Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen

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  • Kawah Ijen houses the largest acidic lake on planet earth, a one-kilometer-long volcanic crater lake rich with sulfur.

  • Miners carry heavy loads of sulfur weighing over 70 kilograms up the vertical path from the green volcanic lake below.

  • A miner walks away with sulfur laden baskets, while another descends into toxic fumes to collect his share.

  • A network of ceramic pipes installed on the steaming slopes of the crater channels volcanic gases, which come out as molten sulfur. The miners pry out chunks as they condense and solidify.

  • Padi has been working in the mine for 15 years. He gets paid Rp 800 ($0.06 USD) per kilogram of sulfur and earns about $12 USD for carrying a total of 150 kilograms in two trips.

  • The herculean labor leaves permanent blotches on a miner’s shoulders.

  • A miner weighs the sulfur carried from the crater at the weighing station, which also doubles as a resting place for the miners.

  • An overseer at the weighing station calculates the earnings for the collected sulfur as a miner looks on.

  • A miner loads his haul onto the truck to be carried down to a nearby sulfur factory.

  • Umam is 32, but his deep-lined face looks well over forty. Having worked in the mine since his teens, he says that he does not care to use protective masks as they slow him down in his work.

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SULFUR MINERS OF KAWAH IJEN

Kawah Ijen is one of the many volcanoes that dominate the landscape of East Java in the Indonesian archipelago. But Ijen is markedly different from the others—it is home to the largest acidic crater lake on Earth. The beautiful lake is the site of rich elemental sulfur, which 350-400 miners quarry manually each year. In an age when sulfur is a by-product of oil refining and mechanical extraction, Kawah Ijen remains the only labor-intensive sulfur mining operation in the world, where miners earn a living amid toxic sulfur fumes that expose them to a high risk of lung diseases.

Twice a day, they make a trip from the rim of the crater down to the lake and carry back 70-90 kilograms of sulfur on bamboo baskets up a nearly vertical path and down to the road some 5 kilometers from the lake. The payout for this double trip, which many would consider one of world’s toughest jobs, is about 12 USD.

Working day in and day out amid noxious hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide fumes (most miners work with little or no protective gear) leaves the miners with an average life expectancy of 35 years. In the last four decades, about six dozen miners have died due to sudden outbursts of poisonous gases in the crater.

About the Author

Sugato Mukherjee is a Calcutta-based photographer and writer. His works have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, Life Force, Lonely Planet, Jet Wings International and Outlook Traveller. His coffee table book ‘An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh’ (http://alchemypublishers.co.in/portfolio/an-antique-land/), has recently been published from New Delhi. Presently Sugato is working on his long term project on Kashmir.

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2 thoughts on “Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen

  1. Sabyasachi Banerjee says:

    Very nice article.
    I would never have known about the hardship faced by the people mining the Sulphur otherwise. The photo is stunningly beautiful though…The beauty and the beast.

  2. Teresa Gouveia says:

    Very interesting document about such a dangerous and deadly job.
    It is scary to think that these miners are exploited like slaves and condemned to such horrible death, so young, in exchange of a miserable salary.
    The owners of the company should be punished for exposing these men to such severe diseases.
    It is important to report it as you have done. Thanks!

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