The civic initiative „Soomaa dugout canoe to UNESCO“ launched in October 2018 has reached a new milestone – work has begun on the preparation of the application to nominate Soomaa haabjas (dugout canoe) culture to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. Led by the Estonian Dugout Canoe Society, the application will be completed by December 2019, thus enabling submission of the application to UNESCO in March 2020. Development of the application is supported by the Estonian Folk Culture Centre from Estonia’s regional culture programme.

The formal proposal to nominate Soomaa dugout canoe culture to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage was made by Estonian Dugout Canoe Society NGO and URALIC Centre for Indigenous Peoples NGO in October 2018 to Estonia’s Minister of Culture Indrek Saar. The proposal was driven by the wish to contribute to the long-term preservation of Soomaa dugout canoe-building techniques and the dugout canoe culture in general. Because the dugout canoe tradition is widespread among many Finno-Ugric indigenous peoples, the recognition by UNESCO would also motivate Estonians’ kindred peoples to preserve and revitalize their own dugout canoe traditions.   

As of today, more partners have joined the initiative „Soomaa dugout canoe to UNESCO“, among them the Society of Estonian Native Construction, Estonian National Museum and Estonia’s Environmental Board. Unlike current examples of Estonian intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO recognition (song and dance festival, Kihnu cultural space, Seto leelo polyphonic singing and Võro smoke sauna) that are in the Representative list of intangible cultural heritage, the application of Soomaa dugout canoe culture will be directed to the list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. According to Aivar Ruukel (Estonian Dugout Canoe Society), this decision is related to the context of the dugout canoe culture, „Even though today we have several masters of dugout canoe building in Estonia, we must think about the future and ensure that after 20-30 years the Soomaa dugout canoe culture continues to exist. International recognition will certainly support us in that goal.“    

The financial support by the Estonian Folk Culture Centre via Estonia’s regional culture programme makes it possible to prepare a strong application by the end of 2019, based on which Estonia’s Ministry of Culture can decide about the submission to UNESCO. During the year, the project team will produce a short film about Soomaa dugout canoe culture, develop a long-term safeguarding plan for Soomaa dugout canoe culture and will hold a series of community consultations to ensure active participation of Soomaa community in the project and to gain the community’s free, prior and informed consent for the submission of the application to UNESCO.  

At the work meeting in Saarisoo (Soomaa) held on May 13, it was decided to communicate the progress of the project through the website of Estonian Dugout Canoe Society ( . In the words of Oliver Loode (URALIC Centre for Indigenous Peoples NGO) the process of preparing the UNESCO application is a worthwhile activity irrespectively of the final decision by UNESCO, „The project #Haabjas2UNESCO is a good reason to talk more about the dugout canoe culture and how to ensure its long-term survival. It is also an excellent opportunity to establish and deepen contacts with indigenous peoples across the world – from kindred Finno-Ugric peoples to the indigenous peoples of Western Canada – who have their own ancient dugout canoe traditions and who could be inspired by the Estonian initiative.“  

The safeguarding plan of Soomaa dugout canoe culture to be developed during the project can begin to be implemented already before a potential UNESCO recognition. Priit-Kalev Parts (Society of Estonian Native Construction): „We will design the safeguarding plan so that several activities – e.g., presentations of dugout canoe culture in schools of Soomaa region and creating additional demand for dugout canoe building – can be initiatied already in 2020 independently of the next steps concerning UNESCO.“ 

More information about the project #Haabjas2UNESCO and about the Soomaa dugout canoe culture in general can be found on the website of Estonian Dugout Canoe Society (