Into the Devil’s Lair: The Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen

The fifth stop in our SEA by Train vacation in Indonesia, Mt. Ijen.

Sulfur have often been associated with the devil, even the bible have made this reference. Whether the devil does exist, and if he truly smell of Sulfur, is beyond me. What I know is that there are people in the world who deal with hellish conditions to make a living in order to, well, live. The Sulfur miners of Ijen are such people.

Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen in Indonesia

Walking along the path to Kawah Ijen, you’ll encounter several Sulfur miners also heading to the volcano. They take this trail from as early as 3 am, a typical work day for them.

After collecting two basketfuls of yellow gold, the miners make their way back 3 kilometers from Kawah Ijen to the checkpoint/weighing area to deposit their burdens and collect their payment. A cycle they carry out two to three times a day.

As we have experienced, most miners will approach you as you walk along the path. Many of them are just being genuinely friendly and want to know where you’re from, while a few will persistently offer to be your guide. This is particularly helpful, though not necessary, if you want to go down to the crater lake of Ijen.

Ceramic pipes placed near the vent, right beside the lake, collect the Sulfuric gas. The condensed gasses then flow from the ends of the pipes in the form of red molten Sulfur, which then turns bright yellow as it cools.

The pipes running down the side of Kawah Ijen reminded me of a scene in the Matrix Revolutions. In part because Neo and Trinity were following the large pipes to get to Machine City, but mostly due of the pernicious vibe of the place.

During our trek, as we encounter more men carrying their baskets with large chunks of bright yellow Sulfur, I realized that I have seen a portion of the BBC documentary about the Sulfur miners of Ijen. The documentary focused on the hard labor, health hazard and little compensation that the workers get.

According to the documentary, the baskets the miners carry averages at 60-90 kilograms and they only get paid about 5 to 8 US dollars for it. That’s why they try to make as many trips as possible. Keep in mind that the trail from Kawah Ijen to the checkpoint is three kilometers. Imagine carrying two persons on your back for three kilometers!

Most of the miners don’t have any special mask to combat the harmful gases that are ever present in Kawah Ijen. Shirts wrapped around their faces are the only protection the men have from the suffocating stench of Sulfur.

We only stayed for a little while at Kawah Ijen and I began to feel some difficulty in breathing as well as a burning sensation in my eyes, nose, mouth and throat. I can’t even begin to imagine what the miners of Ijen are going through. I also tried lifting one of those baskets and I can’t even get them off the ground!

Despite the tourists bearing witness to the terrible working conditions of the Sulfur miners in Ijen, their true state are unbeknownst to most. According to an article I read, most of the Sulfur miners have long-term respiratory illnesses and with the little they earn, they cannot afford to seek medical attention.

There’s no denying the beauty of Kawah Ijen. I confess, my choice of title for this article is a bit dramatic; however, learning of the circumstances of Ijen’s miners slowly being poisoned by the noxious Sulfuric gas, it is indeed like walking into the devil’s lair.

It is ironic that the industry that placed food on their tables and sustained their lives is also the one that will most likely claim it. I hope that these miners get safety equipment and better compensation. An introduction of alternative livelihoods perhaps? Given how friendly the miners are, I think training them to be tour guides is not so far-fetched.

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22 Responses to Into the Devil’s Lair: The Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen

  1. Chel Inumerable 11 August 2014 at 1:06 am #

    It is very upsetting to read about their current situation. I wish the government can offer other jobs that isnt involving Sulfer and mining.

  2. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    I really do hope that positive changes happen soon for Ijen's Sulfur miners.

  3. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    I think the miners should also initiate getting safety equipment for themselves; the question is, of course, where to get the money from…

  4. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 11:58 am #

    It really is a sad reality. Still, the miners kept a smile on their faces whenever they see tourists.

  5. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 11:54 am #

    The government did ban the mining of Sulfur at Ijen, I read somewhere. The miners kept at it though, having no alternative.

  6. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Human nature. It's really something when you see it for yourself.

  7. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 11:51 am #

    They are. They even prohibited it.

  8. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 11:50 am #

    I read somewhere that the government actually prohibited the mining of Sulfur at Ijen without proper equipment. Given that this is the only work the miners know, they stayed on.

  9. Rainbow Journal 6 August 2014 at 11:48 am #

    True. The place is really far from any major towns or cities, so other industries are also hard to come by.

  10. Brian Macasa 6 August 2014 at 4:59 am #

    Awww. What is at stake on that work is their health. :( Really depressing.

  11. Millie Manahan 5 August 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    Wow, I'm speechless…… I hope their government is aware of what's happening there..

  12. Eve Adams 4 August 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Is their government aware of this??

  13. Jaja Ferreria-Villanueva 4 August 2014 at 4:05 am #

    This makes me sad. They do anything it takes to survive no matter what the risk

  14. Slick Master 3 August 2014 at 2:36 am #

    I thought another breath-taking post was up in the works, but after seeing the other tabs of this post, i could only utter one word — and that is DEPRESSING (Relax, I'm not disappointed really though). One of the harsh realities in life: you've got to work and get paid even if the bigger price will be your health in the long run. Jerome was actually right. And I used to remember my old officemate's saying: "mag-ipon ka para may SARILI kang pera ka balang araw, hindi maging pera ng magiging DOKTOR mo." Somehow, makes sense.

    We hope either the workers themselves could find a way to salvage themselves from the potential harm, or their government should. The problem though, if that the latter will act upon this, I know one thing's for sure to resort: ban them from doing such. But heck, they can't do that, cause I know, that in these people's mindset, I'd rather work in a place despite some dangers ahead than to not work at all, and at the same thing, not to earn..

  15. Janice Lim 2 August 2014 at 5:21 am #

    This is really an eye-opener. I hope their government will do something to help improve their working conditions.

  16. Sherlane Fortunado 1 August 2014 at 5:43 am #

    It's sad that their government is not doing anything to improve their working condition. They should be given another work option or at least have a safety training and given the right gear to use in their work.

  17. Krisel del Rosario 31 July 2014 at 7:21 am #

    Things like this really make me sad, like they're dying trying to live. :(

  18. Erin Joan Yang 30 July 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    Rainbow Journal Yes, it's so sad and their health is always in danger :( But they have to go through that to make a living

  19. Rainbow Journal 30 July 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    I'm afraid there are a lot of places like Ijen. A different industry maybe, but similar working conditions…

  20. Erin Joan Yang 30 July 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    Whoa, I was surprised by this. I didn't know there was a place like this :(

  21. Rainbow Journal 30 July 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    According to an article I read, NY Times-if I remember right, that the Ijen miners actually make more than the average worker in Indonesia; but I guess the minimum wage is really not that big to start with.

    Perhaps the sugar mill (the one that buys most of the Sulfur) can loan and make installment payments an option to buy proper masks. Most of the time the trouble is shelling out large amounts of cash to buy the equipment.

  22. Jerome Lupisan 30 July 2014 at 3:25 am #

    This is very saddening to hear. Ika nga nila, "Nag-iipon ng pampaospital". You're rigth, they should be at least provided with masks to protect themselves.