Townsfolk defy 'Mother Fire Throat'

Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador could erupt at any moment, spewing red hot lava down its slopes and hurling volcanic rocks on to the small town of Baños below. But, far from fearing for their lives, the town's inhabitants are angry about what they see as a media hype that is seriously damaging their livelihoods.

Tungurahua is a grumpy old soul. Lying about 100 miles south-east of Quito, the volcano normally blows smoke and ash into the sky several times an hour. Every now and then, a rumbling sound can be heard and the ground shakes a little. It sounds as if Mother Fire Throat, as the Incas called the volcano, is flexing her vocal cords.

That routine of shakes and burps has increased significantly this month. So much so that according to Ecuador's Geophysical Institute, the seismic activity is comparable to that during the days leading up to one of the last big eruptions, on 14 July 2006. On that occasion, molten lava ran down the slopes where farmers grow fruit and a thick layer of ash covered the countryside to the west of the mountain, including the two major towns of Riobamba and Ambato, and even reaching the coast.

This time, the government has started to remove the 251 families who live on the western side of Tungurahua, close to the volcano's crater. Livestock is also being moved from the mountain.

On Thursday, the people of Baños received a message from their grumbling neighbour – the whole town was covered in a thin layer of ash. National television channels broadcast live coverage of the volcano as it breathed fire and spat burning rocks during the night.

But despite the increased activity, nobody in Baños seems too worried. In fact, they are much more concerned about the impact the news has had on tourism.

Famed for its hot water springs and adventure sports, the town of just under 20,000 is usually crowded with backpackers and local visitors. Now many are staying away as a result of the warnings.

"The scientists insist on what they call precautionary statements," says Geovanni Romo, the owner of a rafting and trekking company and head of an amateur study group called Ojos del Volcán (Eyes of the Volcano). "But as a result of those so-called precautions, it will cost us between four and six months to reactivate the tourism industry here."

He claims the press are crying wolf. "According to our own monitoring, the number of daily smoke bursts is only 300, where as before the 2006 eruption the number was up to 900. The newspapers exaggerate everything just to sell more copies," Mr Romo said. In an effort to make the best of things, Ojos del Volcán and other agencies are promoting tours to watch Tungurahua belch fire at night.

The biggest eruption in recent history was in 1999, when the town and the surrounding area were evacuated for months. Looting followed, something which many townspeople blame on the soldiers who were left to guard their possessions. As a result, they have taken matters into their own hands.

"This time around we are in full control," insists a weary Marcelo Espinel. He co-ordinates the town's emergency operations centre and is confident that in the case of an eruption, the townspeople will voluntarily move to "safe areas".

While speaking, Mr Espinel receives a phone call. Apparently the great Mother Fire Throat has stepped up her rumbles once again. What now? "Nothing," he says, "We'll just wait and see what happens next."

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