HAVANA TIMES, Dec 18 (IPS) — On a clear day, hundreds of families pull over in their cars and snap pictures of the column of smoke spewing out of the Tungurahua volcano in central Ecuador.
But people living in towns and villages near the volcano, which has destroyed their way of life by coating their crops and pasture lands with ash, do not see it as picturesque.
Since late November, some 1,500 people have once again left the towns of Bilbao, Choglontús, Cusúa, and Chacauco, at the foot of the western flank of the volcano, when it began to spit out more fire, lava and ash than normal. And when it began to erupt in early December, dozens of villages were destroyed, although only six people were killed.
In the last few years people living on the slopes of the volcano have moved downhill as far as possible. But they continue to farm and graze their livestock higher up.
“What they have done is keep a distance,” says Sergio Páez, a small farmer from Pelileo, the capital of the canton or county where Cusúa is located. “They go up to work during the day and come back at night,” he explains to IPS.
“What else can we do, sir?” Carmela Cando, in Cevallos, a town 18 km northwest of the volcano, asks IPS. “This is all we have, our few cows and potatoes. How else can we get by?”
Cevallos, the site of shelters for people displaced by the volcanic activity, has taken the lead in focusing on new productive activities for local residents, to enable them to survive despite the effects of the volcanic ash.
“I wasn’t happy with the lines of people outside the city government offices, waiting for food rations,” Cevallos Mayor Bayardo Constante tells IPS. “We had two options: to become beggars or start to produce different things.
“The ash has hurt the production of our fruit orchards,” he says. “This area used to produce peaches, pears, apples and plums, but when ash falls during flowering season, which has happened in 10 of the last 12 years, it ruins the entire year’s harvest.
“It’s not like short-cycle crops, potatoes for example, where you just plow and plant again and have a new harvest in three months,” he adds.
The mayor has spearheaded projects to organize the community and obtain and distribute technical assistance and financing, and today the canton of Cevallos is known for its crafts, especially sandals and other footwear. “That has also led to a not insignificant influx of tourists drawn by our crafts, who have other needs we meet as well,” he says.
“We have also dedicated ourselves to the production of small livestock, especially pigs, rabbits and guinea pigs,” Constante says.
Because they are raised in sheds and other roofed areas and fed on fodder, these barnyard animals are not affected like animals in pastures, which risk fluoride poisoning and death from grazing on ash-covered grass.
The 5000-metre-high Tungurahua volcano, in the eastern cordillera of the Andes Mountains 160 km south of Quito, is one of Ecuador’s most active volcanoes.
“Between 1918 and 1925, it had a very active phase, but it calmed down after that,” says Hugo Yépez, director of the Geophysical Institute of the National Polytechnic School (IG-EPN), which monitors the country’s volcanoes. “In 1999 it became active again, spewing mainly ash at first,” the engineer tells IPS.
Since then, there have been periods of strong activity interspersed with periods of relative calm, although the volcano has continuously thrown up a column of smoke and ash, of varying height.
The degree to which the ash affects the areas around the volcano depends on wind direction. But because the wind mainly blows from the east, areas in the adjacent provinces of Tungurahua and Chimborazo are frequently affected. Even the more distant province of Bolívar, in the centre of Ecuador’s Andes mountain chain, has suffered the effects.
In 1999 the entire population around the volcano was evacuated, including 15,000 people from the town of Baños de Agua Santa, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ecuador’s Andean highlands.
Baños, located 1,800 meters above sea level, offers a broad range of ecotourism and adventure tourism activities in a narrow valley with abundant waterfalls and hot springs in the northern foothills of Tungurahua.
When local residents were given permission to return after the 1999 evacuation, they decided, in a ceremony in the town’s famous basilica, to turn the danger of the volcano into an additional tourist attraction.
In the town’s bars and hostels, once again packed with tourists, visitors can now enjoy “volcanic salad” (fresh vegetables presented in the form of an erupting volcano), “volcanic fondue”, “Tungurahua glacé” ice cream, or the cocktails “night temblor”, “tremor”, “incandescent”, and “the volcano” (a flaming drink).
Yépez was declared “persona non grata” in Baños when he warned, in mid-2006, that the signals detected by the IG-EPN’s instruments and studies by its geologists and volcanologists indicated that an eruption was imminent.
The authorities placed the region on red alert and ordered the evacuation of high-risk areas.
The eruption began on Aug. 16, 2006. The pyroclastic flows — fast-moving currents of extremely hot gas and rock — came to a halt 800 meters from Bascún, an outlying area of Baños that had been evacuated, and destroyed the water supply system and hot spring pools in that area.
The flows also demolished hostels in the area of Los Pájaros, as well as bridges and lengthy stretches of road between Baños and Riobamba.
Dozens of villages on the volcano’s western slopes were seriously damaged or destroyed, and six people were killed in the village of Palitahua.
“There were few victims because of the successful early warning,” Yépez said.
The mayor of Penipe, Fausto Chunata, said “We would have preferred no deaths of course, but if you compare it to the latest eruption of the Merapi volcano in Indonesia, which claimed 200 lives in November — that’s a huge difference.”
The city government of Baños admitted its error and publicly thanked Yépez, who has also issued warnings in the past about the Pichincha volcano, at whose foot Quito lies, and Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes, which is currently calm but could “wake up” at any time.
Other major eruptions by Tungurahua occurred in February 2008 and May 2010.
Since the Dec. 4 eruption, volcanic activity has continued at “moderate to high” levels, according to the IG-EPN, which stressed in a statement issued Wednesday that because the activity level has not declined as it did on previous occasions, the area is still on orange alert.