shrink or swell when brought out of the water and laid up. Because fiberglass is non-organic, the boats become rot-proof and resistant to shipworms and other marine borers. Provided that they are cared for properly, fiberglass boats last longer than wooden bancas. Binamira estimates that the boat’s fiberglass hull is at least thrice more puncture-resistant than one with an 8 to 10 millimeter wooden frame. 

Onsite training

Amador Linde is among the Leyte-based fishermen who joined Pedrero at an onsite training session on fiberglass boat-making last May. He shares that a sturdier banca made of fiberglass allows him to weather tougher storms ahead.

“After the storm, I immediately looked for scrap plywood to make my own boat and get back in the water. But I know that this is only a temporary solution. I will need a stronger banca so I can be assured that I can feed my family every day.”

He adds that a fiberglass banca will afford him food and livelihood security. “I have been fishing in the waters of Palo with my father since I was 9. I belong to the sea. Working on land is hard because I report to an employer. At sea, I am my own boss.”

The boats of the future, fiberglass bancas allow for simpler and more efficient construction through open-access technology. One mold can be used to make at least 20 banca hulls. The trainees will also learn how to make new moulds to sustain fibreglass boat-making in their communities.

For these reasons, Bancas for the Philippines offers a platform to make a climate-smart technology – mass-based. In turn, more fishermen boost their resilience, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency.

Safeguarding our natural resources

More importantly, fibreglass boats also help protect our fragile forest and marine ecosystems.

The Philippines loses about 157,000 hectares of forest cover each year. To rebuild the 30,000 boats lost to Haiyan from wood threatens to upscale deforestation. A fiberglass banca will curb the country’s dependence on wood as a major boatbuilding component.

With Philippine seas already overexploited by commercial fishing, the initiative helps reduce pressure on our dwindling fishing stocks by promoting artisanal and small-scale fishing.

“Our goal is to meld the old with the new – modernizing the way we build a boat whose design was already refined by generations of fishers,” concluded Binamira. “Bancas for the Philippines empowers our coastal communities to weather the storms of the future.” –

Sophia Dedace and Gregg Yan are communication officers of WWF-Philippines.

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