Villages wait out rumbling volcano

Along with many other residents, father-of-two Chris Pornea has refused to leave his home in the coastal village of San Isidroon on Taal Volcano Island, ignoring a deep rumbling sound within the mountain that has been threatening to explode for more than a month.

Pornea is one of 3,000 residents who have lived for generations in the volcano's shadow, mostly as farmers, subsistence fishermen, or as guides for the tourists that visit regularly.

"We can't just leave the volcano. This is our home," the 36-year-old told IRIN, as he tended his small shop stocked with soft drinks and canned goods. "These are mostly sold to tourists, but with them gone, my small business is also failing."

Just 60km outside the capital Manila, Taal volcano is among the most powerful and destructive of the country's 23 active volcanoes.

The 23 sqkm volcano island is famous for its unique crater lake, although the island itself lies inside a bigger lake formed from past volcanic explosions.

For years, tour operators have taken visitors to the area, with many resorts around the island specializing in outdoor activities, injecting much-needed revenue into the local economy.


Taal has erupted about 33 times since the 15th century, the deadliest occasion in 1911, when wave surges wiped out entire lakeshore villages, and ash fell as far away as the capital. It also killed more than 1,300 people.

Its last major eruption was 34 years ago, although villagers were quick to evacuate then and no-one was killed.

But despite the island's designation as a "permanent danger zone" (PNZ), local authorities have failed to convince residents to permanently abandon the island.

Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
Menfolk on the Taal Volcano Island while their afternoon away by talking about their future

However, renewed rumblings since April have forced the government to move to the second of a five-step alert system, meaning magma and steam were creeping up the volcano's crater ahead of a possible eruption. Many of the island's 7,000 permanent residents left voluntarily.

All tourists were banned, and pregnant women, children and the elderly among the island's population joined a voluntary evacuation. The rest, like Pornea, opted to stay despite the apparent dangers.

On 25 May, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) reported four instances of seismic activity on the island in 24 hours, while its crater lake continued to emit carbon dioxide and steam.

"Air with a high concentration of toxic gases can be lethal to humans, animals and even cause damage to vegetation," the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDCC) warned one day earlier. "In addition... the entire volcano island is a permanent danger zone, and permanent settlement in the island is strictly not recommended," it said.

But the residents, such as Peter Mangabuhat, 24, ignore the warnings. "These rumblings are normal for us. We are not scared. Why are they not allowing tourists here? You know it's very easy to evacuate using our boats once there is an explosion," said Mangabuhat, a third-generation resident.

"Look around us, there is nothing. Many of us rely on tourist money for our livelihood, but when they are gone, we will starve," he said.

Asked what he would do if the volcano did suddenly erupt, he said: "I am confident it will not come to that. Taal loves its people."

Municipal tourism officer Genalyn Barba is not surprised by such sentiments, noting that at alert level two, forced evacuations were not even possible.

"These people say they are used to the rumblings of Taal, but even then, we have contingency plans in case of a sudden eruption," Barba said. "Our economy is severely affected, and we have lost a lot of tourism revenue. We are just waiting for volcanologists to declare the island safe, and we can lift restrictions to tourists."

Up to 300 foreign and local tourists would normally visit the island daily, Barba said, adding: "These peoples' lives are connected to Taal volcano. It gives us a lot of blessings, but we are perpetually at its mercy as well."