Sulphur Workers of Ijen volcano

Hidden away in the eastern Java jungle of Indonesia, the active volcano of Ijen is just a link to the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”. Inside the hostile crater of the volcano, lies the world’s largest acid lake, and on it’s bank, Indonesia operates an extensive mining facility – a nightmarish Hell, comprised of unforeseen explosions and thick toxic smog. Miners work their way through unbelievably harsh and dangerous conditions. Most of them will begin at the age of eighteen and never last for more than a decade of hard labour. All of then will eventually suffer from asthma – protective measures simply do not exist, save the occasional wet piece of cloth that almost always fails to filter the poisonous gas inhaled by everyone present.

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Liquid Sulfur dripping from small holes on the inside walls of the crater, rises to a temperature exceeding 200 degrees Celsius. Miners will use pipes of clay to channel the sizzling Sulfur, eventually storing in into small “lakes” of semi-solidified product. Then, they will smash it into medium sized rocks and carry it on their shoulders, burdened by a cargo of 80 or more kilograms, all the way up to the top of the volcano, and then the mountain foot, where it will be weighed and stored. This tormenting, back-and-forth route will require about one and a half hour, and they will have to repeat the ordeal for four or five times during the day for a mere fee of eight U.S. dollars.

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About 200 miners, known as the “sulfur workers”, work here everyday and carry 70 to 90 kg of sulfur in their baskets from the crater floor. Serious injuries, especially chest and eye problems, are common but these men accept this form of martyrdom with resignation. The miner there get paid around $5 per day which is twice better daily income what they could earn on the coffee plantations.

Workers start around 3 a.m., making a steep 90-minute climb up to the rim of Kawah Ijen. They scramble down into the crater to collect 70-80 kilograms of sulfur, then haul it back up the track and deliver it to a refinery several kilometers away. Typically they will complete three round trips in a day.

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A fleeting glimpse of the crater lake of Kawah Ijen caught between clouds and fumes, its waters tinged an eerie color by sulfur and other volcanic minerals.  The volcano is active, with a small eruption occurring in 2002 and more activity, where the lake changed color and emitted sulfurous rocks and foam, causing it to be closed to tourists in 2004. In stark contract to the daily conditions of the Ijen miners, nearby resorts offer comfortable accommodation to tourists.

On a clear day Bali’s volcanoes can be discerned through the haze.

Getting there

Kawah Ijen is located near the eastern edge of Java. Ferries make the 20-minute journey from Bali to Ketapang, Java every day. Tours to Kawah Ijen are available from Ketapang itself, or you can take the bus to other nearby towns such as Bondowoso or Banyuwangi. Hotels and hostels in the vicinity can all arrange guided tours in jeeps or 4x4s.

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Sulphur is a key ingredient to the sugar refinement industry, and equally sought after by big pharmaceutical companies for various drug production purposes.

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