Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Volcano eruptions also have their advantages

Many on the slopes of Indonesia's Mount Merapi view the volcano as a generous benefactor more than a destroyer, even if it does spit out lava and gush deadly heat clouds once in a while.

Eruptions of the 2 914m volcano destroy houses, cattle and plantations and sometimes claim lives, but when it calms down again people living on its flanks rejoice at the gifts left behind.

Minerals from the molten rock flows enrich the soil, while heavy rains wash down the hardened lava that accumulates at its peak to provide an abundant source of building materials such as sand, gravel and stones.

In the village of Kamongan on the banks of the Bebeng river, 46-year-old Dalhariadi tends his plantation of 300 snake fruit palms, a major agricultural product farmed on the western and southwestern slopes of Merapi.

Soil fertilised by ash and dust

He says the soil around the mountain is also fertilized by ash and dust from the heat clouds, which is spread over a large area by the wind.

"I don't have to use chemical fertilizers every three months as in other regions. I only need to give the snake fruit palms compost once a year, and that is largely enough," he says.

"One single major rock and mud flood flashing down the river is enough to provide a livelihood for thousands of people for at least three years," he tells AFP, explaining that the sand and rocks are free for anyone to sell.

"You only need a spade and a pan, and the ability to withstand the chilly nights, and you can make good money mining sands in the river," Dalhariadi says, pointing upstream to where most of the sand miners operate.

The sand is easy to mine as the pebbles and rocks sent crashing down the mountain through the natural channel of the river have left only a small stream trickling through the debris.

A truckload of sand puts 50 000 rupiah in a worker's pocket and, as there is always a high demand for sand for construction, a diligent worker can fill two to three truckloads a day.

Taking a break

But since the authorities slapped the highest-level of alert on Mount Merapi last week, after it began to belch lava and heat clouds, the sand miners have had to take a break.

The practice has been banned on some of Merapi's slopes until the volcano calms down, with the authorities fearing both flashfloods and heat clouds that either drown or incinerate everything in their path.

Walkiatno, 37, also makes a good living on the volcano's slopes. He left his job as a pedicab driver 80km away in the town of Temanggung and now he breaks stones with a chisel and a hammer on the banks of the Bebeng river.

He earns 30 000 rupiah a day, at least double what he earned driving his pedicab.

"I quit driving a pedicab in Temanggung four years ago. It was hard work that gave me very little in return," says Walkiatno.

Hard work

"Working here is also hard work, but it provides me with enough income to send money home and have a little spare," he says.

Gito, 45, is one of hundreds of people living in nearby Tejowarno village who earn their living from carving dark lava stones into various objects, including statues, garden lamps and grindstones.
"The Merapi has never harmed us. Instead it has given us the means to earn our living," says the 45-year-old.

His small statue-making enterprise, on a small lane off the main highway linking the cities of Yogyakarta and Magelang, satisfies the whims of foreign buyers from as far afield as Europe.
He orders the lava stones in rectangular blocks of various sizes from quarries on the bank of the Bebeng river.

"The only effect of an eruption of the Merapi is that the raw material gets rare, as the government temporarily closes the stone quarries," he says, while chiseling out a Balinese-style entrance gate ordered by a Taiwanese buyer.

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