These islanders live and thrive alongside lava

Photographer Cris Toala Olivares visits communities who've built a relationship with one of nature's most terrifying forces.
People taking photos of glowing lava on Cape Verde
The 2014 eruption of the Fogo volcano ate up 75 percent of the surrounding villages and 25 percent of the farmland. Still residents returned. Lannoo Publishers/Cris Toala Olivares

Excerpt and photographs from Living with Volcanoes by Cris Toala Olivares. Copyright © 2022 by Cris Toala Olivares. Reprinted by permission of Lannoo Publishers.

Visiting the island of Fogo in Cape Verde in 2014 was a rare chance to people who actually live in a crater of a volcano, side by side with lava. I wanted to see this with my own eyes, despite the difficulties I had reaching the island, including a six-hour ride in a cargo boat that left many fellow travellers seasick.

While I was there, the Cha das Caldeiras community in the crater was being evacuated by authorities as the lava flow from an eruption engulfed their land and houses. Despite the dangers, the people were passionately trying to return to their homes due to the connection they feel with the place they are from. They were attempting to force their way back in, saying: “I was born with lava, and I will die with lava.”

Living With Volcanoes book cover

I met and travelled with volcano guide Manuel during my visit. Like many residents of the crater, he was a confident character and strongly attached to his way of life. Most people would move away from the lava, but he was desperate to remain and help his friends and neighbors. While I was with him, I felt safe, he understood the lava tracks and he knew where to walk and where to avoid.

When I was in the crater, I experienced how it is to live in this environment: it is like being in the volcano’s womb. You feel heat all around you, as if you are in an oven, and there is a comforting circulation of warm and dry winds. This was also the first time I saw flowing rivers of bright red lava. The people here have everything they need, and they know how to work with the nature surrounding them. They also produce food for all of Cape Verde on the volcanic soils of their farms, including beans, fruit, and wine. Everyone lives close by each other, many in the same house. Due to the risks of the lava, they know the importance of cooperation and solidarity.

I was struck by the loyalty and the bond these people have to their traditions and the life they know. In a world where many others like to move around and lifestyles change so fast, it was inspiring to see people wanting to hold onto their way of doing things no matter what.

Lava flowing from Fogo volcano through villages at night
River of lava flowing between the houses from the upper village Portela towards the lower village Bangaeira in Cha das Caldeiras, Ilha do Fogo, Cape Verde. The main cone last erupted in 1675, causing mass emigration from the island. In 1847 an eruption folowed by earthquakes killed several people. The thirt eruption was dated in 1951. Fourtyfour years later on the night of 2 of april, 1995 an other vent erupted. Residents of Cha das Caldeiras where evacuated Picture taken near the vents at Pico do Fogo on 8th of december 2014 Lannoo Publishers/Cris Toala Olivares
Black lava and ash covering an island village at sunrise
Sunrise overlooking the massive destruction the volcano has caused 16 days after the first eruption, burring the second village of Bangaeira with lava. Lannoo Publishers/Cris Toala Olivares
Two Fogo family members moving their belongings as a volcanic cone erupts in the distance
Overall, the island has a population of about 48,000 people. The name Fogo means “fire” in itself. Lannoo Publishers/Cris Toala Olivares
Tree with red leaves growing in ash of Fogo volcano
Like the people, many of the plants on Fogo find benefits in the volcanic ash. Trees, shrubs, and grape vines all grow beautifully in the aftermath of eruptions. Lannoo Publishers/Cris Toala Olivares

Buy Living With Volcanoes by Cris Toala Olivares here.