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Keywords:

  • exchange networks;
  • rural development;
  • livelihoods;
  • canoes;
  • Mosquitia;
  • Tawahka;
  • Honduras;
  • Nicaragua

For over 300 years, dugout canoes have been traded within and between ethnic groups in the Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, I describe the development and contemporary dynamics of the canoe trade in order to operationalize, in one particular landscape, recent calls by geographers and anthropologists for greater ethnographic engagement with rural livelihoods. For example, historical analysis of the Mosquitia's canoe trade reveals several unexpected insights into the relationship between remote rural peoples and international capital, including the interaction and co-constitution of local and international trade circuits through time, how rural producers could manipulate canoe production to take advantage of boom-time trade circuits, and how canoe trading took on added importance during recessionary periods. Analysis of contemporary canoe production among Honduras's Tawahka Sumu points, in turn, to the economic viability of canoe trading, especially in contrast to cash crop production. Individual producers, however, face a variety of constraints on their ability to benefit from the canoe commodity chain, with young, undercapitalized households facing the largest barriers to canoe production and sale. Reliance on canoe sales can speak to a household's undercapitalization or to its ability to invest in new opportunities, especially in the form of education for their children. Ultimately, the canoe case study demonstrates how attention to the trade in everyday materialities in remote rural regions can help to envision and operationalize a new form of rural development, in which endogenous projects and capabilities are foregrounded.