I’ve been following the volcanic eruption on La Palma from the get go, having already heard about the earthquakes they were having. I’ve been on Google Maps exploring the area now under the lava. I’ve read articles mostly from Spanish news sites and seen the footage posted on Twitter and YouTube. Footage of lava racing down flanks of the Cumbre Vieja ridge. Footage of houses being consumed by a wall of lava as it pushes onwards on its inexorable journey to the sea. Fat tongues of lava fanning out, crushing and burying banana plantations and vineyards. Roads and infrastructure, gone. Schools, churches, everything gone. Whole villages gone. And new land being created on the coast.
As the author of many novels set on the islands, I felt I had to write something about this at once magnificent and catastrophic event, but it’s been hard to come up with anything fresh considering the widespread news coverage. So I thought I would write a little about what matters most to me and possibly to the citizens of La Palma: bananas.
I’ve never been to La Palma, but the Canary Islands are connected to each and to have lived on one – Lanzarote in my case – is to have an awareness of them all. And as a writer, I have researched what it is like to experience major volcanic events. Not only the lava, but the explosions sending spumes of ash skyward to fall like rain far and wide, the constant roar, the toxic gases. The fear and fascination, and then the loss of livelihoods and most if not all possessions.
What impressed me when I was researching and what impresses me now is the tenacity of the Canary Islands’ people. The way that since first arrival they have clung on in these inhospitable if dramatically beautiful places and found ways to exist. Five of the islands – Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma – are the tips of enormous volcanoes poking out above the sea. Beaches are few, flat land scarce, and towering cliffs and ravines many. Although the climate, by anyone’s standards, is near perfection.
Before modern development, if you were to live on the islands, you would have needed to fish and farm. Farming meant taking advantage of what little rain was to be had, especially on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. It meant finding where the soil was good and the aspect right, often terracing the steep slopes. It meant cultivating land right to the edge of precipitous cliffs and ravines. No one with a fear of heights (like me) would have coped. The ingenuity of Canary Island farmers is impressive. As is their tenacity.
On La Palma, when locals realised about seventy years ago that the west coast offered the perfect climate conditions for growing bananas, they trucked in top soil, set up extensive irrigation systems and started planting. At some point, tunnels were blasted through the little island’s mountainous centre to connect east and west, making it easier to transport the crop to the port. All along the little bit of cultivatable land right beside the sea, banana plantations sit cheek by jowl. Bananas form a vital part of the La Palma economy. About 60,000 bananas are exported each year and the industry is run as an agricultural collective overseeing every aspect from growing and harvesting to packing and shipping.
The more the lava of this current eruption fans out, the greater the damage to these plantations. There is so little suitable land along the west coast that there may be no starting over for those plantation owners who have lost everything. This is what has struck me the most and why I feel deeply for the people caught up in this.
I wonder if the tourists now flocking to watch this eruption care much about the destruction of homes and livelihoods. Or if they are just there for the fascination. Maybe even peeling a banana!