Kawah Ijen – the dark side of sulfur

Shortly after midnight. Curious tourists are flocking in hundreds through the gate of Ijen’s foothills to be right on time, driven by the images others took before them. Kawah Ijen is the one of the world’s largest acidic volcanic crater lake, famous for its turquoise color as well as the unreal atmosphere it offers during darkness. A dusty path zigzags 3 kilometers up to the crater rim. This doesn’t mean anything challenging, in particular, special sights have to be deserved anyway. The irritating smell of sulfur announces the near of the crater’s existence. Arriving on the crater’s rim the reward for the torture becomes visible. Blue fire darts it’s tongues through the fumes of sulfur dioxide.

Somehow, the spectacle isn’t as romantic as expected, since it is also the rough working space of approx. 150 sulfur miners who start their shift at 1 am. Lately, harvesting the abundance of devil’s gold received international attention. This did obviously not really improved a miner’s lifestyle, neither did it contribute to a better wage. „Never mind, we’re all here by choice“, tells me Arivim, a miner who just woke in his provisory tent. Ari is famous, he claims, clearing his affected throat. Many times he had been interviewed or dragged in front of a camera. What impresses me most, is that regardless of his tough labor, Ari’s still flashing a smile, going for his daily routine as it would be the most normal thing. The back problems are getting worse, that’s a bit worrisome, he mentions casually, as he makes his way to the dripping pipes which created around 15 tons of new sulfur overnight.

28 years ago, Ari started working in Kawah Ijen, but just two years ago he could afford a trolley, which allows him to stack the sulfur on, once he reaches the rim almost 175 meters vertically uphill. Most of the miners fill two baskets with sulfur weighting about 35-50 kg each and carry it from the smoking gut of the volcano to the crater’s edge. Then, they’ll return down to the pipes to get another load. He would carry even 120 kg in one go – reports Ari proudly.

While the miner steps right into the hazardous fumes to crack another fresh block of hardened sulfur, I have to remind myself of the lifestyle I can enjoy. Once again, the place of birth and the education system makes a huge difference regarding future perspectives. Being able to possibly improve career prospects just by putting an effort in – what a blessing that proved to be!

„Souvenir?“ – Supeno offers me to buy a turtle molded of sulfur while balancing 80 kg of the yellow material on his right shoulder. Apparently, the miners started to craft sulfur souvenirs to receive some additional cash. What concerns me most, is that fact that Supeno has no trolley yet. „No money, man“, he sighs. He shows me his wrecked collarbone, adding that he hopes it won’t break one day as happened to his colleagues already. A new trolley costs about 2 Million Rupiah (150 USD), within the 15 years of work at Ijen he couldn’t save enough money to make his own life easier.

These figures make it obvious, the brutal side of Sulfur isn’t the high risk of respiratory diseases or back pain – it’s the market price. Since 15 years, the fee per kilo paid to the miners increased from 625 Rupiah to 1’000 Rupiah. This equals a daily wage of about 5 to 10 US Dollar, depending on the strength of a miner. The entire journey from the harvest point at the crater’s lake up to the rim, and down to the checkpoint in Paltuding takes a miner about 5 hours. After weighing the amount of sulfur, the accountant hands out a paycheck, then the lorries transport the bright yellow element to the port of Surabaya, from where it gets exported through the China-owned company PT. Sandi Rindi.

Sulfur is needed to bleach sugar. In personal care products, sulfur is used to enhance the appearance and feel of hair, or to cure damaged skin.

There’s more to see, check out my Ijen Photo Essay