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Money or health: sulfur miners face tough survival choices

Sulfur miners battle heat and toxic air for a living

A miner carries sulfur from near Ljen volcano in Banyuwangi district A miner carries sulfur from near Ljen volcano in Banyuwangi district
  • Parulian Tinambunan, Banyuwangi
  • Indonesia
  • June 12, 2012
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For hundreds of families at the easternmost end of Java Island, life presents two equally unappealing alternatives:  either risk their health through constant exposure to lethal sulfur gas, or have no reliable source of income.

Supandi, 54, from Banyuwangi district, has taken the first option. He starts out for work at 3:30am, walking about eight kilometers to the live volcano at Mount Ijen. His job there is to climb in and out of it, carrying baskets of sublimed sulfur on his shoulders. The baskets weigh 60 kilos and he has to carry two at a time, from the crater to the warehouse 3km away.

“This is how we live,” says the father of two, who has worked there for 25 years. “We climb up a steep hill then down into the crater, which is full of thick, poisonous sulfur smoke.

“It’s not a good place to be, but we have no choice.”

[caption id="attachment_52806" align="alignnone" width="465" caption="Sulfur miners face extreme health risks from bad air and a dangerous working environment (Photo by Michael Coyne)"][/caption]

Mount Ijen, the largest sulfur-producing volcano in Indonesia, first erupted hundreds of years ago. It is capable of generating up to 14 tons of sulfur every day.

Due to the difficult terrain, there is no heavy equipment at the site for mining and moving it. These tasks are carried out solely by a workforce of about 400 unskilled laborers.

As well as the choking vapors, they have to contend with temperatures that can reach 200 degrees Celsius.  They work without protective clothing or masks.

“Mining the sulfur is not an easy job and there is no guarantee of safety,” says Supandi. “People suffer from respiratory problems and skin irritations. This is indeed a dilemma, gambling between life and death to earn money.”

The mining company, PT Candi Ngrimbi. pays the workers seven cents for each kilo of sulfur they transport, so they earn four to five dollars a day.  “It’s a very small amount if you compare it with the effort,” says Supandi.

“But still,” says Saleh, a younger worker, “I’m grateful because I can see the money at the end of the day.”

Though he is capable of carrying more, he makes sure to take it slowly. “One man here was unable to move his right arm for more than three years ,” he says. “I don’t want that to happen to me, because I have no health insurance.”

Saleh and his fellow workers had a scare last December, when the disaster mitigation authority banned people from getting within 1.5km of the volcano.

“I was confused about how I would support my wife and two children while the ban was in place,” says Supandi.

The ban was lifted in May, but with no way of guaranteeing safety, it could return any time.

Traditional sulfur mining has been in Supandi’s family for generations. His grandfather handed the job down to his father, who passed it on to him.

“I hope my nine-year-old son will not follow in my footsteps and will find another, more worthwhile job,” he says. But I can’t even send him or my daughter to school. So how will this dream come true?”
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