Ecuadoreans Learn to Live with Danger in a Country Brimming with Active Volcanos

All across the volcano-dotted landscape of this Andean nation, millions of people have become accustomed to living in the shadow of mountains that can lay waste to their villages and farms in a matter of hours.

BILBAO, Ecuador — On a once-lush landscape made wasteland overnight by the Tungurahua volcano, five members of the Meneses family raised picks and hoes in unison to strike at ash-encrusted earth.

The land looks like concrete and is almost as hard. The Meneses returned home to replant their crops, only to find it takes backbreaking work just to crack a furrow in the hardened gray shell.

"I am not giving in," said Antonio Meneses, sprinkling a neat row of corn kernels into one narrow crack. "Success or death."

Meneses, 52, acknowledged he may not be able to pay back the $5,000 in loans he took out before the eruption to plant his crops. "We took a risk planting here," he said. "Now we will test our luck. Let us hope this harvest will not fail."

The Meneses were among the first to try to resume their lives in Bilbao, a village just below the crater of Tungurahua, which covered the area with incandescent rocks, ash and lava in a catastrophic explosion in August. Many others are still living elsewhere as refugees.

They are not alone. All across the volcano-dotted landscape of this Andean nation, millions of people have become accustomed to living in the shadow of mountains that can lay waste to their villages and farms in a matter of hours.

"We have suffered the unspeakable," said Meneses' 26-year-old daughter, Ximena. "But we are not going to leave."

Some 55 volcanos -- 17 of them active -- are strung along Ecuador's northern Andean spine for 190 miles, known as the "Avenue of the Volcanos."

More than a quarter of Ecuador's 12 million people live within 15 miles of an active volcano, making the northern and central Andes one of the most densely populated volcanic zones in the world, said Hugo Yepes, director of the Geophysics Institute in the capital, Quito.

Particularly vulnerable is Ecuador's economic lifeblood -- oil, with its $2.3 billion in annual foreign sales accounting for more than half of the country's export income and 30 percent of the government's budget.

Ecuador's two pipelines, pumping about 535,000 barrels of crude a day, parallel each other about a mile apart right through the heart of volcano territory.

"All the eggs are in one basket," said Yepes. "They didn't separate them by a few hundred kilometers (miles) in such a way that the impact to one is independent of the other."

In November 2002, the Reventador volcano gave a glimpse of what can happen, rumbling back to life after more than a quarter century and spewing out a shroud of ash over nearby towns and even Quito, 60 miles away. The eruption destroyed a section of the state-owned pipeline and left it inoperative for two weeks.

The OCP heavy crude pipeline, owned by five oil firms, including Argentina's Repsol-YPF and U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., was still under construction at the time.

The 16,575-foot Tungurahua -- which means "throat of fire" in the Quichua Indian language -- is one of nearly a dozen volcanos under constant watch because of their proximity to villages, towns and cities.

Its eruption in mid-August killed four people, destroyed 10 villages and severely damaged many others, leaving 5,000 homeless. Tens of thousands of acres of pasture and crops were wiped out.

While living on the slopes of Tungurahua may seem foolhardy, some people make their homes inside the craters of the killer mountains.

About 60 families live and farm inside the crater of Pululahua, an active volcano 2 1/2 miles around and just 20 miles from Quito. Pululahua hasn't had a major eruption in 2,300 years -- but that could change in the blink of an eye.

"Only God knows when it will blow again," said Delia Cortez, 41, who recalled Pululahua sending up an ash cloud 33 years ago that blanketed everything in the crater and panicked residents. Every so often, tremors still cause the volcano to roar "like a jet plane," she said.

Not everyone worries.

"It will not explode. God does not want that to happen," said Maria Mosquera, 80, who lives in the northwestern part of the crater, known as Niebli.

As Ecuador becomes more urban, it becomes more vulnerable. Eruptions in recent years have paralyzed air traffic in the capital by dumping tons of ash on runways and clouding visibility. Popular tourist destinations have been disrupted for months.

Beyond the risk to lives and homes, volcanos threaten major highways, hydroelectric plants, telecommunications networks, large farm-export enterprises and industrial zones.

Theofilos Toulkeridis, a geology professor at Quito's San Francisco University, said the danger is grossly underestimated by Ecuadorean authorities.

"They keep giving permission for construction of schools and projects in risky zones," said Toulkeridis, one of the nation's leading authorities on volcanos. "As far as I am concerned, it's totally criminal."

Retired army Col. Anibal Salazar, deputy director of civil defense, agrees Ecuador needs to "restructure the national system of risk assessment, improve it, deepen procedures, take actions to protect people." But the civil defense agency remains notoriously understaffed and underfinanced.

The risk doesn't keep people from the Reventador volcano, whose name means "blower."

Victor Cansino, 40, who earns his living guiding tourists to the top of the 11,775-foot mountain, said his business actually picked up after the eruption four years ago.

Eliza Ortega, 24, offers travelers chicken stew, meat empanadas and coffee in a tiny, precariously built roadside restaurant on Reventador's jungle-cloaked lower flanks.

"We had our little house, we had a few cattle and some crops, but all of it was taken by the volcano" in 2002, Ortega said. "We began from zero, with nothing."

"We do not fear the volcano. What can we do?" she added, shrugging her shoulders.

Sweeping the ground outside, Ortega's 5-year-old daughter, Yesenia, had a different view.

"The volcano is a mountain that explodes and kills people," Yesenia said. "I am afraid of it."

Source: Associated Press

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