How Hazardous Work Turned a Volcano Into a Selfie Spot

The smoke burns the eyes and lungs. Ah Rori coughs as he chops the yellow sulphur with a crowbar. The volcano where he works looks like the gates of hell. And in front of the gates, tourists wearing protective masks are snapping selfies.

The fog clears and sunlight dances across the lake at the bottom of the crater. It is bright blue and stunningly beautiful. But the water is as corrosive as battery acid. And the fog is actually sulphur dioxide.

The volcano Kawah Ijen on East Java, Indonesia’s most populated island, has two faces. From the edge of the crater, the view is as surreal as it is breathtaking, like a pastoral portrait of a moon landscape.

In contrast, anyone who descends into the crater faces an aggressive environment that activates one’s flight response. The volcano hisses and spits. Thick gas spews from the rock. The pungent smell makes one think of gunpowder smoke.

No plants, nor insects, live here. But from within a dense cloud of sulphuric mist, a hacking cough and long sighs can be heard.

A figure emerges from the fog. Ah Rori wipes the sweat from his face.

“Very hot,” he says.

“Sure, we cough, but this is the job. We must breathe calmly and be strong. If you are not strong enough you can faint,” says his friend and colleague Beni Hermanto.

Rori and Beni are miners. They extract sulphur from an active volcano. And they often talk about the importance of being strong.

Beni Hermanto, left, and Ah Rori mining sulphur.

Sulphur from Kawah Ijen has been used to make gunpowder since at least the 18th century. The Dutch colonial power sent several research expeditions to the crater to investigate how to best make use of the “devil’s gold”. But it was not until 1968, after Indonesia’s independence, that industrial extraction began.

Until the end of the 19th century, there were similar sulphur mines in active volcano regions such as Sicily and the Andes, but today Kawah Ijen is the only remaining mine of its kind.

Elsewhere, extraction methods were modernised a long time ago, but in Indonesia, cheap labour is in abundance. And hazard pay is an unknown phenomena. The owner has no incentive to rationalize. Instead, the miners literally carry the operation on their shoulders.

In recent years, they have also become the main feature of the launch of Kawah Ijen as a tourist destination.

“See the blue lake and witness one of the world’s most dangerous jobs,” entices a travel company through its website.

“Experience the life of sulphur miners first hand,” exclaims travel book publisher Lonely Planet.

Rori and Beni fill wicker baskets with sulphur, about 40 kilos in each. Positioning the yoke across the shoulders resembles a weight-lifting routine. Lifting it from the ground and placing it on a rock structure, they crawl under it, and push the weight up with their legs.

But where the weightlifter’s challenge is over, that of the miners begins. The road out of the crater is close to one kilometre and requires mountaineering rather than walking. The slope averages around 45 degrees.

Rori and Beni stop half-way up. They are soaked in sweat and it’s time for a cigarette break.

Sulphur is used in a number of industrial processes. To bleach sugar, make matches and vulcanise rubber.

“In solid form, it’s not poisonous,” says Beni, throwing a sliver of sulphur into his mouth to demonstrate.

However, exposure to sulphur dioxide has a variety of adverse health effects. The levels in the crater far exceed European safety limits. Eyes and lungs are damaged, while tooth enamel erodes.

“I began wearing a mask two years ago, before then I only had a fabric cloth in my mouth. I've lost my teeth because of this job, says Rori, showing what’s left of his rotting teeth.

Ah Rori started wearing protective gear two years ago. By then his teeth had already rotten.

Protective masks are a new occurrence at Kawah Ijen.

“We get them from the company that owns the mine. It’s a Chinese company but the managers are Indonesian,” says Rori.

A few years ago, the mine was closed after a serious gas outbreak. Authorities demanded that the workers receive protective gear before allowing the operation to resume. But the requirement only covers employees. Most of those working in the crater are day labourers who sell sulphur to the mining company for a fixed kilo price.

In addition, the quality of the safety equipment is poor. Rori’s mask lacks proper filters. Instead, he has fastened disposable protective masks using rubber bands.

Both Rori and Beni are among the 30 or so miners directly employed by the mining company. They spend eight hours a day maintaining the pipes that lead the sulphur smoke down to the mine. The sulphur dioxide stemming from the volcano has a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius and naturally solidifies when it encounters the significantly colder air. But the pipes condense the smoke, accelerate the process and collect the crystalized sulphur in one place.

The work is complicated by the fact that Kawah Ijen is burning. Hydrogen sulphide leaking out of the underground burns invisibly during the day, and with pale blue flames at night. The pipes must be regularly cooled so as not to crack.

“Up by the pipes, the smoke is even worse, and you have to work in it for a long time. Even if you wear a mask, the smoke penetrates it,” says Rori.

“But otherwise the pipes will burn up completely and nobody can mine sulphur,” Beni adds.

Pipes lead the sulphur dioxide from the mountain to the mine.

