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Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold

 
 

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.

Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Imam, 26, hauls his load keeping a piece of cloth between his teeth to stop himself from biting his tongue during the herculean effort.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Kawah Ijen is home to the largest acidic lake on planet earth, a kilometer-long volcanic crater lake that is a rich source of elemental sulfur that is still being quarried manually.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
A miner’s basket waits on a stony outcrop of a ridge above the green crater lake, waiting to be taken up the perpendicular path that leads out of the crater.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Miners carry their heavy loads of sulfur – each weighing over 70 kg – up the vertical path from the womb of the volcano.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
A network of ceramic pipes cap the fumaroles on the steaming slopes of the crater and channelize the volcanic gases which come out as molten sulfur with a rumbling sound. The miners pry out chunks as they solidify.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Miners are often swept with thick plumes of noxious fumes which can singe their eyes, burn their throats, and cause irreversible damage to their lungs and reproductive systems.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Buwangi, 42, is one of the oldest miners in Kawah Ijen. Five of his friends who began working with him 20 years ago have died in the last three years.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
The miners work with little protective gear. They can ill afford gas masks and often work with wet cloths to protect themselves.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Sulaiman removes his gas mask and smokes a cigarette. Most workers smoke the local cigarettes with tobacco and cloves to get rid of the foul taste of the toxic fumes.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
A miner looks on as the overseer at the weighing station calculates his earnings. For a double trip into the sulfur mines, a miners earn $10-12 a day.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Indonesia: Harvesting the Devil’s Gold
Padi, 37, now works as a guide to the tourists who take the journey from the rim of the volcano to the lake below. He has a deformed spine from carrying baskets of sulfur for over 15 years and can no more work as a miner.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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