Beautiful hell: no way out for sulphur miners of Ijen

Hiking to the heart of Kawah Ijen, an active volcano in Eastern Java, remains one of the most rewarding and disheartening experiences of my life.

Witnessing the crater’s lunar-like landscape, its famous electric-blue flames and a multi-coloured sunrise in the clouds – was nothing short of spectacular.

But Ijen also has a dark side.

Each day, slipping between lines of tourists are about 200 hunch-backed local sulphur miners, shouldering up to 100kg of rock, under the most unimaginable conditions.

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Also read: ‘Journey to the centre of Ijen: the hunt for the blue flame’

Ijen Miners: Hell of a days’ work

The miners’ day begins well before dawn hiking more than 4km, down into the crater and then back up to a weighing station, carrying between 70 – 100kg of hand-smashed sulfuric rock on their shoulders.

They do this at least twice a day.

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The terrain is treacherous and as steep as 60 degrees in some parts, but many of the workers are shirtless. Some have gumboots, while others only wear flip flops.

The crater also spews dangerous noxious gases, and although tourists are given masks, miners only cover their mouths loosely with scarves or nothing at all. 

Our guide, who is also a miner, says he only gets to take tourists into the crater when he “gets a call” from a tour operator. I shudder to think what the split of commission is between him and the agency.

Our guide is only a young man, in his 20s, with a skater boy hat, baggy pants, oversized black sweater, and some very worn flip flops.

My heart breaks when he tells us he knows that the toxic fumes kill many of the men before they reach 40 years old.

He adds that despite the constant back aches he has no other choice to mine sulphur as he doesn’t have other skills.

According to TIME Magazine, deformed spines and bent legs are a common health problem amongst Ijen miners.

“More than 70 people have died in work-related accidents at Kawah Ijen in the past four decades, many due to the toxic fumes that billow suddenly from the rock’s fissures,” the article reported.

But this precious, yellow stone that they are mining is far from gold, with the average days’ work boiling down to a mere 15€.

All this for sulphur to make detergents and fertilizers.

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Filling wicker baskets on either side of bamboo sticks, miners carry up to 100kg of sulphuric rock to and from the crater at least twice a day.

Tourists and miners walking a fine line

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What truly amazed me about the miners, aside from their amazing resilience against the conditions, was their patience for the hoards of tourists.

I could not believe it when I saw a miner, who was carrying double his own weight in neon-yellow rock, motion tourists to please go before him at a bottleneck.

These miners just quietly creak along the track, humbly weaving between tourists, who occasionally ask them to stop for a photo.

But the workers seem to tolerate visitors well, and are able to gain some extra cash – pocket change really – by selling sulphur rock shapes.

They do this by pouring sulphuric liquid into moulds, making shapes like Hello Kitty and farm animals.

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This sulphur hippopotamus cost just 50 cents.

Want to help?

Being shocked by the working conditions of the miners, I wanted to help but I only managed to find one organization – The Women’s Empowerment Network– who is actively helping these miners and their families out of poverty.

You can make a donation here.

Another suggestion would be if you were to visit Kawah Ijen, bring an extra gas mask, shoes or jacket to give directly to the workers.

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