A colossus that roars in the country of the deaf

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On August 14, two explosions shook Cotopaxi volcano, located 35 km northeast of the city of Latacunga and 45 km southeast of Quito. The State of Emergency decree, signed by President Rafael Correa on August 15, imposed prior censorship on all matters relating to the volcano and named as the sole spokespersons the Coordinating Minister for Security, César Navas, and the Risk Secretary, María del Pilar Cornejo. These officials have used Twitter accounts to provide information in a country where Internet access is limited and only approximately 5% of the population has active Twitter accounts.

Original text in Spanish:
Plan V

In the non-government media information does not flow. On the evening of Sunday August 23, as Ecuavisa’s news program ended, the presenter announced that the report on Cotopaxi, ‘The Awakening of a Giant’, would not be broadcasted as part of the Visión 360 program as announced because the station had subjected it to the prior censorship regime and had not received a response. The report’s director, renowned journalist Tomás Ciuffardi, had invested three months in its production.

“That the report won’t be broadcasted makes me sad, but what I feel is not really important. Much more serious is that our society only receives official information that is incomplete and does not answer the many questions that exist around this eruptive process”, wrote the journalist on his Facebook account.

What did the report include? In it, the mayor of Latacunga acknowledged that an eruption would be a tragedy. There was also information on the cost that would be generated by the destruction, the lack of an early warning system, the lack of training and planning by the municipal and national authorities and the risks to the prison population: nearly 5,000 inmates – and their families – in the new prison at Latacunga, among other information.

Minister Navas had agreed to be interviewed for the report but canceled at the last minute because there was a clear sky around the volcano that morning and the authority in charge took the opportunity to make a flyover. It was impossible to schedule the interview later and the director had to finish editing the program. Ciuffardi, however, still managed to include declarations that Minister Navas and Secretary Cornejo had made at press conferences.

Ecuavisa’s attorney believed that the report should be sent to the Security Minister to comply with the prior censorship decree, despite the Communication Law expressly forbidding it. Ecuavisa did not receive a timely response and hours before the program was due to be broadcasted, the person responsible for Communication at the Security Coordinating Ministry told the program’s director that they had not had an opportunity to review the 33-minute program, which had been sent by telephone with the Youtube internal links. This did not seem appropriate to the official, who added that an institutional committee was reviewing the news that other media outlets had sent. That, in the opinion of its directors, put the station and the report’s director at risk because they did not know if the decree would be used to initiate proceedings, even criminal, against the TV station.

Days later, Communication Secretary Fernando Alvarado issued a statement titled: Reply from the National Communication Secretary to journalist Tomás Ciuffardi:
“@tomasciuffardi I have looked carefully at the report sent for approval. I will not rate the quality of the work, but it does not contribute anything when it comes to informing the public about what to do in case of an eventual increase in the volcano’s activity.

“The decree/state of emergency’s aim is the opposite of what your production proposes, which is to guide.
“With all due respect, you have no right to call us censors, comply with the law and let the authorities do their job”.

Tomás Ciuffardi’s reply in his Facebook account was:
“Friends and acquaintances, today via Twitter Communication Secretary Fernando Alvarado decided that my report on Cotopaxi contributes nothing. He and he alone made the decision, you, the public, are not allowed to make your own judgment. He also said that my report provides no guidance and that I have no right to call them censors.
“Well, the decree literally says PRIOR CENSORSHIP, so if they exercise it, I can find no other way to call them”.

What does history says about the volcano?
Cotopaxi is, after Chimborazo, Ecuador’s second highest snow-capped mountain and – at almost six thousand meters high – one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It has remained silent since 1940 and until a couple of months ago, it presented the typical explosions of a stratovolcano: periodical explosive and effusive eruptions.

The Smithsonian’s “Global Volcanism Program” tells the story of the 1877 eruption along with current photographic evidence of the terrain. In one of the photographs, with Cotopaxi in the background, vulcanologists Minard Hall and Patty Mothes stand in front of a 7 meter rock which, they conclude, was dragged by lahars. Lahars are debris and water flows that originate from the eruption of volcanoes. In the case of Cotopaxi, which is snow-capped, the melting caused by the eruption produces a large amount of water that drags along any debris.

Lahars are the most destructive processes resulting from an eruption because they destroy everything in their wake. Another photograph shows, in the foreground, the eroded volcanic substrate of a valley north of Cotopaxi. The caption explains – based on geological evidence – that in the 1877 eruption pyroclastic material flowed down every side of the volcano, until the lahars followed the course of the Guayllabamba river, reaching the Pacific Ocean 225 kilometers away. Historical and physical evidence tell us this was one of the strongest eruptions of the volcano in over a hundred years (a similar one in terms of magnitude probably happened in 1768). It should be noted that the force of eruptions does not diminish – or increase – as a result of the time passed since the previous eruption.

Monitoring by Geophysical Institute

The Geophysical Institute’s website issues, as well as a daily report, comprehensive data from the Cotopaxi monitoring network which, in short, is obtained from more than a dozen seismometers, the same number of AFMs or acoustic flow monitors to control the lahars, GPS to observe topographical changes and spectrometers for gas detection.

Recent data tell of the existence of approximately 100 small daily tremors; emissions of sulfur dioxide are five times higher than the average (or reference) of approximately 500 tons per day and the steam column is now a kilometer high. These data show that the volcano is active, but do not speak of an imminent eruption. It is even probable that the volcano will slowly stabilize.

The Geophysical Institute has also published a risk map indicating the possible effects that an eruption of Cotopaxi would cause. It refers specifically to Latacunga, Salcedo, Sangolquí, San Rafael, Tumbaco, and even Esmeraldas as risk areas. Cotopaxi volcano has another peculiarity; it undergoes two types of explosion; one, called andesitic, is low-magnitude and the damage caused is minimal. The dangerous eruptions are called rhyolitic, and in the past their pyroclastic flows have reached Rumipamba in the north, and Lasso in the south, through its tributaries, the rivers Pita and Cutuchi respectively. Around 250 people live within a 5 kilometer radius of Cotopaxi; 7,000 within 10km; 150 thousand within 30km, 3 and a half million within 100 kilometers.

The Geophysical Institute’s daily reports are published at six am and include specific information about the volcano’s activity. Although the only entity empowered to issue information is the Ministry of Security – which has enabled the website www.volcancotopaxi.com – the Geophysical Institute’s reports can be accessed with no restriction.

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