San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Under the Volcano, Life Goes On

TURRIALBA – Lil Castro grew worried when she first heard the volcano she lives beneath rumbling. She began to back the car into the driveway to face the road in case the need for urgent evacuation arose. Her family prepared emergency kits to take with them. But now, two years later, her family’s car is facing the house and her husband and daughter aren’t concerned with being prepared to run at a moment’s notice.

“At first, we were scared, but we got used to it,” she said. “We are aware of the volcano, but we can’t worry about it every day.”

Five years ago, Lil and her family inherited a farm from her grandmother in this quiet mountain town near the top of Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope. Like many in the community, they nurture cows and produce cheese.

For longtime residents here, the fact that Volcán Turrialba is one of Costa Rica’s eight active volcanoes has been pushed mostly to the back of their minds.

For many years cows grazed in the green pastures on the mountain’s slope, and lush, healthy trees climbed eagerly to the crater’s brim, providing fodder for the area’s roaming livestock.

But recently, those flourishing green fields and bushy forests have dwindled into a dry, tan and ashy landscape of scorched treetops and withered undergrowth.

During a visit to the volcano near the end of August, researchers from the NationalUniversity’s Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (OVSICORI) noticed new crevices that had opened as wide as 12 centimeters and extended up to one kilometer northwest of the volcano’s active crater.

These new cracks have been emitting sulfur and sediment, which have soared up to 300 meters into the sky. The wind, which blows from east to west here, has carried the gasses and ash through the trees on the volcano’s north side, turning 90 percent of the greenery to a pasty shade of yellow and white, and killing vegetation essential for the area’s livestock.

Sixty-year-old Marco Tulio Gamboa, who has lived in Turrialba his entire life, said he has never seen such a drastic change in the area’s scenery.

“This is a first,” he said, looking up at a mountain covered in snow-white trees. “All of this used to be green. We are worried, very worried.”

Gamboa owns 84 cows on a farm near the foot of the volcano. He recently noticed that some of his cows were getting sick and losing weight, changes he attributes to the sulfur in the air and the lack of healthy grass for the animals to eat.

Since June, he has noticed a 25 percent drop in the amount of milk his herd produces. Gamboa’s neighbors up the hillside, who live closer to the crater, have seen a 50 percent drop in milk production this year.

And in the midst of tough economic times, some farmers have resorted to selling their cows for around ¢500,000 ($853) each. Castro’s situation is not quite as dire.

None of her cows have fallen horribly ill, but she has noticed that the spring from which her animals drink has been drying up lately.

In a simulation exercise on Sept. 26, officials from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) helped prepare cattle ranchers for what some call an inevitable eruption.

During a series of four training exercises, WSPA members explained how to clean animals’ eyes, evacuate animals and people from collapsed barns and rescue them from crevices and riverbeds.

“Animals here are already experiencing negative side effects because of food losses,” said Juan Carlos Murillo, WSPA’s coordinator of disaster management for the Americas.

“Animals are life in this town. They are what we depend on. It’s a very real possibility that they will have to evacuate, and people need to know how to manage it.”

Although precise numbers are hard to come by, WSPA said it believes natural disasters account for a “significant loss” of animals that are “fundamental” for the world’s population, adding that some one billion people worldwide depend on animals for their economic well-being.

In Saturday’s operation, WSPA worked with local Red Cross and police teams and the National Emergency Commission (CNE) to establish a command post and communication center.

While the CNE has not ordered any mandatory evacuations for the area, some families who live on the mountainside have voluntarily left their homes, leaving some of their cattle behind.

Reinaldo Carballo, a CNE spokesman, said the commission has been preparing Turrialba for an evacuation since the volcano started showing increased signs of active behavior two years ago. The commission has implemented zoning plans denoting areas where residents can’t build or live, and it has established evacuation routes.

And while Tulio appreciates the pointers from all the groups, at the end of the day, he realizes that being a cow farmer in Turrialba can sometimes come with more risks than rewards.

“It’s just a part of the life here now,” he said. “We didn’t used to have to worry about that volcano. We had other worries, like weather, bad roads, floods, keeping the cows healthy. There a lot of risks out here, and now there is one more.”


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