Active volcanoes / Aktive vulkaner:

Why do people live ON volcanoes?
   norsk tekst


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 like Rose
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 of future
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 Guatemala's economy.
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 and
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 a
"Culture of Lies",' offers this glimpse into the glaring economic divide in Guatemala:

"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 are
good for the earth and even good for people, despite their deadly activities and influence
on other natural hazards, like the flooding of El Palmar. Volcanic eruptions bring minerals
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 facility.


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, and
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 connections,
Matías had received scholarships and grants to attend courses and seminars about
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 Hazard Workshop,
which he and Sandoval organized. The grant that funded our research trip to Guatemala
was another attempt, this one focused specifically on volcanic hazard communication.

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 a master's
degree in Volcanology. However, Matías does not have the educational credentials that
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 institution, either
MTU or his government employer, INSIVUMEH, offically recognizes his knowledge.

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.

 The full text of the case study
 More info on St.Maria volcano (in norwegian only) Mer om St.Maria vulkanen
 Les om Mt.Pelee og utbruddet i 1902 (in norwegian only)


over 250


over 500


over 225

    alfabetisk liste
    alphabetic list

   Free Counter
Denne siden er laget ved hjelp av Macromedia Dreamweaver