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The miners of Kawah Ijen

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Origin of suspense

It’s been 30 years since the great French reporter Nicolas Hulot* traveled to East Java for his celebrated adventure television program (Ushuaia), in order to produce a 35-minute report on the living conditions of the workers near the Indonesian volcano Kawah Ijen. This sensational coverage highlighted the difficult and distressing working conditions of the “sulfur miners” in the area. It presented the inherent risks linked to the sulfur extraction at the “heart” of the volcano and the dramatic consequences of these horrendous conditions on the workers’ health.

At Kawah Ijen, many remember this week of filming. The production was flanked by two chartered helicopters and allowed certain workers to climb even higher than the 2,300 m summit of the volcano, allowing them to see their work ground from high up in the sky. A vivid memory that the survivors from this period relentlessly recount to anyone they suspect of being French: it was the beginning of the “sulfur worker” media era!

Since then, teams of journalists regularly come and go. Always on a quest for more sensational news, they have insisted on the difficulty of the work, the dangers linked to sulfur and toxic sulphides, the presumed anticipated mortality of the workers, the daily injuries suffered, as well as the relatively low salaries awarded to miners for their laborious efforts. Each report presents a new occasion to display photogenic close-up shots of the workers’ exhausted faces while they exert themselves, share dramatic and telling figures that speak to the unhealthy working conditions they endure, and point to the early age at which they might die. But where does this information actually come from?

An open-pit mine

Far be it from me to contest the extreme arduousness and extraordinary difficulties of working in such a place. It is practically impossible to conceive of such conditions without painfully enduring them yourself… But I feel like certain facts, however difficult to dispute, need to be clarified so that objective minds may get somewhat of a different perspective on the current situation of the workers.

Pieces of information relating to the sulfur operations at the Kawah Ijen crater (dubbed the “Green Crater” due to the turquoise color of its volcanic acid lake) date back to the 16th century. At this time, a village of miners (that was located on the North face of the volcano but that has since disappeared) specialized in collecting and trading Kawah Ijen sulfur. The workers would climb up the slope from the village to reach the volcano’s acid lake (the largest acid lake in the world), on which they would then sail on bamboo canoes to reach the sulfur extraction site. Upon returning at the end of the day, the canoes overloaded with the precious mineral, the journey back across the lake would often prove to be perilously dangerous. At the start of the 20th century, following numerous incidents and tragedies, the Dutch managers of the mine decided to open a new access route that would wind itself up the South face of the volcano, thereby leaving behind the “joys” of traveling across the acid lake… From that point on, the sulfur was exclusively transported on the backs of the workers, first from the pit of the crater to the summit, and then from the summit to the base camp (Paltuding), located some 4 kilometers away (a situation that very much resembles the present operating system).

Organization and logistics

Sulfur extraction at Kawah Ijen is under the responsibility of a mining company that employs its workers under the status of employees and markets its product primarily to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. The 300 or so employees working at Kawah Ijen are divided into two main categories: the miners (roughly 25 to 30 individuals) and the porters (roughly 250 individuals).

At the heart of the crater are the miners

The miners are in charge of creating and extracting the sulfur out of the vapors that emanate from deep underground. They work in 15-day periods: 15 days of labor and 15 days of rest. Their work is extremely arduous and they are constantly exposed to a hostile and unsafe environment. Even though they have been provided appropriate protective masks, they only rarely use them since their physical efforts and breathing abilities are hindered by the apparatus.

For each 15-day period spent in the crater, a miner receives a fixed salary of $120, approximately 1.5 times the average monthly salary in East Java.

On the slopes are the porters

The porters must first carry the sulfur extracted by the miners to the top of the crater and then carry it down to the base camp. To do this, they pack heavy loads, typically ranging from 60 to 80 kg, in wicker and bamboo baskets. This exhausting task requires them to have an extremely strong will and superhuman resistance, and this, during their two daily trips. Their shoulders, suffering under the weight of the loads, are nothing more than wounds and calluses. Wearing boots or frequently, sandals, they descend the winding road of the steep slope like robots. The exhausted tourists struggling to climb back up to the top of the crater are sympathetic witnesses to the extreme difficulty of the work undertaken by each of the porters.

