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Kawah Ijen Sulphur Mines

Photographs by Vova Pomortzeff

This notorious sulphur mines are located down in the crater of the active volcano Kawah Ijen in East Java, Indonesia. Every morning two hundreds miners climb down to the bottom of the crater for the next load of sulphur. They fill their baskets with sulphur manually and then carry the heavy load up on feet. It's extremely hard work in the clouds of poisonous sulphur dioxide, causing hard barking and running eyes almost immediately. However, the miners work without any protection. Just few of them have gas masks. Each miner earns for this approximately 10 US dollars per a day.

1. Miner chops sulphur off with an iron crowbar in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

 

2. Sulphur mines in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

Volcanic gas, escaped from fumaroles at the bottom of the crater, is directed through the huge ceramic pipes. It cools and condenses inside. As a result of chemical reaction the gas turns into the liquid sulphur. This red liquid flows out from the pipes to the ground and becomes hard and yellow immediately. Then the miners should only chops sulphur off and lift it up. This technology of sulphur mining didn't change from 1968, when the first pipes were installed in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

 

3. A miner tries to save himself from the clouds of volcanic gas in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

Highly toxic sulphur dioxide along with hydrogen sulphide is the main component of volcanic gas, emitted by fumaroles at the bottom of the crater. Even a small amount of sulphur dioxide causes hard barking, running eyes and snivels. High concentration of sulphur dioxide can cause speech disorder and acute pulmonary oedema. The concentration of toxic elements at the place where gases escaped from the ground can be lethal to humans.

 

4. A miner prepares to carry his baskets with sulphur from the Kawah Ijen Crater.

The average miner is able to lift approximately 60 to 90 kilograms of sulphur at once. Some of the strongest men bear more than 100 kilograms. Two primitive baskets, connected by a yoke, are used for this purpose. First of all, a miner should carry the load up to 300 meters from the bottom to the edge of the crater along a steep mountain path. Then he goes another three kilometres through the jungle to the collecting point at Pos Paltuding. Each miner earns approximately 5 US dollars for one way. Normally a miner is able to attempt just two trips in one day.

 

5. Miners lift sulphur from the bottom of the Kawah Ijen Crater.

Climbing by the steep mountain path with a heavy load on the shoulders takes about one hour. Sometimes the miners have to climb up in the clouds of sulphur dioxide. There were unsuccessful attempts to replace humans with animals in the past. However, mules weren't able to do the human work. Even a small amount of sulphur dioxide caused photophobia and disorientation to the mules. Some of the animals simply died.
 

 

6. The acid lake at the bottom of the Kawah Ijen Crater.

One of the largest volcanic lakes in the world is filled with a poisonous mix of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids. Thanks to this the lake has its characteristic milky turquoise colour. The acidity of the lake is almost the same as the acidity of electrolyte in auto batteries. The lake is about 200 metres depth. The temperature of the liquid near the surface is about 40 C; the temperature in the depth is more than 200 C. The sulphur mines are located on the south shore of the lake

 

7. Miners carry sulphur along the edge of the Kawah Ijen Crater.

 

8. Sulphur mines in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

Although Kawah Ijen is still listed as an active volcano, the last eruption occurred more than two thousand years ago. Since then, the volcano only shows increased activity sometimes. In 1976, for example, a few huge bubbles of carbon dioxide, each more than ten meters in diameter, suddenly come to the surface in the southern part of the acid lake, near the sulphur mines. As a result, 11 miners were killed. Another 25 people were died by the sudden emission of volcanic gases in 1989.

 

9. Sulphur mines in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

 

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12. A miner tries to save himself from the clouds of volcanic gas in the Kawah Ijen Crater.

Most of the miners work at the sulphur mines even without a basic gas mask. They gag a mouth with a simply piece of wet cloth trying to save themselves from poisonous sulphur dioxide. It helps, but a little only. There are approximately two hundred miners employed at the sulphur mines. Perhaps only one percent of them has a respirator. The life span of the miners is hardly more than 40 years.

 

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15. Night mining in the Kawah Ijen Crater. Some miners climb down the crater before dawn. At this time the wind usually carries the clouds of sulphur dioxide away to the other edge of the crater, so the miners are able to collect sulphur in relative comfort.

