Indonesia’s Mount Merapi: A Volcano’s Lasting Legacy

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Mount Merapi continued to take its toll today, as the bodies of four rescue team members were recovered from the slopes of the volcano. In the past two weeks of eruptions taking place in west Java, over 140 have died, and civilians have been forbidden from entering a 20-kilometer zone around the volcano.

The archipelago of Indonesia, part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire (here’s a map), is used to its volatile place on the earth; it was not far away from today’s current disaster when the volcano Krakatau erupted in 1883 and killed 40,000 people. Merapi is the most active volcano in the nation, erupting every four years or so. In fact, among its first victims in the recent eruptions was Maridjan, a man appointed to live full-time on the slopes and manage the testy mountain’s spirits.

This year’s eruptions, however, are worse than usual; Merapi hasn’t blown with this kind of fury since the 19th century. When they do finally stop —and officials have said they could go on for another two months — the surrounding area will have a long period of recovery ahead. Families will mourn, the local economy, already hit by losses to tourism and airline delays, will limp along, and the tropical forest surrounding the volcano, which millions live off of, will take years to regrow.

Merapi is in a national park, and more than half the park, or about 8600 acres, has been damaged under blankets of ash and lava. The ash clouds will disperse, but according to the Jakarta Globe, the government estimates it will take at least five years for the yet-to-be replanted forest to return to its previous state. And even that seems exceedingly optimistic, considering that Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world and trouble enforcing its forestry laws under the best of circumstances.

Part of the problem right now is figuring out how bad the damage is on all fronts.  Suparlan, who works for Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), says disaster has not been managed well from his environmental perspective. “There is not enough cooperation with the local province and the national government,” he says. Water, which comes from springs in the area, has been cut off to many villages around the volcano, and organizations like his have not been able to get the access they need to assess the impact of the ash on the forests. Why weren’t we better prepared? he asks. “We know Merapi erupts every four years.”