The Men Who Mine Volcanoes – by Kevin McElvaney (The Atlantic – February 25, 2015)

Photos from two days in a sulfurous crater in Indonesia

Ijen is a quietly active volcano on the Indonesian island of East Java, and it is also a place of business. Local workers hike up the side of the mountain and down into the crater at the top to harvest its sulfur—a byproduct of the gas that escapes from the volcano’s vents and collects near the shores of an acidic lake at the crater’s center. The chemical is used in industry worldwide, from making matchsticks to vulcanizing rubber, but Ijen’s sulfur goes mostly to local factories, which use it to bleach sugar.

Ijen is one of the few volcanic sulfur mines remaining in the world: Mining an active volcano is dangerous work, and there are easier ways to get the chemical. I first became curious about the volcano after seeing it featured in the 2001 documentary War Photographer.

The film showed the protagonist James Nachtwey coughing furiously as he clicked his camera amid clouds of sulfur. Being a photographer myself, I wondered how the place would look in person and whether the conditions could be as bad as they seemed. It struck me as impossible that the slight-statured miners shown in the film could really carry heavy loads of sulfur up and down a mountain.

I left from Hamburg, Germany, and it took me three flights, one train ride, two motorcycle trips, and a long trek up the volcano before I saw the mine for the first time. A photographer I knew in Jakarta introduced me to a former miner named Imam, who served as my guide. I spent two days photographing the workers there.

Ijen spits out striking blue flames that are only visible at night, which is when tourists hike up the mountain to see them. The sulfur miners get started shortly afterward, around sunrise, to do a few hours of work before the heat of the day sets in. They use simple tools such as stones, steel bars, and shovels to break the sulfur into chunks small enough to load into baskets and bags, which they then haul two hours back down the mountain.

They can sell their harvest for about 7 cents a kilogram, so some miners carry up to 90 kilograms on their shoulders in large baskets connected by bamboo poles. The few miners who are capable of making the full four-hour trip up and back down the mountain twice a day can earn about $11.

These workers are exposed to danger even before they enter the mine’s toxic atmosphere, beginning with the slippery, rocky paths up the mountain. The crater’s air stings the lungs and eyes. Sometimes a miner will get trapped in a cloud of the sulfurous smoke that pours out of the volcano, which can lead to coughing fits or even loss of consciousness. The gas mask I wore wasn’t leak-proof, so I found myself coughing for weeks after my time in the crater.

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