Fire and brimstone

Wickedly sweet iced coffee is a signature beverage in Southeast Asia, but its sugary kick comes at a price for miners in East Java who battle toxic fumes and treacherous terrain to provide the sulphur used to process sugarcane

Gembong Nusantara
August 18, 2014
Fire and brimstone
Heavy load: a miner, one of about 150 who work here every day, carries a large chunk of sulphur down the side of the Ijen volcano. The solidified substance is highly toxic. Photo: Gembong Nusantara

Text and photography by Gembong Nusantara

It is mid-December, and high up on the Ijen volcano rain drizzles and cuts through the thick, cold fog. Two miners emerge from the gloom carrying a goat suspended by its ankles from two poles. Near a miner’s cabin more than two kilometres up the mountain, another man deftly digs a hole and slides a wooden slab over it – this is where the goat will be slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice to ask that the 1978 tragedy not be repeated. After a short prayer, a Muslim cleric wielding a large blade brings the weapon down upon the animal’s neck. With skilled hands, the goat is skinned and its decapitated head is placed on a round bamboo tray festooned with other offerings. 

In the centre of the volcano’s one-kilometre-wide crater is a neon-green lake encircled by reddish-green cliffs. At first glance it is a beautiful sight, as early-morning rays of sun slice through the damp atmosphere. Yet this picturesque view belies a dangerous reality: The lake’s water is highly corrosive, with the same acidity as a car’s battery acid. Welling up from deep vents come toxic sulphurous fumes that cause miners and tourists alike to cough and retch as their throats burn and eyes water.

ijen, sulphur
Mountain high: miners scale the Ijen crater with baskets full of the sulphur used to whiten sugar. About 15 tonnes of sulphur are produced here every day. Photo: Gembong Nusantara
Ijen, sulphur
Holy smoke: the pictured sacrificial ritual began in 1978. Photo: Gembong Nusantara

As sulphur gas – which in itself is not dangerous – emerges from the depths, it reacts with oxygen in the air to form hazardous sulphur dioxide. To get what they are after, the miners rig up a series of pipes to channel the gas. As it travels down the pipes, the gas cools and turns into a molten liquid that then forms brittle clumps of pure sulphur as it emanates from the conduits. With steel bars, the miners roughly hack at the yellow masses to form manageable chunks they can transport down the mountain to a weighing station.

Each day, the men make two or three trips to the station with loads of up to 90kg carried in baskets strapped to bamboo poles. Each kilogram fetches 780 rupiah, or around $0.07 – meagre earnings for an arduous and dangerous job that wreaks havoc on their respiratory systems. There’s nothing sweet about life on this volcano. 

ijen, sulphur
A silver platter: the goat’s head is an offering for prosperity and safety. Photo: Gembong Nusantara
ijen, sulphur
Cause and effect: in 1978, four miners were killed and 14 others were seriously affected by the poisonous gas that emanates from these sulphur mines. Photo: Gembong Nusantara
ijen, sulphur
Group effort: miners slaughter the goat they will offer as a sacrifice to ask that 1978’s tragedy not be repeated. Photo: Gembong Nusantara
gembong nusantara is a documentary photographer based in Jakarta. After finishing his undergraduate degree in 2010 he received full scholarship to study photojournalism at the Konrad Adenauer Asia Centre for Journalism. His works have featured in the Washington Post, LA Times, and Al Jazeera.

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