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Filipino peasants brave the anger of Mayon Volcano

Ⓒ AFP – Ted ALJIBE – | Philippine volcano Mayon, Daraga, January 28, 2018

The majestic Philippine volcano Mayon spit lava a few miles away, Jay Balindang continues to enter the exclusion zone every day, amidst rice fields covered with ashes, to heal his buffalo.

“I am not afraid of the volcano, we are used to its activity,” says AFP the 37-year-old farmer, who leaves his wife and their eight children each day in a reception center set up by the government.

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from areas near this central archipelago volcano, which has been spitting giant clouds of smoke and incandescent lava for nearly two weeks.

Ⓒ AFP – TED ALJIBE – | Jay Balindang cares for his buffalo in a field a few kilometers from Mayon Volcano, Philippines, January 27, 2018

Famous in the Philippines for the near perfection of its cone, Mayon rises to 2,460 meters and is considered the most unstable of the 22 active Filipino volcanoes.

Fearing a major eruption, the authorities established an exclusion zone on a nine-kilometer radius around the volcano.

But the police presence is not enough to dissuade some farmers like Jay Balindang to enter every day to feed their precious “carabao”, this animal of crucial design for the agriculture of the archipelago.

Of the 84,000 people displaced by the Mayon eruption in the province of Albay, 330 km southeast of Manila, there are about 10,000 peasants.

The region is famous for its peppers and its corn, rice and vegetable crops, now all threatened by the fallout of the volcano.

– Blessing and curse –

In addition to the ashes and embers that are deposited, there is also according to the authorities a risk of deadly flows due to heavy rains that fall on the region.

Volcanic ash, rocks and water can indeed cause huge mudslides, called “lahars”, likely to carry entire villages.

“This is a new and frightening challenge for our farmers, who have already faced typhoons, landslides and floods in the past,” said Agriculture Minister Emmanuel Pinol.

Farmers are the ones who suffer most from natural disasters to which the archipelago is accustomed.

In addition to being located on the “belt of fire” of the Pacific, area where tectonic plates meet, which produces a frequent seismic and volcanic activity, the Philippines is swept each year by about twenty typhoons.

The Mayon is both a blessing and a curse for farmers who have lived on its slopes for generations. Volcanic ash can kill crops, but also enriches the passes.

“If the ashes are fine, they act as fertilizer but if they are thick, it means that the farmers who invested a lot will lose everything”, explains Renato Solidum, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology ( Phivolcs).

Vegetable prices have already begun to rise in the province because of the eruption.

“We are famous for these dishes that use leaves grown at the foot of Mount Mayon,” says Elsa Maranan, a local official of the Ministry of Agriculture in reference to taro leaves, a tropical plant that is also used for tubers.

“If everything is destroyed, the production of these dishes and the income of our farmers will be affected.”

In an attempt to dissuade farmers from returning to their fields in the exclusion zone, the authorities have made available fields where farmers can graze their livestock.

“We urge them not to be stymied because they put the life of the workers in danger,” General Arnulfo Matanguihan told AFP.

Many continue to brave the prohibitions and anger of the volcano.

For Jay Balindang, the choice is simple: making sure that his pigs, buffaloes and cows eat is to make sure that his family will have something to eat in his turn.

“It’s very hard because I do not know if there will be rice to harvest,” he says.

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