There is a volcano, south of the island of Java, called Ijen. During the 1960’s the first miners installed metal tubes into its crater, which is almost completely filled by an unnaturally green sulphuric lake, to extract the sulphur. Miners leave from the base camp at the foot of the volcano every day, and after a two-hour trek and three hours climbing to get to the top of the mountain, they climb down the walls of the crater walking along a steep path traced by their imagination alone.
Having reached the bottom of the crater, they fight the volcano with a metal lance to draw its blood; they break up large chunks of sulphur in extreme conditions, with temperatures reaching 200 degrees centigrade, amid toxic fumes. The sulphuric gasses burn their lungs, skin and eyes. You can hear them coughing, staggering in the toxic cloud. They work with no kind of protection: the luckiest wear rubber boots, but most only sandals, they hold a wet rag over their mouth in order to breathe among the toxic gas, for the little protection a rag can offer. Having extracted enough sulphur to fill two baskets hanging on a bamboo pole, they load 70 to 100 kilos onto their shoulders and climb back up the 300 meters of steep crater wall. A huge effort, demanding great strength and balance. On the way up they stop many times to try to breathe and gather their strength or to relieve the pain caused by the load. Having reached the top of the crater they walk down the volcano, then walk two hours to the base camp, where the sulphur is weighted and they are paid for the load. They do this twice a day, for six euros a day. A sum that hardly allows them to scrape by. Their life expectancy is, at most, 50 years.
The last stage of sulphur processing is its purification. It starts at night and lasts 14 hours. The sulphur is brought to the boil, and impurities are removed with filters. Toxic fumes are released during this process, but here too there is no protection available for the workers. The liquid sulphur is then poured onto the floor and left to solidify. Once it is solid, it is put into large bags and taken to the main factory to be distributed,
The mine is run by a company, but the miners are not employed on a permanent basis, they just work by the day, and get paid by the load. Every day about 14 tons of sulphur are produced in this mine, and exported mainly to China, Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. Sulphur is a very common element in our daily life. It is used to make vulcanised rubber, to refine sugar, to produce sulphuric acid and can be found in common products such as medicines, cosmetics, matches, fertilisers, insecticides and fungicides.
About 300 miners work in these conditions. They live for 15-20 days, or sometimes a month, at the foot of the volcano, in run-down shacks with no running water or electricity. Then they return for a fortnight to their families in the nearby villages. The miners do this exhausting work to be able to support their families. It’s a job that yields 20% more money than other available jobs in the area, such as working as a peasant, and furthermore they are paid straight away, according to the quantity of sulphur they manage to carry back. These advantages, however, are destroying their lives.
“We work in hell” say the miners “our eyes and lungs burn all day long, but there is nothing we can do, without this job we cannot afford food, we cannot support our families, we cannot send our children to school. We do this job because we don’t want our children to have to do it too one day.”