Children of the Volcano
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The people of Fogo live in a precarious world – their home is an active volcano that last erupted in 1995. Though it has not claimed many lives, every patch of land is precious.
Whenever lava encroaches onto people’s farms, their lives become harder. Photographer ERIC PASQUIER travelled to the Cape Verde archipelago to meet the children of the volcano.
Rising abruptly from the Atlantic Ocean, Fogo towers above the clouds that shroud its slopes. Adrift in the mid-Atlantic, it is the most dramatic of the ten dots of land that comprise the Cape Verde Islands, a maritime nation 500 km (300 miles) west of Senegal.
Fogo’s name – meaning “fire” in Portuguese - offers a clue as to its fragile make-up: the island is one massive volcanic cone.
At 2830 metres, ‘Pico’ is the highest point in Cape Verde, with a 9 km wide caldera. From here, the dark scars of repeated lava flows spill down to the ocean.
Patrick Zimmerman who owns the only guest house in the Caldeira at the footstep of El Pico says that the telluric forces (low-level electrical currents generated by the earth) are so strong here that some people find a night in his lava stone hotel makes them feel physically and mentally re-energised. But others cannot stay a night, they feel so sick and strange. “.
You are either attracted and love the place or you hate it, and need to leave. “
The island was discovered in 1460 by an Italian named Antonio Noli, although it was the Portuguese who were first to move in. Many of the Cape Verde islands are windswept and barren, but Fogo’s rich volcanic soil attracted settlers. African slaves were brought in to work on new plantations, eventually giving rise to the mixed African and European Creole population seen today.
Throughout the 16th Century, Cape Verde also prospered as a staging post for the transatlantic slave trade. When this business declined and its ill-gotten profits evaporated, Fogo struggled on by supplying vessels for the long voyage across the Atlantic.
American links with Fogo originated in the early 18th Century when whaling ships from New England arrived and began recruiting local crews. Many top harpooners and steersmen came from here, as Cape Verde men were considered harder working and far cheaper than American seamen. This began a tradition of emigration that continues today. Around 400,000 people of Cape Verdean descent living in the United States, mainly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island – almost as many as remain in the islands.
Money sent home by emigrants remains vital to the local economy, accounting for as much as 20% of the GNP.
Fogo’s population of 40,000 is concentrated around the neat little town of Sao Filipe. Away from the coast, poor subsistence farmers often rely on money sent by overseas relatives.
Thousands of people live within Pico’s caldera - the only inhabited active volcano in the world.
They are drawn by the unusually good growing conditions found on the floor of the Cha das Caldeiras, or “plain of craters”, named after the new small cones that appear during each eruption. Volcanic soil is very fertile, and while many Verdean islands are drought-prone, the natural topography of the caldera forms a humidity trap, collecting moisture from passing clouds. The result is prime arable land. The colocynth, a bitter relative of the watermelon, grows easily here, and coffee is an important cash crop. There are even vineyards, growing grapes imported from Europe and America.
Many people who live in this bizarre world are strikingly blond.
Legend has it they are all descended from a notorious French adventurer, Count Armand de Montrond, who stopped in Fogo on his way to Brazil in 1860. He fell in love with the island and its people, and is said to have married a dozen women and had fifty children.
The people in the caldera are laid back, despite the hardships faced and the explosive nature of their land. They celebrate life whenever possible, and love playing exuberant music. Nevertheless, the danger is omnipresent, and although most locals are Christians, they also revere the mountain that supplies their livelihood and has the power to remove it at any time.
The eruption of 1680 was so violent it gave the island its fiery name. Much of the land was ruined and many people left. Well into the next century, Pico’s glow could be seen from many miles away and was used as a “lighthouse” beacon to aid navigation.
Since then the volcano has re-awoken on several occasions, most recently in 1995. On the evening of April 2, a red glow was spotted, and by next morning an open fissure was spitting out lava and ash. “It was as if Pico had been cut by a knife,” was how one local eyewitness described it at the time. The entire population had to be evacuated to the coast for safety.
The last eruption wasn’t severe, and no one died, but lava rendered some land unusable and one village was destroyed - something the poor of Fogo could ill afford. Although the per capita income of US$1300 puts Cape Verde ahead of many of its African neighbours, unemployment is high.
Tourism could provide the answer, bringing in new jobs and wealth. Visitor numbers are rising dramatically, although the government’s target of 400,000 arrivals by 2008 is unlikely to be achieved. Hiking on Fogo has become popular among tourists. And it’s easy to see why: there are few other places you can enjoy such spectacular views with a gently smoking crater for company.
For the visitor, it’s a thrilling experience, but for the children who grow up here fear is a daily reality. Emilia, 11 said: “Every night when I go to bed, I pray to God asking that my sister, brothers, papa and mama will be safe in the morning. But the volcano isn’t it a god as well ?”