 

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17. A miner showers the ceramic pipes with cold water to hasten the condensation of sulphur dioxide.

 

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19. A miner shows the sulphur tortoise and rabbit cast in molten sulphur.

The Kawah Ijen Crater is situated on the way from Java to Bali. For this reason, many tourists visit the area. They are not allowed to climb down and usually limited with the examination of the acid lakes from the edge of the carter. However, the presence of the foreign tourists provokes miners to earn some extra money. They cast primitive souvenirs in molten sulphur and then sell them to the visitors.

 

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25. Miners carry sulphur along the edge of the Kawah Ijen Crater.

 

26. Miner Saekono weights his baskets in the weighing station at Pos Bundar.

The Miners fill their baskets with sulphur by the look. They have to lift the heavy load from the crater without any knowing how much sulphur they are carrying this time and how much money they will earn for today. One kilometre down from the edge of the crater there is a weighing station, where the miners can weigh their load finally and get some rest. Then they have to carry the load two kilometres more from the weighing station to a sulphur collecting point

 

27. Miner Saekono shows the confirmation about the weight of his sulphur issued by the weighing station at Pos Bundar. This time he has lifted 65 kilograms from the Kawah Ijen Crater. For this amount of sulphur Saekono will earn 40,625 Indonesian Rupees, or approximately 4.5 US dollars.

 

28. A miner rests at the weighing station at Pos Bundar.

 

29. Miner Pak Agus, the oldest sulphur miner, weights his baskets in the weighing station at Pos Bundar.

Pak Agus is 60 years old now. He has worked at the sulphur mines for more than 40 years. When he was younger, he was able to carry more than 100 kilograms of sulphur up from the bottom of the crater. Now his limit is 80 kilograms only. Pak Agus is the only working miner of his age and he is quite lucky to be still alive. Even 50 years old is an unbelievable age for the miners at the Kawah Ijen Crater. Most of them dies before they turn 40 years old.

 

30. Sulphur souvenirs for tourists seen at the weighing station at Pos Bundar.

 

31. A miner carries the load of sulphur down through the jungle to the collecting point at Pos Paltuding.

 

32. Sulphur collecting point at Pos Paltuding located three kilometres from the sulphur mines.

At this place, the miners surrender their load of sulphur and receive their money for this. Four times a day trucks filled with sulphur depart from here to the nearby sulphur factory in the village of Tamansari. Before the truck road was completed ten years ago, each miner had walk 13 kilometres more with a load of sulphur on his shoulders.

 

33. Weighing of the sulphur at the collecting point at Pos Paltuding.

One hundred kilograms of sulphur costs 62,500 Indonesian Rupees, or approximately 7 US dollars. The average sulphur miner earns approximately 10 US dollars per a day. It is not a bad income by Indonesian standards. The average farmer earns for the exhausting work on the local coffee plantations about a half of it.

 

34. Sulphur collecting point at Pos Paltuding.

 

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36. Filtration of molten sulphur at the sulphur factory near the village of Tamansari.

The factory is located in the jungle 13 kilometres down from the sulphur collecting point at Pos Paltuding. Daily four trucks deliver 9 to 12 tons of sulphur from the Kawah Ijen Crater. The sulphur is molten immediately again in the smelting furnaces. Sulphur melts at 113 C. The molten sulphur is filtered then. Workers at the factory have to work in the stench of poisonous toxic fumes. It is believed that the work at the factory is even more dangerous to health than the work at the sulphur mines.

 

37. The worker pours the filtered liquid sulphur on the ceramic floor of the sulphur factory in Tamansari.

Liquid sulphur becomes hard again in a few seconds. Then workers pick the sulphur off from the floor, crumbled it into small pieces and packed in sacks. Almost all of sulphur is sent to the sugar factory in the nearby town of Banyuwangi, where it's used for sugar refining. Thanks to sulphur brown sugar becomes white.

 

38. Smelting furnaces at the sulphur factory in Tamansari.

 

39. A worker collects sulphur from the ceramic floor at the sulphur factory in Tamansari.

 

40. Packed sulphur at the sulphur factory in Tamansari.

 

41. Molten sulphur on the ceramic floor in the sulphur factory in Tamansari.

 

The photographs of this feature were shot in August 2011 in East Java, Indonesia.

Copyright 2011 Vova Pomortzeff

   
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