Kawah Ijen, into the lungs of hell

“I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulfur mine is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.” – Booker T. Washington

Indonesia is located on the Ring of Fire, the most seismically and volcanically active zone in the world. The country is home to about 150 volcanoes of all types and dimensions. Locals call them Gunung Api – “fire mountain” in the Indonesian language. Kawah Ijen is one of the most active volcanoes scattered across the archipelago and certainly one of the most incredible and surreal places in the world.

Kawah Ijen is a geological masterpiece. It has two of the most fascinating natural phenomena on Earth. At night, due to the combustion of sulfuric gases, the volcano puts on a spectacular show of dancing electric blue flames. It also has the largest highly acidic crater lake on the planet, a magnificent one-kilometer-wide lake filled with turquoise-blue water as a result of extreme acidity and a high concentration of dissolved metals.

But the famous tourist attraction has a dark side.

Wikimedia Commons | Kondephy

Since 1968, Kawah Ijen is the site of a labor-intensive sulfur mining operation. The volcano hosts one of the last remaining active sulfur mines in the world and it is probably one of the few places in the world where sulfur mining is still done by hand. Every day over 200 miners journey into the depths of the volcano to extract the yellow-colored mineral. Kawah Ijen is undoubtedly among the most dangerous workplaces on Earth.

In the early hours of the morning, sulfur miners leave from the base camp at the foot of the volcano to hike up to the summit of the volcano at 2600 meters. After an exhausting two-hour walk, they handily descend into the depths of the crater walking along a steep path with jagged stones and slippery steps. Many do the trip barefoot or wear only cheap flip-flops.

One can see two kinds of people near the crater: sulfur miners working in grueling conditions, and tourists wealthy enough to afford gas masks, mobile phones, and digital cameras and take in the mesmerizing view of Mount Ijen.

The beauty of the volcano comes at a real cost for the miners. Having reached the bottom of the crater, miners break off pieces of sulfur with iron bars. Despite the extreme conditions, they work with no kind of special equipment: most of them wear nothing other than sweaters, trousers, and a wet cloth over their noses and mouths to breathe among the toxic cloud of poisonous fumes. Few of the miners possess gas masks. The miners’ coughs rip the night silence that encircles the crater. The high temperatures and the sulfuric gasses burn their lungs, skin, and eyes. Since the beginning of the mining activities, over 70 miners have died due to poisonous gases.

Wikimedia Commons | Emjeha

After harvesting chunks of yellow raw sulfur, the miners place the sulfur blocks in their pair of wicker baskets attached by a bamboo pole. They carry up to 120 kilos – more than their body weight and sometimes the double – of sulfur out of the noxious crater perched on their shoulders. Suffering under the weight of the loads, the 300-meter climb back up through the steep crater wall demands a huge effort, great strength, and balance. One by one the miners come out of the cloud with their creaking baskets on their shoulders.

Due to the heavy loads, the miners are left with permanent scars on their shoulders and often suffer from spine, shoulders, and legs deformities as well as respiratory diseases. Their life expectancy is said to barely reach 50 years. But despite the harsh conditions they find themselves in, the miners sing local songs, laugh, and joke among each other. Afterward, miners hike down the volcano’s outer slopes to a weigh station, where they are paid straightforwardly according to the quantity of sulfur they manage to carry back.

A state company runs the mine, and the sulfur extracted is mostly bought by local factories to refine sugar and make matches. The wage per kilo of sulfur is about 1000 Indonesian rupiah – approximately 0.06€. So the more sulfur they carry, the more they get paid. Most miners do the trip twice a day, six days a week.

The men rely on the volcano as their major source of income to support their families. A sulfur miner can earn around eight Euros per day or 200 Euros per month, a relatively high salary for that part of Indonesia – approximately twice of the farmers’ wage cultivating rice in East Java. The options for employment are very limited in this rural area. Most of the miners live close by with their families in the villages around the volcano; some of them stay alone in makeshift wooden huts at the base camp on the crater’s rim.

Wikimedia Commons | CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Despite considerations to modernize the whole process, the miners are not calling for a workplace revolution. They fear mechanization would threaten their job. Though, the miners want to spare their children from having to follow in their footsteps. Their efforts are aimed at ensuring their family can pursue a more comfortable future, sending their children to school, and giving them a passport to a better life.

In recent years, Kawah Ijen and the nearest city Banyuwangi have become popular destinations. The volcano is visited by hundreds of local tourists each day. Meanwhile, the number of international tourists has tripled between 2014 and 2017. The tourism boom presents an opportunity for the miners: some of them work as tour guides, while others run own a homestay business. The miners of Kawah Ijen want to be the last generation to mine sulfur by hand.

Lucile Guéguen

BBC: The men who mine the ‘Devil’s gold’
Media Indonesia: Banyuwangi, Java’s Easternmost Region with A Million Charm

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