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Uncertain Topographies


The Profit of Danger


From February 2016 until June 2017, during multiple trips to Yogyakarta, I visited different places around Mount Merapi (Fire Mountain in Javanese). During these explorations I found: destroyed villages (obliterated by pyroclastic eruptions in 2010),  homes, plantations, schools, hotels, quarries, government buildings, tour operators, seismic monitoring stations, and curiously, even a Christian church originally modelled in the shape of a dove but actually resembling a chicken. All these places were very close to Mount Merapi’s summit some, to my surprise, were as close as 2 km away. As I continued my research, I realised that many of the people I had met had something in common – they had been affected by Merapi's eruptions in some way or another (the loss of livestock, houses, land and even the lives of friends and family members) these personal experiences have made them forge strong and intimate connections with the volcano. As I continued with the project, meeting and talking to people in the field, I kept wondering what were the reasons that made them decide to stay so near to a place that was so costly and deadly destructive.

Merapi is considered to be one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes in the world. It has threatened normal life in communities living around its summit for hundreds of years (Merapi has had 68 historic eruptions since 1548). After spending their whole lives in close proximity to constant latent danger, the inhabitants of these Uncertain Topographies have grown accustomed to jeopardy. In a place like this, normal life is just a relative term and the balance between danger and benefit is never fixed. Their cultural beliefs together with the already mentioned exposure to latent danger is counterweighted by the endless benefits this land has to offer to its inhabitants' livelihoods. Merapi has in fact sustained the lives of the inhabitants of Yogyakarta by producing a steady supply of sand and rocks that are mined for the construction industry,  fertile land that makes agriculture very profitable and a booming tourism industry that profits from Merapi's infamous reputation as an uncontrollable force of nature. This brings about scientific and risk management communities that strive to keep villages and cities around Merapi as humanly safe as possible.


Understandably, residents have created deep rooted emotional and financial relationships with Mount Merapi. For example, many of the neighbouring villages' main income depends on the above-mentioned industries linked to Merapi. Furthermore, Merapi is a constant presence in the normal routine of these villagers, and has, over time, become a common topic of informal conversation and even the main subject during community meetings related to the management of resources and the mitigation of risk. This sustainable and economically rewarding ecosystem, which Merapi creates, together with the ancestral Javanese beliefs that regard mountains as deities, reinforce the strong attachment between the magnificent volcano and the people living under its influence and therefore, a reluctance to move to safer grounds (Lavigne et al.2008).

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