Ijen volcano, Indonesia

The Ijen Volcano Sulphur Slaves

On my way
Transporter advances on his own on his way to the foot of the Ijen volcano.
A Heavenly Fate (nothing)
Carrier walks along an ridge of the crater of the Ijen volcano with a cloud cover in the background.
pure sulfur
Two baskets loaded with sulfur deposited in front of a sign in the porters' house.
few perspectives
Younger man scans the horizon as he transports many kilos of solid sulfur to a warehouse at the foot of Mount Ijen
a sulphured life
Worker from the crater of the Ijen volcano, hidden between two well-laden baskets of solid sulfur.
Sulfur Station
Porter waits for others before starting the slow and painful descent to the sulfur warehouse.
In Caravan
A row of porters with baskets filled with sulfur advance above cloud level to the base of the slope of the Ijen volcano.
Ijen's Poisonous Crater
Workers water part of a fumarole in the crater of the Ijen volcano to control toxic gases and accelerate the solidification of sulfur.
Worker among colleagues and large chunks of solid sulfur.
A porter holds the Indonesian rupees he has just received in front of a window installed in the sulfur deposit warehouse.
a revenge
Shippers insult the Chinese boss behind his back and laugh as he checks the record of sulfur delivered by Indonesian shippers at his service.
Weighing I
Another worker checks the weight of his load beforehand so as not to be fooled by the Chinese employer's weighing.
Weighing II
An Indonesian man weighs his sulfur load, before going down to the warehouse where the sulfur will be weighed again by a Chinese boss.
The Payroll
Worker checks his payroll at an intermediate warehouse.
Under the Weight of Life
Porter slaughtered by excessive weight and shoulders already deformed by years dedicated to this destructive profession.
Caravan of Torment
Men carrying up to 80kg of sulfur overcome the rocky and steep trail that ascends from the crater of Ijen to the outside of the volcano.
Hundreds of Javanese surrender to the Ijen volcano where they are consumed by poisonous gases and loads that deform their shoulders. Each turn earns them less than €30 but everyone is grateful for their martyrdom.

Indonesians are used to their volcanoes.

In Java there are more than forty. Of these, several are as revered as they are feared. From the record-breaking Krakatoa eruption, to the most recent hardships caused by Merap, the unpredictable activity of gunungs has caused enormous damage.

The populations that live around, also know the other side of this reality. The fields are fertile near the mountains of fire. And visitors looking for the most mystical and impressive - especially the Bromo volcano – help to unburden their fragile economies.

The Ijen volcano is a case in point. It has not erupted for a long time and sustains many of the men in the surrounding villages. At the same time, it shortens their lives.

The Slow Ascent to the Ijen Volcano Crater

The trek has barely begun when the first porter appears at the top of a muddy ramp subsumed in the forest. Although foreseen, the vision we have of him makes us uncomfortable.

In the distance, the baskets and the strange yellow, almost fluorescent blocks that fill them stand out.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Porter waits for others before starting the slow and painful descent to the sulfur warehouse.

As the distance decreases, we notice the half routes that reveal her wet and dirty feet on finished slippers. In the torn and old clothes and in the man's grimace of pain, struggling to sustain the momentum generated by the slope and the weight.

Along the trail, we came across dozens of other porters. Oddly enough, instead of raped bodies and faces, it's a sound that's more impressive.

It remained forever in our minds, as the ultimate symbol of his doom.

Torture of Atrocious Sulfur Loads

Each man carries two wicker baskets. An axis that rests on the back and shoulders joins them. On the move, the extreme weight makes the baskets wobble. It produces a repetitive creak that the silence of the mountain multiplies and makes piercing.

One of the older workers surrenders to fatigue and stops to recover energy. She shows us her deformed and bruised shoulders and suggests some charity. Afterwards, he continues down the slope, given over to the suffering that fate has reserved for him and the creaking noise that will massacre his life.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Porter slaughtered by excessive weight and shoulders already deformed by years dedicated to this destructive profession.

Until the awakening of these almost slaves it's depressing and miserable. The Ijen volcano produces large amounts of sulfur, almost without interruption, but few men are willing to work at night.

As such, before sunrise, the substance abounds and can be taken out relatively easily and – which counts for the most sacrificed – earns a few extra rupees.

The normal thing is, therefore, for workers to arrive at the base of the volcano around 4:30 am, in the box of a truck that collects them from the your houses.

A two-hour hike up the slope awaits them. This is followed by another 200 meters of steep and winding descent to the edge of the acid lake (PH less than 0,5) of the volcano, along a rugged trail that, like the lake, has already caused some casualties.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Carrier walks along an ridge of the crater of the Ijen volcano with a cloud cover in the background.

The Sulfurous and Treacherous Crater of the Ijen Volcano

There, under a treacherous curtain of toxic smoke, the Ijen expels a reddish sulfur which, by chemical reaction, in contact with the cooler air, solidifies and turns yellow.

While a team of specialized workers tries to control the temperature and pressure of the pipes – when possible, also the intensity of the smoke – it is up to each loader to break and balance the stones they want to transport in the baskets.

The more experienced know that excessive ambition does not pay. For those, the reference weight is somewhere between 70 and 100kg.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Worker from the crater of the Ijen volcano, hidden between two well-laden baskets of solid sulfur.

The burden can depend on factors as diverse as the physical size, age, health and disposition of the victims. These considerations are often useless. There is no scale next to the raw material.

The loading is done by estimate, under gases that burn the lungs and eyes, since the masks, when they are used, are mere wet cloths.

It is carried out under the pressure of co-workers who fight for the best lodes of sulfur so that they, too, can leave that hell.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Workers water part of a fumarole in the crater of the Ijen volcano to control toxic gases and accelerate the solidification of sulfur.

Whatever the pain and damage, once the baskets are filled, it is rare for any of the men to leave sulfur along the way, particularly arduous on the steep return to the outside of the crater.

Weighing in the Chinese Boss's Warehouse

The reason awaits them two kilometers below, in a squashed warehouse. There, a stern Chinese official awaits them. It is responsible for weighing, accounting and calculating the payment, delivered right next door, in rupees, to a wooden window closed by bars.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Shippers insult the Chinese boss behind his back and laugh as he checks the record of sulfur delivered by Indonesian shippers at his service.

A kilo of sulfur is worth about five cents. On each route, men unload an average of 80kg, which is equivalent to less than four euros. Men who support more than three courses are rare.

And only in very exceptional cases do they get a daily income of more than ten euros.

Sulfur is sold by the company that exploits the workers for incomparable values, to be used in the production of medicines and aesthetic products but also in sugar processing.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Worker checks his payroll at an intermediate warehouse.

The irony of the ironies is that just a few kilometers from the Ijen volcano, there are vast Arabica coffee plantations in Java, considered one of the best of the world. For any of these men, the exhausting work of collecting the beans would be a joke, but coffee does not stimulate them.

Most have families to support. On plantations, they would not receive even a third of what they earn carrying sulfur.

Ijen Volcano, Slaves of Sulfur, Java, Indonesia

Younger man scans the horizon as he transports many kilos of solid sulfur to a warehouse at the foot of Mount Ijen

Thus, day after day, the Ijen volcano continues to corrode their body and soul and cut short their painful existence.

With no alternatives, the sulfur slaves are grateful for the sacrifice.

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