The mining company pays 100,000 Rupiah, the equivalent of 6,7 US dollars, per day. It is not enough. They both have families to support. Food is a large expense. And school, to ensure their children won’t have to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, costs even more. So they do extra shifts to extract sulphur on the side of their regular employment. Everyone does, they explain.

Before their regular seven-hour shift starts at 7 a.m., Rori and Beni have already done a full day’s work. Usually, that means two runs down to the crater. Those fast enough can do three.

“We extract the sulphur from 11 p.m. until the shift begins; it’s too hot during the day. Then we sleep for a few hours in the afternoon,” says Beni.

Beni Hermanto is 33 years old. He's been working in the sulphur mine since he was 17.

The work is heavy and dangerous. It causes bodies and teeth to break. Rori and Beni are away from their families for weeks at a time. Nevertheless, the mining jobs are sought after.

“You can find work on the farms, but then it’s only 1-2 days at a time,” says Beni.

Permanent jobs are rare. For those who have only spent a few years in school, like Beni, a monthly salary is like winning the lottery.

“Sure, the work here is hard. But what else would I do? This is a steady income. I carry the sulphur from the mine, I take it down to the village, it is weighed, and I get my money. Even if it is not much money, this is my best option.”

“Most people who work here die before they reach 60,” says Andi, who is 56.

There are no studies on the health of the miners’. Any evidence is anecdotal only.

“Most people who work here die before they reach 60,” says Andi.

He is 56 years old and has worked at Kawah Ijen since he was 14. His shoulders are covered with scar tissue – a bodily reminder of decades gone by and a working life of physical stress.

“Sometimes the scars sting, like when you cut yourself,” says Andi.

Like many other Javanese, he only has one name.

“But you can write that my last name is ‘Sulphur’, because my life has been about the sulphur and my wife and my children are eating because of it.”

Andi’s shoulders are covered by scar tissue.

For an stranger, the sulphur mine reminds of a bygone era, before the industrial revolution. Andi talks instead of how quickly things have developed. Now, a gravel road leads from the volcano to the village at its foot. The sulphur can be rolled down in carts. And since an asphalt road has been laid to Taman Sari, where the sulphur factory is located, the weighing station has been moved closer to the extraction site.

“The difference between now and five years ago is huge. Back then, we were still carrying the sulphur down on our backs. I carried sulphur for 20 years without a cart. 17 kilometres each day, from the crater to the factory. And the path was bad and full of roots,” says Andi.

“With carts, you can take three or four loads a day. Before, you would do one and when you came back, it was already evening.

The new infrastructure has streamlined transports and connected Kawah Ijen to the outside world. The volcano’s magical views have attracted travellers for centuries. But until recently, it was still off the beaten track. Now, with improved connections, the number of visitors has exploded.

Snap! A miner is made to wait while a tourist takes a selfie.

A miner with a laden yoke is about to cross a bridge but is forced to wait until a tourist has taken her selfie. A bit further away, a group of tourists makes victory signs in front of the camera, while workers without protective masks mine sulphur in the background.

Attempting to lift sulphur-filled baskets and being horrified by the weight is popular with the visitors. Turtles and sunflowers made from sulphur are sold as cheap souvenirs.

On a public holiday like today, there are five tourists to every miner. Kawah Ijen offers an abundance of Instagram-friendly sceneries, but the sulphur extraction is the main feature. In the crater, manual labour reminiscent of times gone by meets today’s modern experience economy. The stark contradiction is the sales pitch.

In Kawah Ijen, low-wage hardship has become a circus performance and life-threatening working conditions a tourist attraction.

Entry to the national park surrounding Kawah Ijen costs as much as the miners make in a day. That money stays with authorities. But the inflow of capital has changed the local economy. The Rupiah thrown around by tourists trickle down.

Those who rely on muscle power offer tourists transport in sulphur carts. Visitors who can’t or don’t want to make the strenuous trek to the top pay 25 dollars, roughly four days salary, for the ride.

A souvenir costs about a dollar. Those who attempt to lift the miners baskets are expected to tip.

For the entrepreneurially minded, there is even greater money to be made.

Many miners have become tour guides. Others, like Ali Efendi, have opened hostels. He got the idea from a couple of tourists two years ago.

“I began to think about it and talked to my family about it. We really wanted to do it but didn’t know how. We have no education and don’t know anything about marketing. But we got help from friends, and the whole family built this together,” he says, proudly demonstrating the vernacular log house made from bamboo and concrete.

An entrance sign welcomes visitors to ‘Ijen Miner Family Homestay’. On top of it sit two wicker baskets filled with sulphur.

In a country where social mobility is non-existent, tourism has provided an unexpected opportunity to side-step the rigid class structure. Ali has bought a four-wheel-drive, which would have been impossible in the past.

“This is a much better life. The work in the mine was hard and the salary was low. I not only have better pay now but I can also help my friends who are left. I can send tourists to them. They can pull them up in carts and earn extra money.”

