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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

In the Shadow of a Volcano

Air Date: Week of

Jana Schroeder reports on the people living near the Popocatepetl (po-po-CAT-uh-pet-ul) volcano in Mexico. Scientists worry an eruption is imminent, but residents trust the mountain will protect them.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Spend all your life in a peaceful place, and it seems impossible that the familiar valleys and trees could suddenly disappear under a river of fire. But that's just what can happen if you live near a volcano. Just 30 miles from Mexico City, there is what the Aztecs call the smoking mountain, Popocatepetl. People haven't seen this volcano erupt since the days of the ancient Indians more than 1,000 years ago. But El Popo has been more active than usual in recent years. And as Jana Schroeder discovered in a visit to communities close to the volcano, the recent rumblings don't seem to have a lot of folks worried.

(Traffic; men speak in Spanish)

SCHROEDER: Twenty-one-year-old Miguel works as a minibus driver, and lives here in the town of Xalitzintla, only about seven miles from the crater of the Popocatepetl volcano. His community would be one of the first affected if the volcano erupts, since it's in a deep ravine, right where a mud flow would come streaming down the volcano. But Miguel is like many who seem unruffled by the danger, unconcerned by the clouds of ash, and not even very worried by the occasional rumblings.

MIGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: Me, I just keep working as usual. I'm not afraid. The way I see it, the volcano is more my friend than my enemy.

SCHROEDER: Aurelio Fernandez is the director of the local Center for the Prevention of Regional Disasters. He's taking a group of the center's workers on a tour of Xalitzintla as part of their training.

FERNANDEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: People here think that since the volcano has never done them any harm, it never will. Above all, there is a need to not feel threatened, to think that nothing is going to happen.

SCHROEDER: In fact, when thousands were evacuated in December of 1994, due to the threat of an eruption, nothing did happen -- except some of their homes were robbed while they were gone, and others lost their livestock. That's why some residents say they won't be forced to evacuate again. Now, not everyone takes the warning seriously. They have a nickname for the Popocatepetl volcano, El Popo. And some even refer to it as a person, using the name of Don Goyo, with Don added as a sign of respect. They say Don Goyo brings them rich fertile soil, abundant rain, and plentiful forests: in short, a wealth of natural resources.

(Children play, turkeys gobble)

SCHROEDER: Antonio Analco also lives here in Xalitzintla. He comes home midday with a new load of firewood he's gathered to add to the pile stacked up in a small courtyard where some turkeys are penned up and grandkids are playing. Antonio Analco says Don Goyo appeared to him in a dream, when he was just a boy.

ANALCO: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The first time he spoke to me, I didn't know who he was. He told me I was going to work with him, that it was my destiny.

SCHROEDER: Antonio Analco says he was given the gift to work with the volcano as a rainmaker. He says the volcano will warn him if there's going to be a dangerous eruption.

ANALCO: [Speaks in Spanish]

SCHROEDER: Antonio Analco says authorities have created too much alarm. He continues to make offerings to the volcano at a place believed to be sacred, less than three fourths of a mile from the crater, even though it's prohibited to get that close. In early May he goes there to ask for rain, when farmers have planted their corn and are waiting for the rainy season to begin.

(Bird calls, ambient voices)

SCHROEDER: In a local town plaza, we meet up with Julio Glockner, an anthropologist who spent years studying the myths and rituals of those living on El Popo. He says the offerings to the volcano reflect a tradition of giving something back to the Earth, not just taking from it. Sometimes a turkey is sacrificed and cooked, and an altar is filled with tropical fruit, with coffee.

GLOCKNER: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: . . . bread, tortillas, cigarettes, tequila or brandy, and clothing the volcano has asked for in dreams. . . maybe hats, some shoes, or a blanket.

SCHROEDER: Julio Glockner explains that in ancient mythology, the hills and volcanos used to walk on the land as people, and they still appear that way in dreams reported by rainmakers.

GLOCKNER: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The meaning behind making an offering is to return to the volcano what local people have taken. The volcano is not only the one who sends rain for crops, but it also provides wood, rocks for building, zacate for making brooms. All the natural resources are a product of the volcano. The offering is an act to show their appreciation, and to again ask for abundant rain, for good weather, the well-being of their families, and even personal favors, like helping them find a lost animal or protecting family members who have gone to work in the U.S.

SCHROEDER: Not everyone believes in these rituals. Julio Glockner says that for some, asking for rain doesn't seem necessary any more, since now they use irrigation in their farming, or they have jobs in nearby cities and aren't so dependent on the land. Plus, some of the elderly rainmakers have died, and haven't been replaced. Benito Perez, who lives on the other side of the volcano, in the town of Hueyapan says he used to accompany his mother, a rainmaker, when she made offerings. But he hasn't continued since she passed away at age 97.

PEREZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

SCHROEDER: What he's concerned about now is protecting the area's natural resources. He says there are bigger threats to life on the volcano than a potential eruption.

(Bird calls; fade to a running stream)

SCHROEDER: A few miles below Hueyapan, the Amatzinac River rushes along, an unusual sight during Mexico's dry season. It looks like water is plentiful here, but Benito Perez says rainfall has been decreasing, and water isn't being managed as it should be.

PEREZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: What's happened is that water -- you could say that water's been privatized. My group of 30 farmers took over one natural spring. Another group took over another.


SCHROEDER: He takes us to a piece of land he farms. As we walk along the few rows of chilacoyote, a kind of squash he's just planted, he says the climate's gotten warmer, and that means more pests in crops and fruit trees.

PEREZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

SCHROEDER: He points to the pear trees lining one side of a field and says they don't produce any more. Expensive insecticides are needed, and most farmers can't afford them. Benito Perez thinks the warmer climate is caused by the growing problem of deforestation.

PEREZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: We are seeing the consequences of deforestation, illegal logging. That's caused an ecological imbalance. We used to have 12,000 acres of forest on communally-owned land here. But half of it has been cut down.

SCHROEDER: He says deer, pumas, and other wildlife once roamed these hillsides, but not any more. Now, some of the locals are chopping down trees to sell for use in construction and furniture, and no one is stopping them.

PEREZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The worst danger here isn't an eruption. The worst danger is deforestation, uncontrolled deforestation.

SCHROEDER: Benito Perez says people here have long grown accustomed to the danger of living on an active volcano. He's much more worried about the chainsaw we can hear in the distance, and predicts this area will soon look more like a desert if reforestation doesn't begin soon.


SCHROEDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Mexico.



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