The sulphur miners

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Every single day, and through the rest of their lives, the food of the Kawah Ijen miners and their families will entirely depend on the deep and colossal crater of the active volcano they were destined to work in. In a landscape that is surreal, hostile, beautiful as well, the human effort and suffering take form in the skinny figures of more that one hundred and twenty men that have no different choice than dying slowly while alive. No man here, however strong or prepared he might be, will live beyond 40 years.

Java, in Indonesia, is the island with the highest volcanic activity on the planet. Located in the southeast portion of this exuberant land, the Kawah Ijen sulphur volcano is just one out of the nearly fifty that define the landscape of the island, being also the most important one due to its economical importance for the region. It’s a place far away from everything and not very often visited by tourists. To get there is not easy at all, and the only facility available for the one who dares to do it, is the uncomfortable corner of a house-camp where the miner’s activity is based on together with the sulphur industry of the country. It’s cold, and sleeping well is just not possible.

The first encounter of these men takes place, without exception, every day at 4:30 in the morning outside the camp. After brief conversations, a few smiles, tea and cigarettes, the miners open their journey with an ascending walk of five kilometers towards the top of the volcano. All they have is a couple of empty baskets joined together by a flat wooden plank placed over their shoulders. When reaching the top the view is breathtaking. The sunrise starts to appear on the horizon, and from there, with no time to lose, the next thing they face is a two hundred meter descent of an arid and risky path that only easies out around the tranquil shores of a deep and enormous lake, turquoise color, and with more sulphuric acid than water in it’s composition.

Down in the crater the sulphur extraction is done through a rudimentary and colorful process that, at first sight, already looks inhuman. Huge fumaroles of sulphur dioxide come out restlessly through the acid and changing cracks of the volcano. Inside that little hell is where the miners officially begin their work. Breathing is almost an impossible task here. The concentration of gases is 40 times higher than the one tolerated by the human body, making this area, without discussion, one of the most toxic ones in the world where to perform any type of work. The only protection these men know, and use, is a rolled piece of wet fabric that, with strength and lots of faith, they pointlessly bite inside their mouths. In there, inside those deadly gases, the miners first manage to guide, in a skillful way, drop by drop and with the help of ceramic and rock pipelines, all the gases that days of patience condense and transform into a yellow liquid that, after turning into solid sulphur, is fragmented using heavy metal tools.

It’s almost painful to see them cough and try to breath inside that environment. They walk in and out that mandatory hell as many times as their inner strength and necessity allows them to. The routine is always the same; they work, cough, come out, dry their crying eyes, clean their faces, cough much more and go back in again. The sulphur blocks are cut into pieces that fit precisely the area of their baskets. Their calculations and experience also say that, by the time they return to the base-camp, the whole load over their shoulders should weight, on average, 90 to 100 kilos.

From that moment on, through that swinging path that has seen men tripping down and die in the depths of the abyss, silence rules. They climb it slow, always focused on the next step. Every now and then they stop and relocate the load over the unusual, impressive, calluses that time and constant soring have formed over their shoulders. On the widest and safest areas of that track they stop for a few moments and take the only two breaks they always have in their schedule. Right there they drink water, breath fresh air again. In their language they probably talk about the tragedy of their lives or about how inhuman that job is, which is the same. After reaching the top of the volcano the worst part is over. It has taken them more than an hour to cover those 200 mts before connecting to a fast descent that is only interrupted for a couple of minutes, mid way, in front of an old house, where they use and old scale that helps them make the first calculations of their profit. They load up again and keep walking hoping the normal lose that happens along the way doesn’t exceed two kilos.

Nearly four hours have passed between the start and the return to the base-camp with the first load. Once there, they drop their baskets and chill out in front of the table where a company supervisor weights, in a more accurate scale and in an official way this time, all the sulphur they have finally arrived with. The supervisor, whose job is basically not to give advantages to the miners, signs and stamps a piece of paper with the final figure. The miners approve and safely store that piece of paper somewhere in their raggy clothes and start the journey all over again. While taking that unavoidable stop there’s tea, cigarettes, and smiles again. The last few meters with the full load is walked almost effortlessly now towards the trucks that constantly come and go taking away the mineral that it is used, for instance, to whiten sugar plus quite some other industrial processes of very little importance for the miners.

An experienced miner In Kawah Ijen can only manage to complete three of those trips before going home after five p.m. After such an enormous effort, the total payment he would get will barely top five dollars. That is also the best salary he can find in an area where no other activity has been more profitable or had more dignity for generations. Kawah Ijen is a cruel destiny assumed by everyone there in a natural and amazing way; it also leaves deep marks on whoever experiences it up front. It is a destiny that doesn’t resemble that of any other man on earth, and one that no human being deserves at all. To photograph it was a privilege and also a truly great lesson for my life.














Febrero 24 2012

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