A sulphur mine at the top of the Kawah Ijen volcano


© David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos


Every year a large number of tourists make the short but difficult trek up the slopes of the Ijen volcano in Indonesia to admire the turquoise waters of the world’s most acidic lake (pH<0.5). When the sun sets, observers can enjoy the spectacle of electric blue flames caused by spontaneous combustion as sulphuric acid from the volcano comes into contact with the air.
Staring through the lenses of their gas masks, worn to protect their lungs against the toxic fumes of the volcano, the same tourists can also enjoy another attraction: workers in the sulphur mines who pose readily for photographs in exchange for a few Indonesian rupees or a packet of cigarettes. These people work constantly in this environment, and without the protective gear made available to tourists. The mining companies have optimised the process of condensation by channelling the volcano’s sulphuric gases through a system of ceramic pipes, but the gathering itself has never been automated and still requires heavy slabs of sulphur to be carried manually down the steep slopes. Once extracted, the mineral is used in industrial, pharmaceutical and cosmetic processes and is added to fertilisers and insecticides.
Apart from the miserable pay they receive (about 800 Indonesian rupees per kilo transported, equivalent to 0.05 euros), the miners also risk irreversible loss of health in the form of damage to their respiratory and musculoskeletal systems, caused by the heavy loads carried in large baskets on their backs. (60-90 kilos of sulphur are transported per downward trip, and many journeys are made every day.)
The Ijen volcano is a place of contradictions: majestic natural phenomena and unique geological conditions contrast with the depletion of natural resources and the exploitation of the poorest classes of the population.

Valeria Ruffato