Tourism has changed things for the better, according to Ali Efendi.

Tourism has served his hometown well, Ali says. But initially, the transformation from manual labourer to tourist attraction was confusing.

“When they first arrived, it felt strange. They just walked around and looked at us and we did not understand their language. We were a bit afraid too because we did not understand what they wanted.”

Today he understands.

“First of all, most mines have already been modernised and use machines, but here all work is done manually, by hand. What attracts the tourists is that they see us working very hard for very little money, and do not really understand why we do it.”

It’s difficult to find out how many lives Kawah Ijen has claimed. There’s talk of more than 70 deaths among workers in the past 40 years, most of them victims of a devastating gas outbreak in the 1980s.

Ali was a child when it happened.

“They carried them down from the mountain and put them in a row. Like after the tsunami,” he recalls.

The last major eruption of the volcano took place in 1817. At that time, the surrounding areas were sparsely populated. Now they are filled with people who are attracted to the particularly fertile soil that volcanic ash creates. The next major outbreak is expected to be disastrous.

Minor volcanic eruptions are part of everyday life. The most recent one took place in March. A few hundred residents were evacuated and some 30 were taken to hospital with respiratory distress, but no deaths were recorded. At least not among humans, Beni says.

“The outbreak lasted for a couple of days and the volcano spewed out poisonous gas. We were here working but we were okay because the wind blew west, towards Bondowoso. People there were poisoned and ended up in hospital and the smoke killed lots of cattle.”

Beni is 33 years old, Rori has already turned 40. Since they began working as teenagers, the crater has not claimed any victims. Accidents are, however, common. Miners fall or roll an ankle and pay the price in sprains and broken bones.

“But there’s been no fatalities, at least. The old people say it used to happen before,” says Beni.

They talk about stooped backs and bowed legs. About the eyes that water every time they lie down to rest. And about what it takes to endure the work in Kawah Ijen’s crater.

“To work here, it is not enough to be strong, you must also be brave. You have to fight hard to be rewarded. Physical strength alone is not enough, then the sulphur will break you,” says Beni.

Beni Hermanto maintaining the pipes for the Chinese owners.

Strength is a trait that resides in both character and body. Something to strive for and a source of pride.

But strength is also what puts food on the table. Not being strong enough equals failure.

The company pays 1,250 rupiah, or 8 cents, for each kilo of sulphur.

Beni initially claims that he normally earns 200,000 rupiah, equivalent to 13 dollars, and 160 kilos, per day. Then he modifies the figure.

“I don’t usually get that much. Most of the time, it’s only 150,000 a day”

Rori looks uncomfortable.

“To be honest, I can’t always carry 160 or 120 kilos per day. Or even 100.”

He averts his eyes.

“I'm not strong, that’s the problem. I carry sulphur for two days, then I need to have a break. I wish I was strong and powerful and healthy, but the reality is that I’m not stronger than this.”

Most of the miners are day labourers. Few can afford protective gear.

Ali beams with joy. He is a third-generation miner, and anyone who rents a room gets his stories about the crater as a bonus.

“I followed my dad to the mine when I was 17 years old. The first time, I only managed to carry 40 kilos, but I grew strong. In the end I carried 115 kilos. It’s still the record!

For Ali, Kawah Ijen’s newfound status as shocking attraction is the best thing that has happened.

“Since the tourists started coming, it’s more profitable to carry their luggage or transport them up the mountain than to mine sulphur. And those who speak English can become guides, tourists like having a guide who has been a miner. The tourists are happy and coming back and we get extra money for our families.”

But is there not an inherent problem to the equation? Tourists marvel at the impossible working conditions. If more miners move across to the more lucrative tourism sector, doesn’t it devalue the allure of the destination?

Ali dismisses such fears.

“As soon as some leave, new ones arrive. There are a lot of people here who do not have an education and who can’t find better jobs. There will never be a shortage of miners.”

Background: Indonesia

With its 262 million inhabitants, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Nearly 90 per cent of the population is Muslim.

The country consists of several major islands, Java being the most populous. From Sumatra’s westernmost point to West Papua in the east, the distance is close to 5,000 kilometres.

Indonesia claimed independence in 1945, but the Dutch colonial power did not leave the country until 1949, following UN mediation.

After military infighting in 1965, General Suharto grabbed power. From 1965–1966, between one and three million left-wing supporters were murdered.

Since 1998, when Suharto was forced from office in the wake of an economic crisis, the country has moved in a democratic direction.

Indonesia is still struggling with poverty and income levels are low. One third of the labour force is employed in agriculture.

The International Trade Union Confederation, ITUC, classifies the country as one of the 32 worst in the world regarding respect for labour rights. Among other things, a law that was adopted in January gives the military the right to intervene against striking workers.

Sources: ITUC, CIA World Factbook

Words: Ivar Andersen

Photos: Carlo Falk

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