Sulfur Mining

The 2600m Ijen Volcano “Kawa Ijen” in Eastern Java is still active. Besides the sulfur mine, there is a 200 meter deep blue acid sea inside the vulcano. Once you go down from the volcano ́s rim, the awful smell appears and you can hear miners coughing and moaning as they inhale toxic fumes and carry baskets full of heavy sulfur on their shoulders.Locals and foreigners come here to see the blue flames at night and watch the sulfur miners working. Almost everyone stops at the plateau on the eastern face of the volcano, where a sign warns “visitors are prohibited going down on crater – dangerous”. Many can ́t stand the smell and turn back after just a few minutes and just have a look down to the yellow mine. The view from up here and the gases from down are breathtaking.

I spent two days and one night inside the sulphur mine, guided by a former sulphur miner named Imam (38).
The story was published in The Atlantic, Al Jazeera Magazine, Süddeutsche Zeitung, OnEarth, DeStandaard and many more.
  Watch the Video by Kevin on YouTube.

Blue flames
When we arrived at Ijen, most tourists already gotten back into their big buses. Most of them come here in the middle of the night when five-metre-high blue flames erupt as volcanic gases emerge from the cracks at very high pressure and temperature. These flames go up all day long but are invisible at daytime. Sometimes they come down the ceramic pipes to the miners, but for security reasons and higher condensation inside the pipes, workers frequently cool them down and extinguish the flames with a water hose.
[ If you wonder how they look like, have a look at Oliver Grunewald ́s beautiful pictures for National Geographic ]

Blue acid sea
Besides the Flames, there is another spectacle of nature, which is also blue. Inside the crater is the largest acid lake in the world, which is about 1000 meters-wide and 200 meters deep. Its pH-level is 0.5, like battery acid. It can eat through metal, dissolve clothes and causes serious respiratory problems for the miners, because of the sulphuric acid and hydrogen chloride it contains. The blue colour comes from the high amount of alum and gypsum. At night the air gets cooler than the water (average temperature of 33°C) and steam vapours appear.

Active vulcano and fumaroles
The quietly active vulcano emits gases through fumaroles in the south-east side of the crater. Local miners caped these fumaroles in 1968 and channeled the gas through up to 10m long ceramic pipes down to barrels, where it escapes with a loud growling sound.
Inside the pipe network, the sulfur condenses and drips out into the barrels as a red and still very hot liquid. After a while it cools, turning orange, then into yellow rock-hard sulphur. To promote the cooling and condensation inside the pipes and to extinguish the small blue flames, miners spray water on the pipes with water from a small reservoir. During this procedure they often walk over old and broken pipes, which they usually repair with mud from a nearby hole near the acid lake. Since mining started in 1968, gas explosions killed 49 workers in 1976 and another 25 in 1989. The eruptions send acid flying out of the crater, destroying local farms.
Daily Business
Workers come from the nearby villages and cities like Tamansari or even Banyuwangi. Some stay in simple dwellings at Camp Sulfutara, so they don ́t have to make the hour-long trip to Kawa Ijen every day. Most workers start at the trailhead 5am or 6am. In the end each trip takes at least four hours. Rain can make the treks less walkable and bad winds inside the crater can make work impossible.

Mining and selling the sulphur
Cooled down sulphur is yellow, solid and brittle. The miners use simple tools, such as stones, steel bars and shovels to harvest the sulphur. They break or even smash the sulphur into manageable sizes for their baskets and bags. It is up to each individual miner, how much high-purity sulphur they want to carry on their shoulders. The miners are paid according to how many kilos they bring down to the sales-point. Some baskets weigh up to 90 kilos. A few miners look happy on their way down to the sales-point, because they have worked how much money they will get.
One kilogram of sulphur was IDR900, $0,073, €0,06 in October 2014.
After carrying a heavy load of sulphur down to the volcano for about two hours on their shoulders, miners exchange an average amount of 80kg sulphur into $5,84 or €4,80. Most miners make this painful trip twice a day.

Injuries and other physical side effects
Few workers have protective clothing and equipment, so unsurprisingly many are seriously injured. The heavy baskets are carried on a bamboo stick, which can just be balanced on one shoulder. After a while the compressed skin and muscles turn into big wounds and the unilateral loaded carriage is hazardous to the musculoskeletal system and ends in deformed backs.
Miners are also exposed to a very toxic and dangerous atmosphere. Beginning with the slippery rocky paths up and down the volcano and crater, many workers and even tourists get injured – especially at night. Once down in the crater they inhale poisonous gases, like hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide attack and burn in the lungs and eyes. Sometimes a miner is trapped in a cloud of smoke for many minutes, some have coughing fits and some even pass-out when the oxygen levels get too low. In the past, workers have choked to death in the clouds of toxic fumes.
Besides this, the steam and gases emerge under very high pressure and temperature, and workers can get burned by the 600°C hot blue flames.
My gas mask wasn ́t leak proof, so even I was coughing weeks after my time in the crater. The sight of a worker smoking a cigarette struck me as odd, after we have been surrounded by the smoke all day, but for him the taste of cigarettes (the tobacco of the local cigarettes is mixed with cloves) was the only way to get rid of the bad taste and smell of volcanic gases.

What sulphur is used for
Most of that sulphur mined at Ijen is used to bleach sugar by a local factory. Processed sulphur is vital to industry around the world, it ́s used to vulcanise rubber and produce pesticides, paints, plastics, batteries, gun powder, explosives or even to manufacture matches, paper and cosmetics.

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.