SURABAYA, Indonesia — Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia, is home to massive sulfur deposits and an acidic crater lake. Here, approximately 300 traditional sulfur miners descend into the crater every day to harvest the valuable mineral. They do so with simple tools, taking minimal safety precautions against noxious fumes and steep rock faces.
Sulfur is a necessary element in several industrial processes. Its most common uses are for vulcanizing rubber, bleaching sugar, processing petroleum and manufacturing matches, fertilizer, cosmetics, insecticides, paper, paints, plastics, batteries, explosives and film.
Sulfur mining in Indonesia occurs when miners tap the volcano’s supply of sulfurous gases with stone and ceramic pipes. Inside these pipes, sulfur cools to its molten state, then drips out along Ijen lake’s edge and solidifies into pure, minable sulfur. Miners then break up the sulfur with metal pipes, haul the pieces out of the crater and carry them several miles to the weighing station. Typically, a miner will make several circuits in a day, carrying loads of 100-200 pounds each.
The antiquated process of sulfur mining in Indonesia poses extreme health hazards and safety issues for the miners. According to the BBC, 74 miners have died of work-related incidents in the past four decades.
Many of these deaths have been due to toxic fumes billowing out of rifts in the volcano. The concentrated hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide gases can burn a miner’s eyes and lungs and can even dissolve teeth. Many of the miners cannot afford masks or gloves, so their only protection against the fumes are rags or scarves.
Ijen crater’s sides are also steep, jagged and slippery. The volcano itself has the capacity to erupt unexpectedly.
The sulphuric lake in Ijen’s crater also poses a threat. Because of the sulfuric acid bubbling through it, it has the pH of car battery acid.
Additionally, the miners’ constant hauling of heavy loads often causes them to have scarred or disfigured shoulders and backs.
Yet some of the miners’ bodies have adapted to the harsh conditions. This typically manifests as hyper-developed shoulder muscles or the ability to hold one’s breath for an extended period of time. Despite any bodily adjustments, however, the life expectancy of those exposed to sulfur over long periods of time is still only 30 years.
Ijen of course is not the only volcano with rich sulfur deposits: traditional miners like the Javanese worked in volcanoes from Chile to New Zealand to Italy until the late 19th century. Then, the dangers associated with the work—as well as the development of new processes—prompted the closure of all similar operations outside of Indonesia. In modern sulfur extraction operations, almost all work is mechanized.
Surprisingly, it is the Indonesian miners themselves who campaign most strongly against the incorporation of mechanized systems at Ijen. Although mining is hazardous, most workers would rather brave the dangers of the volcano than lose a job. “I do it to feed my wife and kid. No other job pays this well,” said Sulaiman, a miner interviewed by the BBC.
– Mari LeGagnoux
Sources: IB Times, Aljazeera, BBC, Boston
Photo: Michael Yamashita