Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Ecuadorans try to get their lives back to normal

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 up," said Antonio Meneses, sprinkling a neat row of corn kernels into one narrow crack. "It's success or death."

Meneses, 52, acknowledged he may not be able to pay back the US$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."

Trail blazers

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, with little warning, 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 300km, known as the "Avenue of the Volcanos."

Volcanic neighbors

More than a quarter of Ecuador's 12 million people live within 25km 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.

The 5,023m Tungurahua volcano -- 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 hectares 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.

Braving the daily threat of gas outbursts and temperatures that regularly rise into the high 40s Celcius, residents eke out a living with subsistence agriculture.

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