Mon, 24 Feb 2003

Ijen crater, more than stunning landscape

James Durston, Contributor, Banyuwangi, East Java

Sulfurous, volcanic crater Kawah Ijen, East Java, holds within its steep walls one of the most hypnotic sights that Indonesia offers the traveler -- a lake with an aqua-blue surface, smooth like a mirror, cutting a vivid image across the sharpened gray crags of the surrounding mountains, themselves backed by a clean, electric sky.

As a handful of tourists stand surveying the crumbling slopes and the intense color of the lake, they suddenly get a taste of why the local people consider Ijen to be a living beast, as capricious as any human, at once both awesome to behold and terrible to endure. A cloud of sulfur gas is blown their way, making them gag and choke, bringing tears to their eyes.

This sinister undercurrent, an evil streak that would deter many from venturing even close to the volcano, is what draws others. The same vicious smoke attracts an elite class of hardened men -- Kawah Ijen's sulfur slaves.

These men work within inches of one of the most acidic lakes in the world -- it has a pH value of 0.3 -- and collect what the volcano rejects: pure sulfur. Every day the miners each gather up to 200 kilograms (kg) of sulfur to sell to a refinery 18 km down the road.

The journey from the bottom of the volcano to the edge of the lake normally takes a tourist two-and-a-half hours, carrying nothing more than a camera and a bottle of water. These men make the same journey in half the time, several times a day, carrying 60 kg of sulfur each time.

Before a road was built connecting the volcano to the refinery, they had to walk the entire 18 kilometers to the refinery on foot.

Now life seems easy, and they appear to relish their reputation as the hard men of East Java. One worker says, "If you want to eat from the plate you must be willing to swallow the food."

The miners can earn very good money compared with the majority of farm workers in the area. A load of 60 kg will earn a miner Rp 30,000 (about US$3.40), so in a day a miner can earn around Rp 100,000. In comparison, fruit sellers earn as little as Rp 15,000 per day.

But the times of plenty are evaporating quickly. Guides to the crater say it has been predicted the sulfur that the miners collect will be significantly diminished within a year.

The smoke -- the "breath" of Ijen, as the miners call it -- is what contains the sulfur. The miners use a network of pipes to condense the gaseous sulfur, exceeding temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius, into its solid form, the recognizable, yellow rubbery substance.

They then bundle the large lumps into wicker baskets that they hoist onto their shoulders as they pace back down the mountain to the weighing station. They also collect samples of the sulfur in water bottles and sell the solidified stalagmites to tourists who have come to see them work.

But the result of removing four tons to five tons of sulfur each day ever since the mine opened in 1968, is that in less than a year, the amount of sulfur collected will fall from about 200 kg per miner to about 5 kg. The refinery, which uses the sulfur mainly to whiten sugar but also to produce medicines, paints and explosives, will have to concentrate on other sources of revenue. The miners will have to do the same, reverting to farming to earn their living.

The work will be less arduous and far less health-threatening -- miners who have worked the slopes of Ijen for some time suffer from bad eyes, sore lungs, corroded teeth, plus a host of other sinister symptoms brought on by the sulfur fumes -- but farming also offers far more meager rewards. The change in lifestyle will be a shock to many, and some are scared that they will not be able to support their families.

"This work is not for humans, but if you can do it, you must do it. In one year, when it finishes, they will have to farm, like the other people," said Dori, a guide from the nearby town of Probolinggo, who shows tourists up the precarious slope three times a week.

This will not be as impossible as it seems at first, Dori continues. After all, before Ijen there was only farming, mainly for rice, but also for tobacco, food crops (palawija) and coffee, and the people survived.

What will be difficult will be converting from a lifestyle where you work for just a few months of the year, a few weeks at a time, for extremely good money, to working every day of the year for negligible sums.

Wayan is one of the men that work on Ijen. He looks 45 but is probably no older than 30. His skin is dark brown and stretched taut over his small frame. A small mound of scar tissue on his shoulder can be seen under the wooden yoke that connects his two baskets.

Incredibly, he spends most of his time working at a point on the crater where the smoke billows relentlessly from the ground and surrounds him like a cloak. He scrapes the solidified sulfur into manageable chunks with a shovel and pours buckets of water over the red, molten sulfur to keep control of the near-invisible fires that burst into life erratically. Dante could not have imagined a more terrifying place when he conceived of his Seventh Circle of Hell.

Like most of the men who work on Ijen, he is philosophical about the loss of his livelihood, saying, "It's OK that there is no more sulfur. I have my father's farm, and anyway, Ijen needs to rest. If the volcano sleeps, then we are safe."

But Kawah Ijen is not yet dead. Murmurs of life are recorded every few years, when the lake bubbles and changes color, and large eruptions, where mud, smoke and molten sulfur are thrown hundred of meters into the air, were recorded as recently as 1952.

The fact that the diminishing supplies of sulfur will mean the miners will not have to expose themselves to these hazards is of limited benefit, for it is hard to say which is worse for the health: sulfur or poverty.