3 February 2018

Ijen: The Volcanic Sulfur Mine of Indonesia's East Java

The Indonesian province of East Java (green, left) is the home to the Ijen Volcano.  The volcano has an enormous, turquoise acid crater lake at the top of a two mile ascent.

Hundreds of people visit the site each day, but for most it is not to take in the bizarre spectacle of the dead lagoon: around the lake men and boys mine for sulfur which is then taken, carried on their backs, down the side of the volcano. For them, the volcano represents their livelihood: for visitors, however, it can seem like a vision from Dante or Bunyan.
Image Daniel Rubio

Image TripleTrouble
By the standards of the developed world, the pay the miners receive is low, averaging at around $US12 per day. Even in East Java, where that might be considered a relatively high rate of pay, many would only consider this kind of labor as a last resort.  Numerous miners are physically deformed, the price they have paid for the weight carried on their shoulders over months and years, not to mention the exposure to the toxic atmosphere around the crater.  Even after they have left the crater, the sulfur still needs to be carried a further two miles before it can be exchanged for cash.

Image nertog
Image Claude Chauvin
From above, the mine looks like a vision from hell.

Image Richard Liblanc
Image Roman Lefort
The exchange of money is the last part of a complex set of activities. Before the sulfur can be passed down the side of the mountain it has to be extracted.  The way this is done is fascinating but highly dangerous. The gases escaping from the volcano are channeled through ceramic pipes.

Image Adam Cohn
Image AdamCohn
The sulfur must be filtered of dirt and stones. The final sulfur will be used for vulcanizing rubber, bleaching sugar, and making pesticides. However, first it must make its way off the volcanic mountainside.

Image Claude Chauvin
Image Julien F
The sulfur, which at this point is gaseous, begins to solidify as it is poured out of the pipes in its scarlet-colored molten form.  It then creates pools on the surface and becomes rock-hard as it cools, turning the bright yellow you can see in the pictures here. Almost 70 tons is deposited in this manner each day.

Image t-bet
Image JMHullot
Once it has cooled then the miners break it off in large chunks and it can begin its journey down the side of the volcano.  It is up to the individual miners what size pieces of sulfur they carry, but they can weigh up to 90 kilos (200 pounds).

Image Matt Paish
Image Claude Chauvin
This has to be carried upwards first, to the rim of the crater, following the designated ‘safe’ pathway.  Then it is downhill for a further two miles to the plantation where it is bought from them.

Image Romain Lefort
Image Matt Paish
Unsurprisingly the miners who work in these desperately harsh conditions suffer from a number of respiratory conditions – many of them cannot or chose not to afford much in protective clothing, Not only that, a number of the 200 miners who work at Ijen suffer from back problems caused by the sheer weight of the sulfur they carry down the mountain twice daily.  Some even work barefoot.

Image Daniel Rubio
Image Richard Liblanc
There is no safety equipment or mechanization of which to speak. Little wonder that even with these hundreds of men laboring intensively, only 20 percent of the sulfur deposited at Ijen each day is retrieved: there will always be work on this mountain.

Image Franc Lopez
Image Alexis D
Although the miners are generally good-natured, tourists are advised to take a variety of small gifts with them if they decide to brave the volcanic crater and see the mine for themselves.  Most agree that the sight of the place, in all its harsh splendor, is worth the danger that being in its vicinity represents. The hazards should not be underestimated.

Image M Reza Faisal
Yet where there is danger there is often astonishing beauty.  The lake has a further surprise of its own which comes out at night.

Image Grand Yann
Image grand yann
It is the largest highly acidic lake in the world.  Its PH is 0.5 because of the sulfuric acid it contains.  At night, there is often the appearance of a blue fire at its surface.  This is sulfuric acid which has ignited – unsurprising when it is released from the crater at temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius.  The flames can often reach close to 20 feet in height.

Image Claire Andre
Image marillaume
Ijen is a forbidding place, possessed of a cruel yet mesmerizing beauty.  Although it is inevitable that mining work will continue here, it can only be hoped that conditions improve for the men who undertake this perilous labor.  Despite is brutal and perilous magnificence, the Ijen complex will always attract those who seek either adventure or employment.

Image Khengsiong
First Image Credit Mirko Eggert