6 November 2010
The volcano Gatekeeper
Posted by Jessica Ball
One of the sad – but not unexpected – stories to come from the eruption at Mount Merapi concerns the death of the “Gatekeeper” of the volcano, Mbah Marijan. Marijan was mentioned in a 2008 National Geographic article, “The Gods Must Be Restless”, that I blogged about a long time ago – and that has turned out to be depressingly prophetic. The NG article deals with the unsteady balance between science and belief in Indonesia, where natural disasters are often taken as signs that some cosmic power is angry with the country’s rulers. Superstition and religious beliefs compete with volcanology and the efforts of emergency management workers, and the outcome has been predictably tragic. When I wrote the post about the article, I was thinking how horrible it would be if people near Merapi died because they chose to listen to their spiritual leaders rather than the scientists whose job it is to warn them of volcanic hazards – and I hate to think now that exactly that has happened. More than 140 people have died, many because they ignored evacuation orders and danger zones, and it’s possible that more will follow.
There’s a line in the article that brings up a number of thoughts:
Marijan’s behavior might seem suicidal anywhere else, but not in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,500 islands that straddles the western reaches of the hyperactive Ring of Fire.
I don’t understand why the article’s author chose to phrase the thought that way – implying that refusing to leave an active volcano in Indonesia is less suicidal than some other place – but it’s depressing to think that for Marijan, it really was suicidal. And it makes me angry to think that his arrogant behavior may have been the reason that other people died – that they might be alive now if they had listened to evacuation orders rather than his advice.
Another bit of the article is more prophetic:
Overnight, government volcanologists have raised the alert to its highest level. The lava dome might collapse at any moment. Hasn’t Marijan heard? The entreaties leave Marijan unimpressed. The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? “That’s what the experts say,” he says, smiling. “But an idiot like me can’t see any change from yesterday.”
Volcanologists may not interpret a volcano’s activity in a spiritual way, but that’s a terrible reason to ignore their advice. Because it can be deadly – and in Mbah Marijan’s case, it was.
I encourage you to read the whole article – it’s sobering, especially when compared with what’s happening in Indonesia now.
*Addendum: When I wrote this post, I was definitely writing with my emotional hat on, rather than trying to see the situation from the point of view of the people experiencing it. After reading the excellent comment by Stephanie Tubman, I realize that my emotional response could come across as very one-sided in favor of the scientific crowd, which was not my intention. I still feel that the situation was tragic and could have been avoided, but it’s true that it’s not as clear-cut as my original post implied. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, Stephanie!
Social science is going to tell you that people do many stupid things on the believe that something greater then them self is going to protect them. Sadly this people is always wrong and in many cases there decision is deadly.
In regards to Mount Merapi eruption. I believe as a amateur volcano +earthquake scientist that we are soon going to witness a caldera forming event at Mount Merapi. When and how big is the unknown. I also want to stress that I might be wrong. Mostly because the data on Mount Merapi is in short supply.
And remember that this is at Merapi, where knowledge of eruptions is not generations old, but merely a few years. It’s also not a situation unique to “undeveloped” countries. Same stuff happens everywhere, including the US.
It is easy to watch events on Merapi unfolding from afar and say that Marijan was arrogant, or the deaths of 140 people who followed him were tragic; but I suspect that the situation was not so clear-cut. From the perspective of some, this would be a case of a misguided spiritual leader deluding himself and his followers into ignoring the accurate and urgent warnings of local volcanologists. There is some truth to that perspective, certainly. Volcanologists understand the limitations and capabilities of eruption forecasting, and it would seem suicidal to not get out of harm’s way when an imminent eruption is statistically probable. Furthermore, volcanologists do not take an evacuation recommendation lightly and understand the burden it places on a government, and more than anything, local populations.
