March 30, 2014

The Sulphur Miners of the Kawah Ijen volcano, Java

Climbing into the Kawah Ijen volcano, as described in this blog, was an unforgettable chance to get smothered in sulphur gases, see the unusual 'Blue Lava', and be constantly forced off the tiny, rocky and dangerous path by miners carrying huge bamboo baskets of sulphur, that they had just mined while dodging the poisonous gases at the bottom of the volcano. It is incredibly hard work in one of the most severe and dangerous environments on earth. To quote Booker T Washington, who visited a similar volcanic mine in Sicily in the nineteenth century "I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.".

It is a job you would imagine few would want to do, with no safety gear provided, but there is a great demand for it amongst locals as the pay is triple that of other salaries. The 250 miners work individually, mining the sulphur by using a metal rod to break it off by the volcanic vents where it is continually forming. They then place the sulphur blocks in their baskets. Each full load earns the miner 800 Rupiah per kilo (less than US 10 cents), and they mine and carry two loads a day out of the crater to the small weighing and payment station situated towards the base of the volcano. The baskets are incredibly heavy, weighing up to 50 kilos each. I could not lift one, let alone the two together. The more they carry, the more they get paid. The miners work throughout the night and early morning, stopping before midday to avoid the unbearable heat of the day.

They are incredibly fit, and even the older miners easily overtook the younger athletic tourists attempting the climb. There is a debate as to whether life expectancy is affected by the job. Some sources say that the constant exposure to poisonous sulphuric fumes lead to an early death, yet others point out that the fitness the job requires leads to a longer life. Certainly there were many older miners, one aged 70 according to my guide, who passed me on the climb. Their greatest risk is to stumble off the crumbling slippery path as they carry their loads out, several have died this way in recent years.

There are perks, beside the fitness the grueling climb imparts, particularly when there are tourists around the crater. The miners charge 2 cigarettes per photo (as if they need to pollute their lungs any more), and sell the more ornate pieces of sulphur for 10,000 Rupiah (US$1) and lighten their loads at the same time.

What is all this effort to extract sulphur for? It is used in making explosives, matches, toothpaste, anti- dandruff shampoos, and in wine-making to kill unwanted yeast and bacteria. Think of the miners as you sip on your next glass of red.

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