LEGAZPI, PHILIPPINES - The Philippine defense chief has recommended that villages in a danger zone around erupting Mount Mayon be turned into a permanent "no man's land" to avoid evacuating thousands of residents each time the country's most active volcano explodes.
President Rodrigo Duterte expressed support for the recommendation of his defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, during a meeting Monday with officials dealing with the two-week eruption of Mayon. But he said the government may have to expropriate land from private owners and added that such a move could spark "a social problem again."
Mayon has been belching red-hot lava fountains, huge columns of ash and molten rocks into the sky and plunging communities into darkness with falling ash in northeastern Albay province, about 340 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Manila. More than 80,000 villagers have fled to dozens of schools turned into emergency shelters, where a lack of toilets and other problems with congestion have emerged.
The proposal is complicated given that thousands of impoverished villagers have settled through the years in a government-declared 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) permanent danger zone around Mayon, where they have survived on farming for generations.
As Mayon grew more restive this month, authorities expanded the danger zone to cover more communities and forced thousands more to swarm into dozens of emergency school shelters. Albay Gov. Al Francis Bichara told the president and other officials that his provincial disaster funds were running low.
Albay officials declared the entire province of more than 1.3 million people under a state of calamity two weeks ago to allow faster releases of disaster funds. Duterte ordered the provision of additional funds to deal with the latest crisis he has faced.
"There is actually a permanent danger zone. Why don't we declare that as a no man's land so that no people will go there anymore because each time Mayon's eruption ends residents go back until the next explosion comes," Lorenzana said. "We will have always this problem of evacuation."
A national park in Mayon's shadow could be expanded around the base of the 8,070-foot (2,460-meter) volcano where trees could grow partly as a buffer to stop volcanic floodwater and mudflows from devastating nearby towns and cities, Lorenzana said.
"The first thing that we have to find out is what would be the solution for people who are there tilling the land which they own and is titled in their name," Duterte said.
While thousands have evacuated areas around the volcano, villagers have sneaked back in to check on their homes, farms and animals, and police and army troops have struggled to turn back tourists who want a closer view of Mayon.
Mayon, which is famous for its near-perfect cone, has erupted about 50 times in the last 500 years. In 2013, an ash eruption killed five climbers who had ventured near the summit despite warnings.
The Philippines has about 22 active volcanoes. The explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing hundreds.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.