WITNESS: Mining sulfur in a volcano
Ed Davies is deputy bureau chief Indonesia, where many live with smoldering volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. He joined Reuters in 1996 in Hong Kong and has also been based in Singapore and South Korea. In the following story, he describes spending a day with the sulfur miners of an East Java volcano.
By Ed Davies
KAWAH IJEN, Indonesia (Reuters) - Protected only by a piece of rag stuffed loosely into his mouth, a miner hacks off chunks of bubbling red-hot sulfur oozing downslope before being driven back by a choking wall of foul smelling gases.
Despite the luxury of wearing a NATO-issue gas mask, I am also forced backwards by the sudden swirl of pungent yellow-white vapors that slashes visibility to a few feet.
We are in the "kitchen", as it is known to Indonesian miners who harvest molten sulfur pouring from fumaroles next to the volcanic Kawah Ijen, or lone crater, lake.
Shadowed by East Java's Gunung Merapi volcano, the moonscape-like land has no vegetation, although the 200 meter (660 ft) deep crater lake -- one of the most acidic in the world -- is a breathtaking turquoise.
The noxious odor is somewhere between ammonia and rotten eggs.
Up to about 200 miners a day make a living here using metal rods to break off pieces of hardening yellow sulfur spilling out of pipes attached to the fumaroles, then lugging the huge weights up and out of the crater.
The miners -- who are freelance and paid according to how much they lug down the mountain -- can earn up to about $7-$10 a day in a rural area where farm laborers make only about 15,000 rupiah ($1.64) a day.
The sulfur has a range of uses from cosmetics to gun powder, but a mine official said it was currently being supplied to a local factory where it is used to bleach sugar.
A switch in the wind clears the air and some miners stroll over to chat and inspect the gas masks I and a photographer are wearing. A few have basic-looking masks, but most rely on little more than a piece of T-shirt gripped in their teeth.
They puff on cigarettes, preferring the strong taste of Indonesian clove-infused "kreteks" over the sulfurous gases, which have left some with streaming eyes and spluttering coughs.
Asked about health risks, most shrug with a grin. Some indicate sore stomachs and allergies and one shows the hollow stumps of his teeth, deteriorating in the acid conditions.
Gatot Subroto of PT Candu Ngrimbi, the firm operating the mine, said the miners had previously turned down masks it had offered complaining they restricted their breathing.
"They prefer to use a piece of cloth or towel drenched in water, which they bite on and then breath through their mouth," he said.
FOLLOW THE YELLOW DUST...
To get near the crater lake took a six-hour drive from Indonesia's second city of Surabaya, as teak forests made way to coffee plantations on the fertile volcanic soil.
Finding our way was easy once we were on the 4 km (2.5 mile) trail near dawn -- a sprinkling of yellow sulfur dust lined the route.
Then the first miners appeared, their eyelashes and hair caked in sulfur, each carrying a pair of bamboo baskets perched on their shoulders loaded with chunks of brilliant yellow.
I was breathing heavily on the climb, but some of the miners power-walked with loads of up to 95 kg (210 lbs), setting off a creak in the bamboo support onto which the baskets were lashed.
I tried to lift a pair of full baskets that had been left by the trail to be picked up later. I could barely budge them.
After climbing to the top of the crater, the miners carry their loads to a cluster of crude shelters housing a canteen and temporary bunks with wood fires, to keep out the cold at night.
Grabbing a quick break, and often a cigarette, miners weigh their bamboo baskets before carrying the load down a further 3 km to a collection point near a rough road.
Before the road was completed, they had to carry the baskets weighing far more than themselves a further 17 km.
A flow of more intrepid tourists visits the area, which the miners have grown accustomed to: some pose for photographs and offer to sell interestingly shaped pieces of sulfur, often still warm from the heat of the earth.
GASPING FOR AIR
Straddling the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where continental plates collide, Indonesia is dotted with hundreds of volcanoes and sees intense seismic activity.
I have seen how this awesome power can give -- replenishing the country's rich soil -- and take away: the bloated, mud-strewn corpses retrieved hours after a tsunami has brushed all aside.
After barely 30 minutes at lone crater lake, we had to retreat as the area filled again with vapors.
I'm carrying nothing, but the climb back to the top of the crater leaves me at times doubled-up on the ground gasping for air and fumbling to put on my olive-green gas mask.
Many in Indonesia endure tough livelihoods but the miners, often wearing only skimpy sandals, haul up to 15 tons of sulfur a day in this stark and risky place.
Seven were killed by poisonous gas in 1974 and a French tourist died in 1997 after a fall near the crater lake.
Arifin, a 38-year-old miner, said he did not want his children following in his path. Like many of the men, he revealed raw-looking calluses that had developed on his shoulder from carrying the huge weights.
The motivation to do such an incredibly hard job is simple in a country where millions live on less than $2 a day.
"I had no job so I decided to work here. Income is good," said Mohammad Soleh Hidyat, 33, from a village about 30 km away.
He said 50 young new miners had started working recently.
By mid-afternoon, the miners' day is nearly over, their baskets are re-weighed and they are paid 500 rupiah (55 U.S. cents) per kg in cash before the sulfur is loaded onto a truck.
Finally able to relax, they chat cheerfully, some playing checkers on the dusty ground with small chunks of sulfur.
(Additional reporting by Retno Heriwati in Surabaya; Editing by Sara Ledwith)
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