Despite risks, villagers made Philippine volcano their home

TALISAY, PHILIPPINES (AP) — It is the second-most active volcano in the Philippines, a designated permanent danger zone long declared off-limits to human settlements.

Yet to more than 5,000 people the Taal volcano is home.

The volcano roared into action last Sunday with a mighty eruption that shot rocks, ash and steam miles into the sky just hours after the inhabitants of its four villages fled on a flotilla of boats.

A man who defied official warnings about the ongoing eruption to sneak back to the island said there was complete devastation.

“Almost everything was destroyed,” Christian Morales told The Associated Press (AP).

Men recover items on Taal volcano island as it continues to spew ash in Talisay, Batangas. PHOTO: AP

So far no one has been reported killed in the eruption, but the disaster is spotlighting the longstanding dilemma of how the government can move settlements away from danger zones threatened by volcanoes, landslides, floods and typhoons in one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.

Sometimes, as is the case with Taal, the settlements are in violation of laws that have not been enforced.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology Renato Solidum said of the villages on the island.

He said his agency has repeatedly warned against living on the island, which it has declared a permanent danger zones where people are forbidden from setting up homes. The area was also in the 1960s declared a government-protected area and later a national park, meaning it should be off-limits to permanent settlers.

That has never been enforced, however, and Taal’s destructive explosions have proven deadly in the past, including a 1965 eruption that killed more than 200 people and ravaged the island’s villages.

Nevertheless, poverty, a lack of land and desperation have driven people over the years to the island despite the danger, said the mayor of Talisay town Gerry Natanauan, who has jurisdiction over two of the four island villages.

“It may be difficult to declare the island a no man’s land because like in the past, when that was attempted, it was hard to stop people because when they go hungry, they will always find a way,” Natanauan told the AP.

Another driving factor keeping people on Taal is tourism. The picturesque island and surrounding region, which sit in Batangas province only 65 kilometres south of Manila and are known for their idyllic views, pine trees and cooler climate, have become a major draw for those seeking a quick escape from the the pollution-choked capital.

Many of those living on Taal have found work in the industry, and Natanauan estimated tourism brings USD314,000 in revenue each year to those on the island.

What happens next is unclear. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recommended that the thousands of residents should not be allowed to return to the island for good.

“We should not allow people to return there because if there are more violent explosions, people will perish on that island,” Lorenzana said during a televised emergency meeting.

Natanauan said that would be hard to enforce because the islanders would be wary of leaving their farms unguarded and would eventually stay for good on the island again.