In late May this year, scientists at Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute detected a fivefold increase in sulphur dioxide emissions from Cotopaxi—one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes, a looming presence 60 kilometres south of Quito, the national capital. On 17 June, the volcano’s vent began spewing plumes of gas and steam a kilometre into the sky. Two months later, on the morning of 14 August, it erupted. The eruption continues today.
In 1877, Cotopaxi’s last major eruption killed over 1,000 people, causing desolation that a government press release described as “terrible and complete.” Today, at its current intensity, the eruption has already disrupted surrounding areas. Thousands have fled their homes, as rumours of impending mudslides spread through vulnerable communities. Falling ash, which can harm respiratory health, threatens Quito’s population of more than two and a half million, as well as livestock and crops that are vital to the largely agricultural Cotopaxi province.
This natural upheaval coincided with turmoil in Ecuador’s political world, which was being rocked by some of the strongest protests and public dissatisfaction since President Rafael Correa took office eight years ago. On 13 August, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, an activist organisation, finished a two-week march from southern Ecuador into Quito. They protested things such as mining projects, central government control over local policy, and constitutional amendments seeking to erase presidential term limits. Several of the confederation’s complaints were popular among the wider public, especially their opposition to the amendments.