The Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia is
home to one of the largest sulphur mines in the world. Several hundred men from
surrounding areas undertake the task of retrieving blocks of sulphur from the
crater of the volcano. It is the only sulphur mine in the world still quarried
manually. Miners trek down the perpendicular path from the rim of the volcano
to the crater below and trace back the path with loads of 80-90 kg of sulphur.
For this arduous task, undertaken twice a day by each miner, the payout is
`700-850 (about 150,000-175,000 Indonesian Rupiah) per day. For each kg of
sulphur, a miner earns 800 Rupiyah. In
two trips if he can carry 150 kg of sulphur, it earns him about `700. A farmer
in the surrounding rice fields earn about ₹300 a day.
But this comes at a terrible price. The site contains a beautiful acidic crater lake whose beauty is enhanced by the smoke that billows around. While it looks like steam, it is highly concentrated hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide gases that can burn a miner’s eyes, throat, lungs and even dissolve the teeth. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide may cause respiratory tract inflammation, wheezing and lung damage. It has also proved to be harmful to the reproductive system. Miners work in a toxic environment where the concentration of these gases is 40 times more than the safe limits. The miners have little in the way of protective gear beyond a damp cloth to cover the nose and mouth. Many of them do not use gas masks because it slows them down resulting in reduced earnings. Many miners die before they turn 40.
Since mining started in the volcano in 1968, gas explosions caused the death of 49 workers in 1976 and another 25 in 1989.