Sulfur Miners


In eastern Java, Indonsesia, poverty, misery, exploitation, corruption and a modern form of slavery emerge from Mount Ijen, in the same uncontrolled way the sulfur spills out from it’s centre.

Miner getting ready to get in the track

The sulfur miners are the lead characters in an inhuman theatre. They are not only exploited as miners but also as a tourist attraction. Their day starts at 6:00 am. They begin 15 kilometers from the base of Mount Ijen (2800m high) where a truck waits to pick them up. The road, which used to be in good condition, is now completely destroyed and makes this short drive a nightmare. The miners often have no choice but to jump out and help push the truck out of holes or cracks. After seven kilometers the road ends. Each miner is charged 2000 indonesian rupiah (roughly 0.20 US dollars) and the fee is handed over to the truck driver. After disembarking everyone starts talking and pointing out the way through the jungle in order to guide the less experienced participants in this adventure. It is one kilometer of hard walking and climbing. At the end, another truck is waiting to transport the miners further up the mountain. Here the miners have to pay another 2000 rupiah to the next driver for the remainder of the trip.

It’s already 7:30 by the time they reach their stop, and it’s another 4 Km to reach Ijen’s summit. The miners cover this distance walking as fast as they can carry their empty bamboo baskets with them.

Once on the top they are welcomed by a breathtaking view, some consolation for the long trip. Sulfur smoke fills the atmosphere all around. Depending on the wind’s direction, one can see a magnificent cerulean lake resting in the heart of the mountain.

Going down into the crater a sign warns wanna-be-adventurers with the word “dangerous”. The descent is another one kilometer of challenging walking and scrambling from the crown of the volcano to the lake. The path is steep, rocky and dangerous and foul smelling toxic gasses saturate the air as the miners suddenly disappear right into the smoke. Some of them are more prepared than others. A few have masks, others have proper boots, yet most do not carry the necessary equipment for the dangerous work they will be undertaking.

The echo within the volcano is ten times stronger than at the top. The acoustics are like that of a concert hall, every sound within is amplified and can be heard clearly. Whilst climbing down one can hear the miner’s coughs and moans, it’s a cliche to compare it to Dante’s Circles of Hell but the resemblance is astonishing. There isn’t sufficient oxygen for breathing and moreover the smoke is extremely toxic.

Once at the lake, the flaxen yellow sulfur is waiting to enclose them. It normally takes them at least one hour to cut the sulfur rocks into pieces and place them into the buckets. Then the day turns inhuman. Miners must carry loads ranging in weight from 75 to 90 kilograms the entire five kilometers back.

Among this desperate group there are men of all ages working for their daily wage. Solidarity does not seem to exist and each one of them has to take care of and carry his own load. Some are able to do this trip twice in a day, and only a few are able to make it three times. There is not enough water to drink and towards the end of the day, miners will regularly ask tourists for water rather than for money.

Many of the workers suffer terrible injuries on their back and shoulders. This is the distinctive sign of the sulfur miners. It is proof of how unjust a lack of adequate labour rights and safeguards can be. For each kilogram of hardened yellow sulfur, the miners get 900 rupiah (roughly 9 cents of a US dollar), and for 65kg 54,900 rupiah (5.70 US dollars). Nevertheless, tourists pay 15,000 rupees (1.55 US dollars) per person in order to go to the top of Mount Ijen and 30,000 rupees (3.11 US dollars) for each camera they bring with them. Tourists recieve no ticket that proves payment, it’s all an informal market. None of this money goes to the miners.

The authorities (Police) at the entrance of Mount Ijen lie to tourists, telling them that each miner makes 600,000 rupiah (62 US dollars) and that their work load and the carrying itself is not too heavy or unhealthy in any way. On their way down the miners stop so that tourists can take pictures of them. They ask for a small fee per picture taken. Some tourists refuse to pay. It’s worth an attempt, such an easy chance for money compared to the hard day’s work.

This ongoing in Eastern Java is a vicious mechanism and a sick show. It appears the same hand is behind two crimes, labour exploitation without safe regulations, and the extortion of a fee from the tourists to access a natural park with profitable but illegal mining activity going on.

Witten by: Andy VC

“Made in the Earth!”