BFF-09 Fearless Philippine farmers defy volcano anger

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PHILIPPINES-VOLCANO-MAYON-ERUPTION

Fearless Philippine farmers defy volcano anger

GUINOBATAN, Philippines, Jan 29, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – As blistering lava spews
from the seething volcano nearby, Philippine farmer Jay Balindang leads his
buffalo through the ash-strewn paddy fields of the no-go zone, creeping
closer to danger in a desperate bid to support his family.

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from around the erupting
Mayon volcano, as a white-hot cocktail of gas and volcanic debris streaks
down its flanks, threatening local communities who rely on the fertile land
at its base.

Fearing a significant eruption that could engulf whole swathes of the
nearby land in burning rock and lava flows, authorities have cordoned-off a
nine kilometre (six mile) danger zone around Mayon.

But that has not stopped defiant farmers like Balindang from tending to
crops and livestock that are a crucial part of their livelihoods.

Each day the father-of-eight leaves his children at a government evacuation
centre, sneaking past police as he returns to his small farm at the foot of
the volcano to feed his precious “carabao” water buffalo.

“I am not afraid of the volcano. We are used to its activity,” the 37-year-
old told AFP, at the edge of his rain-lashed rice fields, a few kilometres
inside the danger zone. Farmers make up around 10,000 of the 84,000 people
displaced by the eruption of Mayon in Albay province, some 330 kilometres
southeast of Manila.

The lush region is famous for its chili peppers, as well as less fiery
crops like rice, corn and vegetables.

All are threatened by the volatile volcano, which has gushed molten lava
and belched giant clouds of superheated ash since it began erupting two weeks
ago.

Local authorities say that beyond the immediate damage to crops caused by
the coating of smoldering embers, there are concerns that heavy rainfall
could combine with ash and rock to form deadly, fast-moving mudflows that
could sweep away entire settlements and block vital rivers.

“This is a new and daunting challenge to our agriculture workers who in the
past had to cope with typhoons, landslides and floods,” Agriculture Secretary
Emmanuel Pinol said.

– Farming the ‘Ring of Fire’ –

Farmers are among the most vulnerable to the meteorological miseries that
afflict the Philippines, which is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year and
is in the earthquake-prone volcanic belt around the Pacific known as the
“Ring of Fire”.

The 2,460-metre (8,070-foot) Mayon has been both a blessing and a curse to
the farmers living near its slopes for generations.

Volcanic ash can kill vegetation immediately after an eruption, but as it
seeps into the ground it can also enrich the soil with minerals that sustain
future crops.

“If the ash is thin, it would become a fertiliser but if the ash is thick
it would mean farmers who had spent money a lot of money to plant the
vegetables lose everything,” Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute
of Volcanology and Seismology, told AFP.

Vegetable prices have already begun to soar in parts of Albay as the
eruption hampers access to key crops.

“We are very famous for these dishes wherein the (taro) leaves are being
grown just at the foot of Mount Mayon,” Elsa Maranan, chief of the
agriculture department’s local breeding station, told AFP.

“If all this will be destroyed then the production of our delicacies and
the income of our farmers will be very much affected.”

– Dangerous dash –

In a bid to stop farmers from slipping back to tend their own fields, local
authorities have set up communal areas, where farmers can graze livestock on
ash-free grass.

“We appeal to them not to be stubborn because they are putting the lives of
our responders in danger,” Brigadier-General Arnulfo Matanguihan, head of a
local task force for the eruption, told AFP.

But many still make a daily hazardous dash back to their own land.

Balindang said the choice was clear — if he ensures that his pigs,
carabaos and cows are fed, then his family will also be assured of something
to eat.

“It’s very difficult because I don’t know if we will have any rice left to
harvest. For now, we have nothing,” he said.

BSS/AFP/MSY/1033 hrs