This article was written by Francisca Vergara-Pinto, a PhD Candidate at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, who participated as a session leader in the international conference on volcanic risk ‘Cities On Volcanoes 12’. More on her research here

Figure 1. View of the Agua volcano from the centre of La Antigua Guatemala.

Millions of people around the world live in areas prone to volcanic eruptions. In the last decade, several eruptions have had tragic consequences for some countries, including Guatemala. On 3 June 2018, the Fuego volcano, one of the four active volcanoes in Guatemala, had a violent eruption that would become sadly known in the media because the pyroclastic flows it triggered buried the village of San Miguel Los Lotes, and with it, the families who lived there. It is estimated that 1000 people lost their lives, considering those who were found and those who disappeared. Events like this represent the heart of the field of volcanic risk research, which has had to become unquestionably interdisciplinary, political and connected to the citizenry, both to understand why eruptions occur and how we can prevent people from dying and losing their homes and lands where they develop their daily lives and culture. In this way, volcanology, as the science dedicated to understanding volcanic systems, has charted a fertile path for dialogue between the earth sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities to bring the perspectives and realities of communities living with active volcanoes to the discussion. The Cities On Volcanoes conference is precisely one of the international-scale efforts dedicated to this purpose – disaster risk reduction (DRR) in volcanic areas -, and this year, it took place in the city of Antigua, Guatemala (11-16 February). Antigua is surrounded by the volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. I attended this conference to present my ongoing anthropological research and lead a coordinated session with fellow geologists on the persistent reoccupation of ancestral volcanic lands.

Figure 2. Traces of the pyroclastic flow that destroyed the village of San Miguel Los Lotes during the eruption of the Fuego volcano in 2018. On the wall of the old house, it reads: “You are the heroes”, next to a drawing of a volcano, a flower and a butterfly. During our group visit to this place, we paid respects and talked about the tragedy that happened there. Today, this place is uninhabited.

Embracing plurality: a session designed to connect geological and ethnographic research in Latin America and beyond

As an anthropologist and HCRI student focused on understanding perceptions of volcanic risk, I have been exploring the idea of the reoccupation of hazardous spaces, if we can call volcanic sites in the context of an eruption. I mention this because during the usually long periods of quiescence – without volcanic activity – people consider their land to be safe for themselves and their livelihoods, which shapes the ambivalence of the benefits and threats of living next to volcanoes that is common in the literature on volcanic risk.

What space would allow us to talk openly about the reoccupation of hazardous spaces? Last year, in my first year of my PhD, I thought about this question. Then I proposed it as the theme for a session at the Cities On Volcanoes 12 conference, an interdisciplinary meeting organised every two years by IAVCEI (International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior). I invited geological colleagues (Liliana Troncoso from the Central University of Ecuador, John Jairo Sánchez from the National University of Colombia, and Carmen Solana from the University of Portsmouth), who, together with me, coordinated the session.

Figure 3. Session coordinators (left to right: Carmen Solana, John Jairo Sánchez, Francisca Vergara and Liliana Troncoso), and attendees.

Understanding the relationship between multiple perceptions of volcanism of different cultural groups and senses of attachment to their ancestral volcanic lands is crucial for assessing disaster risk reduction contextualised spatially, historically, and territorially. This was the topic of the session. In particular, I proposed that ethnovolcanology – a concept I am developing in my doctoral research that brings the ethnographic approach from anthropology to the field of volcanology – would allow us to understand that active volcanism is essential in shaping livelihoods, ways of perceiving and knowing, cultural landscapes, belief systems and social fabrics. Therefore, this session was the first meeting of researchers to share reflections and knowledge contributing to this approach. Particularly, we called contributions about Andean and Caribbean cultures, which have been related to volcanoes in Latin America since ancient times, being shaped by the manifestations of geological forces and, in turn, being modellers of the volcanic environments. These environments configure socio-ecological systems marked by prolonged equilibriums, catastrophic disruptions and recurrent post-eruption returns to the volcanoes. Thus, volcanoes have been rooted in enduring identities throughout history framed by colonisation, independence, and the current need to prevent disasters from occurring. From there, populations have acquired situated volcanological knowledge and ideas that needs to be rescued, preserved and respected and then brought into dialogue with specialised knowledge. The session was finally bilingual (English and Spanish) and invited researchers, community leaders, and representatives of civil society interested in the following topics: : 1) Territory (attachment to volcanic places; volcanic livelihoods; risk perceptions; post-disaster recovery; disaster memory; volcanic imaginaries), 2) Relationality (local/indigenous knowledge and wisdom; intellectual property and loss of community knowledge; volcanism in art and crafts; relational ontologies; rites at volcanoes and their expression as risk reduction practices; intercultural risk communication), 3) History (eruptions in Latin American history and archaeology; community risk management; humanitarian responses to volcanic crises and disasters). Overall, dialogue on these themes allowed a deeper understanding of the tension between place attachment and disaster risk in environments laden with values, identities, memories, and projections. All these issues need to be discussed in debates on both disaster risk in ancestral volcanic lands and on ancestral knowledge at risk.

