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Stéphane Godin - Meet the Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen

The Ijen volcano forms a cone of boulders and ash whose bottom is occupied by the largest sulfuric acid lake in the world (400m deep, 37 million cubic meters, average temperature of 95°F).

A fumaroles zone on the shores of the lake spits out sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and hydrochloric acid. The condensation of this vapor creates solid sulfur that is collected by the miners who climb 240m on the crater with loads of 150 to 250 pounds on their shoulders, then walk another 12 miles to reach Licin factory. A hard labor in exchange for meagre wages, still double as high as agricultural workers’ wages.

The 400 miners all come from the same village. They are proud of their work and truly respect the volcano. Seeing them carrying their loads up is already a sight in itself. But the sight at night is without a doubt the most staggering. As the sulfuric gas ignites at high temperature they produce electric blue torches that can be as high as five meters. The cloud of smoke is unbreathable and the miners usually only use a plain wet rag in their mouth as a protection. It takes between 3 to 4 hours to reach the acid lake by walk, and arriving on the crater’s rim is surprising. The starry sky and the full moon bring a dramatic and unreal effect to the scenery. The lake quivers and sparkle with blue. Going down on a steep path with only headlamps add once more the feeling of simply being on another planet!

We sometimes come across some miners wearing plastic boots, pants and a small shirt, carrying overloaded baskets. Once at the bottom, winds are gusty and make the cloud of sulfur swirl. From the moment you are stuck inside it, it’s simply hell. It is pitch-dark and we have to wait for the cloud to move away before being able to breathe again. We hold our breath for a short while or sometimes more, but if by some mischance we can’t hold it any longer and we breathe in, the sulfur stings the throat and literally burns the nose and lungs. The flames wheeze like a pressurized gas escaping, and with the sun rising this grey-blue universe is becoming multicolored. The acid lake is green and the sulfuric rocks range from vibrant yellow to deep orange. The blue flames become invisible and the crater’s walls are of every possible hue of ochre under a clear blue sky…

Watching the miners suffer under the tremendous weight of their loads gives the impression of being immersed in a novel by Emile Zola, in Germinal, in another time, another era. Armed with double baskets, equipped with rags or masks, they collect gaseous sulfur by means of already installed pipes. Sulfur turns into liquid which flows and then solidifies once on the ground. The miners break the boulders that they load in baskets at the bottom of the crater. They weigh the fruits of their labors hallway on the volcano in a shack. They go back and forth twice a day, namely 9 miles, half of it with their baskets full…

Once carried at the foot of the volcano, melted sulfur is sold to a cooperative. It will be used in sugar refinement or the production of beauty products. Two pounds of sulfur is sold for around 660 rupees. A miner who works on average 15 days a month can earn the equivalent of 90 dollars a month – which is very little knowing that the gas emissions reduce their life expectancy to 50 years…

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