Yet as a geologist working in long-term community development work in Guatemala, I view Marijan’s death from a different perspective. Nearly everyone has reasoning behind their attitudes and actions – regardless of how closely those attitudes and actions resemble my own. I did not know him personally, but I suspect that Marijan was neither more suicidal nor more arrogant than the average person. He occupied a position in a cosmology that is utterly foreign to many Western-trained scientists, and, as the cited article clearly illustrates – had survived previous eruptions at Merapi. Rather than being “depressingly prophetic,” for me the article cited above highlights only that Marijan was no stranger to volcanic crises and the pleas of local scientists and authorities, which had never previously hailed his imminent death.
Coming from a cosmology in which his entire identity centered around his relationship with the volcano, and his life experience to date had never indicated that he should second-guess himself, should we really expect that Marijan might have thanked scientists for dropping by to tell him that his entire perspective and the basis of his life’s work were mere superstitions and beliefs? That he should shed his entire identity at their mere word? The same would go for local villagers who stood by Marijan. Would we really expect that a day’s warning, issued by people whose own scientific worldview was formed by years of training, would overturn a world-view acquired over years of life on Merapi?
I do not know the exchanges that went on between Marijan and local scientists or authorities, nor if anyone had tried to change his mind by adapting their argument to his worldview – or if it would have even been possible to do so. But as a point to the volcanological community, I would suggest that we not look at this case as a romantic and tragic clash of traditional superstition and modern science. Although it may cause us some discomfort, think of it as a call to listen as closely to the people on the volcano as the seismometers stationed there-in, and to examine how our own assumptions, beliefs, and motivations affect what we hear.
If we as outsiders intend to “help”, it is crucial that we take the time to understand local attitudes and work with them, rather than against them. Analyzing Marijan’s death as a unilateral warning against local belief systems falsely positions us as Western-trained scientists on a throne of objectivity . No one on this planet has the magic 8 ball – whether villager or an expert volcanologist. Volcanology has advanced considerably in the past 20 years, and I personally believe in volcanic monitoring and its utility in hazards mitigation; but I know that there are many people world-wide who, for a variety of reasons, may not be inclined to accept this position so easily. Implying that everyone can, should, and would follow the instructions given by scientists or authorities estranges us from the reality of our diverse world, and discourages the type of two-way dialogue that is necessary for effective intercultural communication – of geological risks, or anything else.
It is noble goal to save and improve lives through hazards mitigation, insofar as we respect the priorities, perceptions, and belief systems of those affected by those hazards. But we need to have the flexibility of mind to realize that fear of death or injury may not be the primary factor influencing short-term behavior in a volcanic crisis. Is it possible that Marijan and his followers might not have wanted our pity in death? Coming from our wealthy, risk-adverse society, this may be hard to stomach. But people around the world will continue to think, and act, differently than we might think they should – whether we choose to stomach it or not.
Note: I’ve not done a thorough review of the literature out there on volcanic hazards perceptions nor Javanese cosmology, and much of my commentary is hypothetical, rather than in base of specific anthropological work done with Marijan and his followers. Yet for those with more interest in those topics as they apply to hazards mitigation on Merapi, they might start with Michael R. Dove. “Perception of volcanic eruption as agent of change on Merapi volcano, Central Java,” and Franck Lavigne and others, “People’s behaviour in the face of volcanic hazards: Perspectives from Javanese communities, Indonesia,” both in the 2008 special edition of JVGR.
Thanks for a thoughtful and well-reasoned rebuttal – and apologies on the delay in displaying it; the spam filter seems to distrust long comments.
I will admit that I was writing this post from an emotional, rather than an anthropological perspective. Though I have also done some research in Guatemala, I still have relatively little exposure to the issues inherent in hazard communication and community outreach in non-Western countries, and you make some excellent points that I had not considered.
Tragically, it has been reported that there were over a dozen people who died with Marijan that had come there to try and persuade him to leave and who would not have been in the danger zone if he hadn’t been so stubborn.
I remember well Harry Truman-the sage of Mount Saint Helen’s. Same thing happened to him.
It’s such a waste when people lose their lives to bad decisions like that, but it’s really criminal when they get lots of attention (and followers) for ignoring warnings. I wasn’t around for St. Helens, but I’ve seen the videos of Harry Truman, and it gets me mad every time I listen to him.