Talking about human-volcano relationships: The speakers and their topics

The session was held on 13 February in the ruins of St Joseph’s Church, and 8 researchers from different places and disciplines presented their work in progress:

– Dr John Jairo Sánchez (Universidad Nacional de Colombia) presented on “Modern uses of volcanic images compared with iconographies on rock art and their relation to myths in Nariño, Colombia”, published in

– PhD (c) Francisca Vergara-Pinto (University of Manchester) presented on the “Stratigraphy of volcanic memory: Layers of tephra, coping experiences and affects around volcanism”, published in

– PhD (c) Paulina Ascencio (New York University) presented the talk “Eje Neovolcánico. Aproximaciones artísticas al paisaje ígneo”.

– PhD (c) Rosie Rice (University of Cambridge) presented on “Making Sense of Place: Exploring Attachment to Place in the context of the Volcán de Tajogaite eruption, La Palma (Canary Islands)”.

– MSc Liliana Troncoso (Universidad Central de Ecuador) presented the talk “Los guardianes “modernos” de la memoria del volcán Tungurahua”, published in

– Alex Petzey (Community researcher, Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala) presented the talk “Entre Riesgos y K’aslimaal: Comunidades Originarias y la Gestión de Riesgos ante Eventos Naturales en Territorios Volcánicos”.

– Dr William Posada (Universidad de Antioquía) presented on “Pensamiento telúrico, adaptación y resiliencia en el poblamiento antiguo de los Andes colombianos. Una aproximación multidimensional al análisis de la relación humanos-volcanes”.

– PhD (c) Cecilia Reed (University of Cambridge) presented the talk “Mam and K’iche’ Mayan Ceremonial Rites with Active Volcanic Landscapes”.

As can be seen, we reunited to talk and listen about very diverse places in Latin America, from Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico to the Canary Islands. After these interesting talks, which lasted 15 minutes each, there was a 30-minute block for conversation with the attendees, who posed very pertinent questions to discuss the tension between coexistence and risk; between living with a volcano and being exposed to its threats by making decisions at the individual, family and community level, as well as at the economic, political, scientific and governmental levels.

Figure 4. Panel discussion on the reoccupation of volcanic sites and life between eruptions, among session coordinators, presenters and attendees.

That morning at the end of the session, we left happy because ethnovolcanology as an approach born in the southern Andes has a promising future that, I hope, will be useful to understand why people become one with their ancestral lands with active volcanism.

After the session… A poster on rhythms and my first encounter with the Pacaya and Fuego volcanoes

In addition, I presented a poster in another session on “Communication for decision making during volcanic crises”. The poster was entitled “Understanding rhythms: The role of social and volcanic temporalities in risk communication for disaster preparedness”, co-authored with Dr Nathaniel O’Grady, Dr Aurora Fredriksen and Dr Jorge Romero.

The next day, February 14th, I went to the Pacaya volcano on a field trip with fellow volcanologists and local guides. This volcano is located in the municipality of San Vicente Pacaya. Its last eruption was in 2021, spewing lava flows that affected the surrounding villages and their communities. I was able to visit the place, walk through the lava flows and see the volcano for the first time, which meant a first face-to-face encounter between me and this non-human entity that deploys its agency over its entire environment and those who inhabit it. I also met people who work at the volcano, and volcanologists who study it.

Figure 5. View of the eruptive pulses of the Fuego volcano.

Figure 6. Visit to the deposits of the pyroclastic flow (Fuego volcano, 2018) that flowed down the ravine to the Las Lajas bridge and the village of San Miguel Los Lotes.

Three days later, on 17 February, I went to the Fuego volcano in Esquintla on a field trip again with colleagues and representatives of INSIVUMEH (National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology of Guatemala), such as volcanologist Gustavo Chigna, and CONRED (National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction). This occasion was very different from the previous one because the place we visited is today a place of mourning, and it was the first place destroyed by an eruption that I know in person. Both volcanoes and contexts, with their affective atmospheres, allowed me to look more closely at the role of humanitarianism in volcanic crises and to reaffirm the role of my research on affects on hazardous spaces that, before, during and after a disaster, are also people’s lived spaces, and to which they will usually return to extend their ancestry into the future. Therefore, this deep-rooted and strong socio-cultural quality of volcanic risk needs to be taken into account in academic and community reflection and dialogue on disaster preparedness and humanitarian response.

Figure 7. Me at Pacaya volcano (left) and in the vicinity of Fuego volcano (right).

This is my reflection after attending the conference and field trips in Guatemala. Only through respectful dialogue we will be able to reach DRR through empathy as the common path to put ourselves in the place of the other: of those who live in the volcanic land because their ancestors lie there as well as the future of their culture, those who study it to evaluate its exposure to hazards and suggest actions, and those who make decisions to protect those who inhabit it.