The Nevado del Ruiz volcano, one of Colombia’s highest peaks, is located in a densely populated agricultural area and is famous for killing tens of thousands of people in a powerful eruption in 1985.
As of March 30, the volcano is on orange alert, meaning “an eruption is likely within days or weeks,” according to the Columbia Geological Survey.
The towns and villages around the mountain were asked to evacuate, and the local and national authorities declared a state of emergency. Most nearby schools have returned to home-schooling plans from the pandemic, and local municipalities are stocking up on first aid kits.
On April 5, Colombian President Gustavo Petro ordered the voluntary evacuation of about 2,500 families from the area as a precaution, but many locals refused, saying they were more worried about leaving behind their livelihoods and possessions than possible lava flows.
Although it is not clear how many families were evacuated in total, the director of the civil protection unit in Tolima, Luis Fernando Velez, told the local newspaper El Tiempo on Thursday, as quoted by CNN, that only a small part – only 87 people left their homes housing under the supervision of its agencies.
The slopes of Nevado del Ruiz, located between Tolima and Caldas provinces in central Colombia, are fertile ground for local farmers, who say leaving the cattle behind would ruin them.
The local government in Tolima province announced that it intends to evacuate up to 12,000 cattle, out of a total of over 43,000.
Omar Valdes, Tolima’s rural development secretary and the official in charge of the cattle evacuation, said farmers are resisting the evacuation order because of previous negative experiences.
“On the previous occasions when they were evacuated, the floods (caused by volcano no) did not affect their farms, and when they returned, the farmers found that most of their goods and cattle had been stolen,” he explained this.
Ruiz volcano eruptions can be particularly lethal, according to scientists at the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Volcanism Program, because the top of the peak is permanently covered by a layer of snow and ice. Once in contact with the lava, the snow and vice would melt instantly, flooding the mountainside in torrential landslides called lahars.
One such tragedy occurred on November 13, 1985, in the volcano’s last massive eruption, which is collectively known in Colombia as the Armero Tragedy. On that occasion, just a few hours after the Ruiz volcano began erupting, a river of mud, rocks, lava and frozen water engulfed the small town of Armero. The flood killed over 23,000 people in just a few minutes.
Many local residents still remember the trauma of that day, but few are willing to bet their livelihoods on geologists’ warnings alone. The same volcano erupted in 2012, without causing any deaths.
While Tolima and Caldas are part of Colombia’s relatively rich coffee-growing region, most of the economic activity is driven by small farmers who own a limited number of animals and tend to small plots of land and for which cattle and the agricultural equipment they own are their most valuable assets.
Although the increasingly active volcano is monitored daily by dozens of probes, it is impossible to predict exactly if it will erupt, let alone when. However, there are worrying signs.
“At the moment, the volcano is spewing steam, ash, gases, and closer to the crater there has been a high level of seismicity,” Luis Fernando Velasco, director of Colombia’s risk management unit, UNGRD, said in a video statement since last week.
In recent times, the ground around the volcano has been shaken by hundreds, sometimes thousands of small earthquakes a day. And on Friday, a column of ash and smoke from the volcano rose into the sky for a distance of more than 1,500 meters, according to a report from the Colombian Geological Service.
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