Sulfur mining started in Kawah Ijen in East Java, Indonesia in 1968 and it remains the only sulfur mine in the world where the yellow mineral is still being quarried manually. Each day, about 350 men from the surrounding villages take the dangerous path that run down from the rim of the crater into the womb of the volcano 1.5 km below to harvest the devil’s gold (the abundance of sulfur in volcanic regions had earned it that sobriquet, associating it with the devil and hellfire).
A green lake with 1 km radius (the largest volcanic lake on planet Earth) sits at the base of the volcano amid a smoky aura of bizarre beauty. But while it looks like steam, the smoke that billows from the volcano’s inner slopes is actually highly concentrated sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gases. These miners work amid these toxic fumes, which are 40 times the tolerable human limits. The miners work with little protective gear (which they can ill afford) in a poisonous environment that can cause irreparable damage to their lungs and reproductive systems. It can also singe their eyes, burn their throats, and dissolve their teeth.
The Ijen volcano emits gases through fumaroles in the southeast side of the crater. In 1968 local miners capped these fumaroles and channelized the gases through a network of ceramic pipes down to barrels, where it escapes and condenses instantly. The miners pry out chunks of the solidified mineral with rods and stones.
The miners usually take two trips a day inside the volcano, which entails a total 6 km hike up and down the almost perpendicular path and another 10 km from the rim to the roadhead. In each trip, the miners carry 70-80 kg of sulfur in wicker baskets on their shoulders. Lugging such heavy loads often results in deformed spines and bent legs.
All for $10-12 a day (a miner earns 800 Indonesian rupiah for each kilogram of sulfur).
Continuous exposure to this noxious environment leaves the miners with shortened life spans. Many die before they reach 40. And more than six dozen miners have died in the last four decades due to a sudden emission of poisonous gases through the crater’s fissures.