Monday, April 21, 2014

The sulfur miners of Kawah Ijen - Bondowoso, East Java, Indonesia

He could hardly lift his head while climbing up the crater

The sulfur miners of Ijen have the most dangerous job and they are constantly exposed to the risk of sulfuric fume which can killed them or shorten their life span. Sur, our guide, did not complain about his job, “This is the only work that I could earn a decent living for my family and all the miners here come from the same village in Banyuwangi” he said. On the way we met several other miners who were on their way up the crater. 
A group of sulfur miners passed us

His load is easily 70 kilos
They look cheerful, smiling, greeting and encouraging us to make it to the top of the crater. The first two km walk was really difficult for me and at times, Sur literally pushed me up the steep slopes. I can’t wait to finish the 2 km route as we will be able to get a short rest at the café. While some tourists are already descending the mountain, we were moving cautiously to avoid slippery track and once a while we looked back to see how high we had gone up.

At the first weighing station
I asked Sur what is his daily earning to figure out how much we are going to pay him. He told us, most miners could carry a load of 70 to 100 kilo per trip and for each kilo, they are paid 800 Rupiah (less than US 10 cents) and they could do at most 2 trips per day. They work at night or early morning and stop before midday to avoid the unbearable heat and the thick sulfuric smoke. We figured for that grueling risky job, the miners would earn around US $11 to $ 15 per day. 

We finally made it to the café which marked our 2 km walk. I stopped to have coffee and gave my knees a break. The café is the first stop where miners will weigh their loads of sulfurs and take a note of their weight from the person in charge. They will then continue carrying their loads of sulfur to the final destination at the Paltuding station where the sulfurs will take its last weighing. Many miners were busy weighing their loads and having their breakfast before they take another load. 

Busy loading the chunks of sulfur
Sweats dripping from his face and it was obvious how exhausted he was!  Still, that was not the end of it, he has another 2 km to go - the final weighing station.  After the brief stop, we continued the last section of our climb.  Sur was very encouraging, "The one kilometer will be flat" he told us.  Feeling tired, only determination and will were the motivating factors for us and finally, the last 500 meters was indeed flat as we approached the rim of the crater. 

Another 500 meters down the crater and just next to the turquoise sulfuric acid lake the miners were busy extracting the sulfur.  Some with slippers, no face mask or any form of protection and with bare hands they dug into the molten sulfur and loaded them in their bamboo baskets or sacks. The smell of the toxic sulfur and the thick fume does not seem to bother the miners. Everyone of them diligently worked to get as much sulfur as they could carry. 

62 years old miner who has worked here for 40 years

We then met an elderly man age 62, who has been working as a sulfur miner for 40 years. His face was drenched with sweat and he was too tired to respond to our greetings but he gave a faint smile. Another miner told us that he has problem with his hearing and due to his age, he could only make one trip a day. We handed a pair of gloves and he thanked us.  The dozen of gloves we brought with us were distributed to the miners as gifts, which they greatly appreciated them.  Wished we would have brought more.  We sat at the rim of the crater watching the breathtaking view of the lake filled with sulfuric acid and hydrogen chloride - with pH < 0.3, corrosive enough to eat up the human flesh and bone!  
They walked fast producing the squeaking sound of the bamboo baskets 
Descending the mountain
Huge chunks of sulfur in their baskets
Breakfast at the first weighing station just after they half completed their work
His body weight is definitely less than the load he carries
As the heat gets more intense!
Down the crater
Just with slippers
Beautiful and dangerous!
Ceramic pipes channel the volcanic gas which then turns into molten sulfur
The red molten sulfur hardens in about 10 minutes and becomes bright yellow
The harden sulfur is broken into chunks of manageable pieces
Condensation of molten sulfur 
Working in the toxic fume surrounding
At the mouth of the pipe lines
Exposed to toxic smoke
Manually breaking the chunks of sulfur
Miner at work
Breaking the sulfur
Filling up their baskets
Walking up the steep, rocky crater
Weighing their load and collecting the weight note
Only half the journey

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