Their salary is proportional to the number of kilograms transported: around 1,000 rupiah (IDR) per kilogram. This amounts to around $5 for a 60-kilogram trip, and thus a salary of around $10 for their two daily trips (approximately 8 hours of labor). If the porter works an average of 25 days a month, his monthly salary reaches $250. In our eyes, this seems like extremely low and unacceptable compensation. But in this inhospitable region, and compared to the neighboring workers that harvest coffee in surrounding plantations and for whom an average 12-hour day only yields a $3 salary (and thus a salary of around $75 monthly), it is unhoped-for and much-coveted.

Safety, health and life expectancy: a glaring lack of information

No studies whatsoever have ever been undertaken to determine the life expectancy of the workers (both miners and porters), and thus it is impossible to either confirm or disprove the premature death hypothesis that has widely been circulated… The information is simply lacking! When it comes to the miners, we can assume that not wearing their protective masks is likely to increase the risk of pulmonary infection and cancer, but there is no irrefutable evidence that confirms this. And that’s a shame, since, without the results of a serious study, it is difficult to convince them to respect the mask-wearing rules while in the crater, and thus to promote effective prevention!

For the porters, who are much less exposed to the dangers of toxic vapors, smoke and gases (methane, amongst others), the hazardousness of their work lies in the superhuman effort required of them in carrying extremely heavy loads. Some of them overestimate their capacity to continuously carry loads that can weigh up to 100 kg, and find themselves in a lethargic and chronically exhausted state for weeks and even months at a time, completely anemic and only able to work again after extended periods of recovery time.

Smoking gives the workers the strength they need to carry out their tasks

The pervasive marketing and advertising surrounding cigarettes in Indonesia is undoubtedly a leading aggravating factor that impacts all workers. They all smoke, and a lot! Through frequent discussions over coffee (and cigarettes!), you get a true sense of how the local cigarette manufacturers’ communication experts have managed to insidiously convince them that, without cigarettes, they would never have enough strength or resilience to do their job. The “Marlboro cowboy” myth is deeply ingrained in each and every one of their minds, may God rest his soul!

My genuine and deeply human experiences

After many years by their side, all the while listening to them and sharing in both their efforts and mundane moments, I have come to understand that it is essential to not only admire these workers for the impossibly hard tasks they accomplish, but above all, it is necessary to respect them as men! They are people that are happy and proud of their work before they are porters. And they don’t want that to change! They love what they do and never complain nor expect compassion from the tourists that witness their daily exploits. They are as proud as have historically been our miners, loggers, etc. We owe them respect, if for nothing but the life lessons they teach us each and every day.

“I am proud of the work I’ve accomplished here over the last 8 years,” Robuk said to me, through the halo of smoke of his cigarette. “My children all attend school and I get to rest in the afternoon, after work. I make my own schedule, choose the weight of the load that I transport, and enjoy great camaraderie with all my friends. It feels good to be photographed like the stars. When the tourists leave (around 8:00), the weight of the baskets suddenly seems heavier and harder to carry. There are lots of girls that want to take pictures with me, and I love feeling like a hero in front of all these strangers.”

Dignity and respect over compassion

During your next visit to the fabulous site of Kawah Ijen, the workers will not only greet you with bright smiles, but they will also extend their kindness and friendship to you, as well as prove the worth and dignified nature of their labor. According to them, it’s simply not necessary to cast their situation in a negative light as a way of selling a couple of extra newspapers with splashy headlines. If you show them respect and share your enthusiasm with them, their smiles will forever be embedded in your heart.

  • Text by Pierrick Bigot
  • Photos by Rustam Kalimullin
  • *Nicolas Hulot is the Minister of Ecology and the Environment under French President Emmanuel Macron.
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