The following is parts of a case study, made by Nancy
L. Hoft, last revised
on February 24th 1999. The full text is available at:
We met one of these specially trained observers at the
Santa María Volcano Observatory
on a walk we took through a large finca called El Faro, which offered
us a close view of
the many daily eruptions from Santiaguito (see Figure 5). Santiaguito
is a small volcano that has grown out of the
southwest flank of Santa María. It has been active since 1922.
In addition to meeting with the observer, we were here
to learn more about the recent
changes to Santiaguito's behavior. These changes suggest to volcanologists
that the Santiaguito area is quickly ceasing to be a safe place to live.
The volcano is
shedding materials in a nearby valley above finca El Faro, a behavior
that, in addition
to other volcanic and environmental observations, suggests the probability
mudflows. Finca El Faro, like several properties close to Santiaguito,
is in the path
of imminent destruction.
The observer lives in the area and had worked in the
military before being invited to join INSIVUMEH. He keeps a notebook
of all of his careful observations of volcanic activity, noting sounds,
smells, changes to the shape of the volcano, and so on. His other role
is volcanic hazard communication. Since he lives in this area, he knows
many of the people:
the owner of the finca and his family and relatives as well as many
of the people who
work at the finca picking the coffee beans that are so important to
But more importantly, these people know him.
The personal networks people build in Guatemala, as
in many Latin American countries, are as complex as they are essential
to survival and credibility. The observer told us about the volcanic
behavior of Santiaguito speaking not only from his trained memory, but
also sharing anecdotes from the people of this finca who knew, understood,
and respected his role there.
The people of El Faro also know the land here as they
know their own families; changes, shared and compared in the course
of casual conversations, are noticed. The observer,
after all, is there essentially to help protect their families, their
possessions, their livestock,
and their land. He had won their trust, and in turn, helps educate these
people on what
to look for in this changing volcano that might indicate danger. He
is, in many ways,
a technical communicator.
One of the formidable challenges that this observer
and other like him continue to face in communicating volcanic
hazards is that the current population thinks of the Santiaguito area
as a safe and relatively profitable place to live.
Despite its 77 years of constant volcanic activity, Santiaguito has
been a safe place to live. The volcanic materials from the 1902 eruption
have long been converted to rich volcanic soil that makes employment
economic opportunities like finca El Faro possible. Some people have
lived here for many years and others migrate into the area when there
is work, such as picking coffee beans.
To the local population, both fixed and migratory,
the Santiaguito area means work. They
do not really understand the potential volcanic hazards here. They have
not lived long
enough to see all the normal behavior of a volcano--"sleep lots, then
wake up," Rose
adds--that occurs in deep time, geologic time, which might span decades
or even centuries.
The observer also learns from INSIVUMEH personnel the
possible evacuation strategies
in the event of an eruption or other natural disaster, like the flooding
and mud flows that resulted from Hurricane Mitch. And, as we were about
to learn firsthand, recent behavioral changes to Santiaguito strongly
suggest that the area is rapidly becoming unsafe. The observer's knowledge
of the land, the people, and Guatemala's natural-hazard mitigation strategies
will only increase his value to the country and to the people of El
Faro and the surrounding area.
As I considered what I had seen so far in my visit to
Guatemala, from the huge and
profitable fincas to the gated, barb-wire fenced, and machine-gun patrolled
mansions in Guatemala City, I realized that land was at the heart of
the conception of wealth and
power in Guatemala. An October 1994 article in Harvard Magazine, 'Confronting
"Culture of Lies",' offers this glimpse into the glaring economic divide
"Today, 2 percent of the population still owns 67 percent
of the land, a figure that grows
more skewed over time. . . . The poverty line is so sweepingly drawn,
according to a 1990 UNICEF report, that it encompasses 86 percent of
the population, while coffee, bananas,
and opportunities to exploit cheap labor boost the other 14 percent
well into prosperity"
(p. 50). Santa María, Santiaguito, and other active volcanoes in Guatemala
make this economic system possible.
Like all active volcanoes, Santa María and Santiaguito
good for the earth and even good for people, despite their deadly activities
on other natural hazards, like the flooding of El Palmar. Volcanic eruptions
and nutrients up from the inside of the earth in the form of ash and
lava and related volcanic products. These volcanic products eventually
break down and form a rich soil that is
excellent for crops. In Guatemala, agriculture is the occupation of
58 percent of the labor force. Santa María and Santiaguito are no exception.
The south side of Santa María, for example, is home
to many plantations that produce coffee, cardamom, rubber, and sugar
cane for example. These plantations offer work to many thousands of
indigenous people and produce export crops that bring income to the
country. And where there is work, there is a dense population. There
are over 300,000 people in
the vicinity of Santa María. There are also several significant resource
investments, which include a major geothermal power facility and a hydropower
This interchange was also a follow-up to the Santa María
Volcanic Hazard Workshop that Rose and Sandoval had orchestrated in
1993. The purpose of the workshop was twofold:
1) To recognize Santa María formally and proactively as a Decade Volcano,
2) To provide an arena in which to discuss various interdisciplinary
aspects of volcanic
hazard mitigation, both generally about risk communication and specifically
about risk communication and the Santa María volcano.
At this workshop, which was held in Quetzaltenango,
Rose introduced Matías to some
of the most prominent volcanic researchers in the world. Through these
Matías had received scholarships and grants to attend courses and seminars
volcanoes in Switzerland, Hawaii, and other parts of the world. In addition
to the complex office politics there, INSIVUMEH has a very limited budget
for educational opportunities, even though it is in a country with many
active and dangerous volcanoes.
While email and the World Wide Web (see the section
Supplemental Web Sites for examples) could offer Matías a wealth of
affordable educational opportunities and resources, his access to these
is strictly controlled and therefore very limited. In many Latin American
countries, knowledge is power, and placing strict limits and controls
on access to knowledge, however self-defeating this might seem to US
American sensibilities, is common practice and to a large extent expected
by both managers and their staff. Matías himself does not have a telephone
in his home. He owns an old computer that has no modem.
Rose had been frustrated throughout our trip as he searched
for ways to give back to Guatemala, for it had given him thirty years
of rich volcanic data that awarded him grants, prestige, tenure, and
an impressive academic publications list. He had tried direct, official
channels as well as indirect ones, such as the Santa María Volcanic
which he and Sandoval organized. The grant that funded our research
trip to Guatemala
was another attempt, this one focused specifically on volcanic hazard
After several days, he concluded that investing in Matías was our best
hope. He and
Matías discussed the possibility of having Matías attend MTU to receive
degree in Volcanology. However, Matías does not have the educational
MTU requires for entrance into its graduate program. The irony here,
as Rose sees it,
is that Matías is in many ways highly educated, even though no formal
MTU or his government employer, INSIVUMEH, offically recognizes his
As Rose would later explain to me, "Oto's eleven years in the midst
of many volcanic crises and his dealings with the people affected are
more valuable to volcanic hazards research
than many years of academic experience. But, it doesn't help him get
respect from within
his own agency, because in urban Guatemala, perhaps even more than in
the US, formal degrees really count." A graduate degree would push Matías
into a circle of prestige that would bring him as many accolades as
it would agony from inevitable office politics.
End of the extracts from the case study.
-So, how do we tell people living on volcanoes that
it is a dangerous life,
and how well do we protect them, when things are like it seems to be
in this case?
I'm just asking.