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Puyehue volcano ash still clouds life in Argentina

04 October 11 07:24
People in Villa La Angostura
By Vladimir Hernandez
BBC Mundo, Villa La Angostura

Imagine you have lived all your life in a colourful garden but everything suddenly turns grey after being covered by tonnes of sand.

This is what has happened to people in Villa La Angostura, in Patagonia in southern Argentina, after the Puyehue volcano in neighbouring Chile erupted in June.

Since then, on an almost daily basis, volcanic ash has been falling on this picturesque town, which is the closest urban centre to the volcano some 50km (30 miles) away.

There is almost no escaping the ash. A short walk down the high street leaves you coated with dust, with your boots covered in sand and grinding microscopic particles of grit in your mouth.

The ash has dramatically changed people's lives.

"It is so sad to see our fields like this. Everything used to be so green, so nice," says Juan Chabol, who lives in a little farm on a lake island next to Villa La Angostura.

He remembers the day when the volcano exploded. Mr Chabol and his family were about to have a traditional Argentine barbecue, known as "asado", when the sky suddenly darkened and rocks and sand started falling from the sky.

"For seven hours we had sand coming down. It was like an infernal storm with thunder and lightning," he says.

What used to be a lush green farm ended up covered with a layer of almost half a metre deep of sand and ash.

For months, Juan and his family have ferried hundreds of wheelbarrows of ash out of the farm. But the ash keeps coming.

From the island where they live it is possible to see how a blue clear sky can quickly be filled with what seems like fog. It means the wind has turned and it is bringing more ash down from Puyehue.

Silvia, Mr Chabol's sister, cannot stop crying when she talks about the effect the volcano has had on their lives.

"It is horrible to see our fields now. I'm very upset because we have worked all our lives to have our livestock and now we have to see them dying."

Behind her several cows are lying on the ground, as if to stress her point. They looked thin and not too healthy.

Many farmers in the area have preferred to kill their cattle, instead of watching them die and losing any prospect of meat sales.

Farmers in at least three Patagonian provinces have been severely affected. Some have lost up to 80% of their cattle or sheep because of the volcanic ash. Many now depend on government loans to cope with the losses.

When cattle ingest the ash, they can suffer severe damage from the small, razor-sharp particles. The most likely outcome is death.

Some ranchers have been feeding their animals rather than letting them graze, but others have not been able to afford buying foodstuffs for extensive periods of time.

One solution has been to try to move the animals to land free of ash, but that does not guarantee survival.

"We had about 200 hundred head of cattle and when the ash came we rapidly evacuated them," says Fabian Cuadrado, who was born and raised on a small ranch just outside Villa La Angostura.

"But many died before they could be moved and others died in their new places of pasture, as they had already probably ingested the ash."

Mr Cuadrado, however, is resigned to the situation.

"It is like having a new illness. We now have to learn to live with the ash."

Slopes closed

Villa La Angostura relies heavily on tourism, which is probably the worst hit sector of the local economy.

The volcano exploded at the beginning of June, just when the ski season was about to begin.

"Most businesses had made their financial commitments for one of the busiest times of the year, but they ended up having no income as everything was shut down for about two months," says Alejandro Settepassi, president of the local chamber of commerce.

Now, businesses in Villa La Angostura are barely making 20% of their usual income, while unemployment has jumped from 8% to about 40%.

About 100 businesses have closed down and hundreds of people have left the town.

Mr Settepassi estimates the total losses of his sector at about US$37m (£23m).

"We are working hard to have things ready for the summer (between January and March), because if we get a good season it could be the start of a recovery. But if it is not good, then things could become even worse," he says.

Villa La Angostura looks like a big construction site. Trucks and bulldozers work most of the day gathering volcanic sand and ash from the streets, and dumping it in huge mounds at both entrances of the town.

These mountains of volcanic sand, some several metres high, are impressive. But even more impressive is the fact that they represent only a fraction of the total amount of ash collected in this place.

Villa La Angostura is the town worst hit by Puyehue, but much of the Argentine Patagonia has been affected too.

Experts believe it will take at least six years for the mountains, valleys and pastures to recover.

But that will be when the ash finally stops falling, and that has not happened yet.

The Chilean volcano was asleep for half a century, before bursting into life, and no-one knows when it will fall silent again.

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