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Indonesia’s Sulfur Mines and Associated Ethical Lapses Gain International Attention

Indonesia’s largest sulfur mine is rapidly transforming into a tourist destination with many miners quitting their jobs to become tour guides. However, international attention is quickly shifting to the extreme working conditions experienced by the sulfur miners.

Located in East Java, Mt. Ijen’s pinnacle lies 2,600 meters above the sea level. At the top is a blue lake, surrounded by yellow sulfur rocks and encircled with blue flames. This magical scenery was mostly unknown to the rest of the world until 2008, when a French photographer Olivier Grunewald published a photograph. He claims to be the first professional photographer to capture the footage of Mt. Ijen.

 (Photo: a miner treks downhill with baskets of sulfur slabs. Source:  Luca Catalano Gonzaga )

(Photo: a miner treks downhill with baskets of sulfur slabs. Source: Luca Catalano Gonzaga)

For decades, local miners have toiled at Mt. Ijen to extract its precious sulfur. A local company employs about 230 miners, each carrying 150 to 200 pounds of sulfur in one trip. The mining business started in 1968, but it was not until the 1990s that a parking area and an access road were built for the miners’ trucks. From the parking area, miners will trek 4 km uphill to find crystalline sulfur. Once they find one, they poke the crystal with a metal stick to break them into slabs. Most of the miners carry two baskets containing the sulfur slabs by balancing them on their shoulders. The slabs are then deposited onto the trucks. After doing so, they trek uphill again to repeat the same procedure until daylight breaks.

All of these labour intensive steps are done under the cover of night. During the day, Mt. Ijen which is an active volcano, is too hot for humans to climb. Despite cooler temperatures during the night time, climbers still face the omnipresent danger of breathing acidic sulfur gas. The long-term effects of constant exposure to gaseous sulfur have not been thoroughly studied. Terry Gordon, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine, describes the miners as “sort of test subjects”. Yet, short-term effects of breathing in sulfur gas are well documented and is said to include airway constriction and asthma symptoms.

US regulators recommend limiting the regular workplace exposure of sulfur to two parts per million. However, the workers at Mt. Ijen are exposed to sulfur levels 30 times greater than the recommended amount. Sapii, an ex-miner who works at the company’s factory downhill, insisted in an interview with CNN that he has “an ordinary cough” and claimed to have no “permanent health problems”.

Many miners are quitting their jobs to work as a part of the growing tourism industry. The local government of Banyuwangi aggressively positions itself as a pioneer of eco-tourism destination, hosting events like the Tour de Banyuwangi (a cycling competition). Since the start of the promotion campaign in 2010, the number of visitors grew from under a million to 4.8 million, a remarkable increase by a factor of five within 8 years. To put that in perspective, the population of the entire district of Banyuwangi is currently 1.5 million.

However, the local authorities were criticized for not installing the proper safety precautions and warnings to protect ill-equipped tourists, some of whom arrived to the mountain in sandals. On March 22, a gas explosion at the crater halted the mining operation and led to the hospitalization of dozens of visitors.

 (Photo: blue flames near the crater of Mt. Ijen. Source:  http://www.liewwkphoto.com/blog/?p=3828 )

(Photo: blue flames near the crater of Mt. Ijen. Source: http://www.liewwkphoto.com/blog/?p=3828)

Currently, Mt. Ijen draws visitors from many parts of the globe, including Europe, the Americas and Southeast Asia. While many arrive to take selfies with miners and the blue flames, the dangers present in the mining industry have not escaped attention. Miners are only paid about USD $5 a trip to carry back sulfur slabs, also known as the “devil’s gold.”

However, current miners who were interviewed did not express concern over the working conditions or their health. An alternative to the tourism industry or mining would be the agricultural industry, but that provided the workers with much less income.

The mining company who employs them said that they register 107 insurances for full-time miners. One executive in the finance department commented, “we give the miners paper masks, but they rarely wear them.”