I wanted to find out, why free men decide to do such gruelling work. Indonesia has a fast growing economy, but it sadly doesn ́t make the life of villagers easier. Also the inflation since the Reformation in 1998 lead to a much lower income for farmers and the prices for basic needs are rising. One miner I spoke to preferred to work as a sulphur miner, instead of working on a field. He said, that the income as a farmer would be something like 30.000IDR/ day. He can make it to the sulphur mine once a day, carries 60kg of sulphur and usually works 4 days a week. Minus the cost of gas for his commute to work, he earns 48.000IDR/ day, 192.000IDR/week and 768.000IDR/ month = $62, €51. As a farmer in his own village (5 days a week), he would make about 30.000IDR/ day, 150.000IDR/week and 600.000IDR/ month = $49, €40.
A miner, who makes it to the sulphur mine twice a day, carries 80kg of sulphur and works 4 days a week, earns 138.000IDR/ day, 552.000IDR/week and 2.208.000IDR/ month = $179, €147.
My guide (Imam, 38) is an example for workers, who just do this kind of job temporarily, but many of them work for 20 years or longer and have to live with the side-effects. Imam worked for about 10 years then became a guide, because he had the lucky opportunity. He is barely able to speak English, but it was enough. Besides that, he probably earns even more money with this kind of job in good month. Consider, that the province East Java has Indonesia ́s 2nd biggest population with 38.5million inhabitants, but on crowdy days just 200 workers use to work there.
Some workers are proud and love to say, that they are working at Ijen as a sulphur miner, but I wasn ́t able to find out, if the majority of the population sees them as (rich) heroes, who resist the pain, or if some are even critical, that they are working under so harsh conditions and risk their health.
I think it is impossible to find one argument, why these men decide to work here. I guess their motivation is very individual and besides that, a european guy with a camera (and money in his pocket) probably becomes answers, which do not really represent the existing situation of each miner. Not that I want to suggest, that they are coming up with dramatised and untrue stories, no, but one has to be in their shoes to know the truth I guess.
Thoughts and prospects
Despite Indonesia, there have been sulphur mines until the late 19th Century in countries such as Italy New Zealand and Chile. Dangerous eruptions led to the closure of most sulphur mines and as we are living in a world, where artificial chemicals can replace and do replace sulphur in many industrial processes, it could be just a matter of time, until this mine is closed. So far the miners in Indonesia seem to deliver a factory and industry with the cheapest raw material to bleach sugar.
This mining activity is a vicious mechanism
Desperate men seem to know the risks, but continue to deliver a industry, which found the cheapest way to process an everyday product, which also is sold quite cheap: sugar. For sure the day labourer have a free choice, if they work here or not and no one is forcing them to do so, but it could also be seen as a labour exploitation without safety regulations and rights. On one side there are workers, who receive much money, on the other side, there is an industry, which minimises their costs. One side is enjoying this situation a bit more, at least in the long run.
Probably the risk and activity of the Ijen volcano is too high, to mechanise it (like for example in the Andes), but why is the industry not protecting their subcontractors at least on a marginal level? There is no doubt, that most workers will loose their jobs as soon as it is mechanised, but would that be so bad? Some of them could work there under better conditions. What could the other ones achieve, if they put the same energy in another kind of job?
Maybe these sulphur miners and the businessmen behind it are another example, of what people are willed to do just for the money.
As mentioned before, today the Ijen is an tourist attraction. Hundreds of people walk up the volcano every day and pay 30.000IDR (a farmers daily-income) or more to some informal business. So someone (or maybe the same person) is also making money by allowing payed costumers to walk on a volcano they haven ́t created and letting them watch a spectacle of nature. For sure, many visitors come to see the blue flames, but many are interested to see the sulphur miners as well, even if they don ́t go down the crater. The Sulphur Miners don ́t get a piece from that cake.
Sulphur from active volcanos doesn ́t seem to be essential for life. Raw sulphur can be replaced with modern chemicals or throughout different processes in the industry. Hopefully this means the end for such mines one day and even if some Javanese loose their job, I am sure they will find another one, which is more worth the money and less dangerous.