Authority and Volcanoes (Part 1: Mexico)

Volcanoes are sites in which tensions arise over what to do in case of disasters — the notion of what is a disaster can be conceived in so many different ways, but that is the topic for another post. Volcanoes, are also sites in which the cosmologies of those potentially affected by volcanic eruptions, and those in charge of protecting them clash. So, the first question for us during fieldwork was to understand existing formal or informal protocols to deal with disaster, which necessarily meant that we had to understand who has the authority to organise, or even enforce those protocols if necessary.

The first question when looking into a comparative case analysis, or cross-cultural analytical frame regarding interventions in volcanic eruptions, is who is in charge of protecting the inhabitants of towns and cities in places as dissimilar as Indonesia, Mexico and Japan?

While in the three countries some people will immediately give you a list of the governmental authorities involved in disaster risk management, some others would challenge that same authority on the grounds of both legitimacy and knowledge. For example in a group meeting in Mexico, one elderly woman spoke out loud during a meeting with our partners, who happen to be volcanologists: ‘…why should we hear your advice, if we have the Tiempero, and he really knows about Don Goyo (The local name given to the Popocatepetl volcano)…’

In the Mexican town of Santiago Xalizintla near Popocatepetl, the ritual expert, known as the Tiempero, has communicated with the spirit of the volcano and god, himself, through dreams for thousands of years. The many generations of Tiemperos, including the current one, have been pivotal in offering advice on possible dangers and actions to be taken in case of disasters. The advice offered by many elders, who sustain ‘…that you only get ill, if you are afraid…’ is a source of tension between older and younger inhabitants in many populations in the vicinity of Popocatepetl, especially the younger members of these towns are working hard to reconcile their beliefs and ancestral ways of knowledge, with scientific beliefs of risk and other forms of authoritative (mostly scientific) knowledge. It is in this highly personal and intimate conflict for Mexicans coming from towns such as Santiago Xalitzintla or San Nicolas, that the phrase of an old professor at Puebla City, gained relevance. Since the towns where we conducted interviews, perceive there is an ever shrinking community that speaks Nahuatl or treats with respect the ‘old ways’ of their forefathers:

‘I, and those like me that have been educated, we cannot go back to the old ways and traditions, of indigenous origins and tales, to the Tiempero and the healing with herbs. On the other hand, if we really are men of reason, we should cherish and protect our indigenous language and knowledge, instead of being ashamed of it… Am I right? …’

The tensions between authorities and ways of knowing are most stark when we spoke with the elderly persons, many of whom distrust various other forms of knowledge, because they think scientists and governmental authorities don’t respect their spiritual connection with Popocatepetl. During out last day in Santiago Xalitzintla, we spoke with the Tiempero who, as many elderly people in the community, told us:

‘…whenever we go to the navel of the volcano, I tell the people that come with me that they should not worry, that they should not cover… that the ashes are not going to make them ill unless, of course, they are afraid…’

Despite the interesting relationship between health advice, local knowledge and distrust in dominant discourses on health and respiratory protection, we have to consider that, after various interviews with farmers, local experts and all sorts and government officials, it became clear that distrust in authorities is not only a question of differing cosmologies/ontologies between elders, scientific authorities and younger member of the town, but distrust is, in itself, highly influenced by the wider socio-political context in the country, which has been marked by acts of violence, and the current sense of pervading insecurity and distrust since the so called ‘ War on Drugs’ began in 2006.

Introducing HIVE

In November 2015 I attended a five-day workshop to launch the Health Intervention in Volcanic Eruptions (HIVE) project. My name is Ernesto Schwartz-Marin and my role in the project is to organise and conduct anthropological fieldwork near different active volcanoes around the world (isn’t that exciting!) and to help Dr Claire Horwell, the Principal Investigator of HIVE, to coordinate the international consortium participating in this interdisciplinary research.

The workshop was held at Durham University from the 23rd to the 27th of November 2015 and more than 25 partners from Mexico, Indonesia, Japan, US and the UK were there. This included experts not only from academia, but also from partnering humanitarian organisations such as the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO). You can read more about the partners in our team here. The aim of the workshop was to share experience and knowledge of the local contexts and challenges relating to the three volcanoes that our project will focus on: Popocatepetl (Mexico), Sakurajima (Japan) and Merapi (Indonesia), and to finalise the plans for the research.

The idea is to bring together anthropological, psychological and health advice (based on both laboratory testing of respiratory protection and a clinical trial) together to produce new evidence on the effectiveness of different forms of respiratory protection, and the factors affecting whether communities will use the protection offered, which then will be mobilised by our humanitarian partners to fine-tune or even re-frame their guidelines and protocols when dealing with volcanic crises and ash-fall.

More than 10% of the population of the world lives near a volcano, and more than 3 million deaths worldwide were attributed (in 2010) to the exposure to fine particulate matter (mainly air pollution, but this could also include volcanic ash), triggering or exacerbating pulmonary and cardiovascular disease (the 9th highest cause of death worldwide); disproportionally affecting low income societies in which access to high efficiency masks, or other types of protection might be too costly, inaccessible, and difficult to wear. Our project tackles this challenge, via cross-cultural comparison of different volcanic settings.

Since the very beginning of our project we included members of humanitarian organisations with a stake in the improvement of health advice regarding volcanic ash. The Pan American Health Organization has been responsible for writing health advice related to volcanoes for the World Health Organization, but the advice on community protection is very limited so our research will directly address this knowledge gap. This will then feed into advice offered both internationally and at community level during eruptions.

As we embark on fieldwork, I am excited to see the knowledge emerge on how different communities interact with their volcano and how that influences their motivation to protect themselves.