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.


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Dawn over Kawah Ijen. A sulphur basket waits on the roadside to be taken down.
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A group of miners in the crater. They use little or no protective gear. Years of exposure to noxious emissions means average life expectancy is 35 years.
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The hike from roadhead to crater and back is about 10 km, the gradient steep and at times almost vertical.
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Kawah Ijen has the world's largest acidic lake. The 1 km long crater lake is a rich source of elemental sulphur. About 400 men collect the Devil’s Gold every day.
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The bizarrely beautiful sulphur rock surface inside the volcanic crater.
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Padi worked as a farmer before becoming a miner in Ijen. At `700 a day, he earns twice now but he knows this wealth comes at the cost of a shortened life span.
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A miner pries loose chunks of sulphur from the solidified bedrock with an iron rod.
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In the age of mechanical extraction, Kawah Ijen miners use their hands to harvest the elemental sulphur.
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A miner trudges up with his harvest. On average, a miner carries 80-90 kg two or three times a day up a steep path out of the crater and back down the volcano's outer slopes to a weighing station.
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The fog has an air of romance but it is a witch’s brew of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide that can burn eyes, throat and lungs.
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Umam is only 32 but his deeply lined face looks well over 40. He has been in the mine since his teens and says he does not care to use protective masks as they slow him down.
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A miner weighs the sulphur at the weighing station doubles as a resting place.
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An overseer calculates the earnings for the sulphur collected as a miner looks on.