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 INDONESIA : Under the Volcano 


The Sulphur Mines of Indonesia


Text and Photography by Eric Pasquie


Behind the high grass covered with dew, the crater of the Kawa Ijen remains in the dark. 

The volcano seems even more devilish with its big lake on the surface of which bubbles are bursting. 

On the edge of the crater, fumes are coming out. 

At the bottom of these fumes alchemy is made in which an accumulation of yellow gold is done: it is sulphur. 

A treasure that has attracted fed and made more than hundreds of Indonesians rich.


At the bottom of the volcanic cone, a line of men, lit by handmade sticks with flames, are progressing on the way up.  We have been walking for hours with these men.  We are now about one thousand meters altitude above the rice fields.  At the head of the line a forty-year-old man Soekarmo who has spent over a quarter of a century in sulphur..

The path he is walking on is paved with memories.  His father, his uncle and his brother have all walked that lane.  Soekarmo will probably have no successors.  Twice married, twice divorced, he does not have any children.  His wives, tired of his long absences, became jealous of the volcano that had, with the years, became a true obsession. 

The path, after a long steep climb opens to two cabins: Seeker, being the foreman, will have the privilege of coming to sleep here every night for many weeks.  Last halt, just the time for us to eat a few bites of rice out of a bowl and take the last breath of oxygen.  Just after the cabins the path changes and becomes steeper on the side of the volcano cone to reach a saddle form towards the crater. 

We are here in another world, no trees, no greenery, and no life.  Some grey and yellow, a landscape broken by the erosion which has built some deep canyons.  And at the bottom of the crater too green and too blue to be true: the deadly lake. 

On the edge of the water, thick sulphur gives it a strong smell that irritates our nose and throat.  The Indonesians don’t seem to be bothered by it.  This dome is their goal, their El Dorado. 

“All night long,” explains Soekarmo, “the smokes have come our of the mouths that are along this little mount.  Coming out at a high temperature the sulphur has stayed in a gas form.  In contact with the cold air through the condensation it has become liquid again and in accumulating has formed some enormous stacks of solid matter.”


It is about ten tons of matter that appears every day in the crater, making the Kawa Ijen an actual sulphur factory.  This crater belongs to the volcanic chain located to the extreme end of Java (See GEO No 142), just at the edge of the inlet that separates this island from Bali. 

Spread over 20 kilometers, the breaking caldera is made of an ensemble of Strombolian cones and Lava drops.  On the banks of the caldera are the biggest volcanoes.  If the Merapi, deeply indented by the erosion, is still asleep, the Raung is on the opposite eruptive, spitting some big columns of black cinders.


When the giant bubble bursts, it kills workers

The Kawa Ijen (The green crater) is very particular with its extrusion dome still active yet covered with a 200 meters deep lake that is made by the rains.  The volcanic gas are dissolved in it and re-heat the water of the lake which creates some salts and acids like Hydrochloric acids and sulphuric acids that are very dangerous.

The many eruptions are telling the Kawa Ijen story, of which five that have marked the discovery of the volcano in 1796.  Its eruptions are characterized by violent explosions which cause the lake to be projected in the air with all the acids causing some disastrous effects on the surroundings, destroying houses and crops.  The first Dutch vulcanologists who were interested in this volcano realized that there was a relationship between the extents of the disaster occurred because of the explosion and the height at which the lake in the volcano was.  They then decided to bring the level down and to regulate it.  In a breach they dug inside the west wall of the crater, they put a bridge to control the level of water through a spout that links the lake to the outside of the cone.  However, these precautions have not completely stopped the anger of the waters.  They can still accumulate a great quantity of gas in a giant bubble, and when it bursts it can become murderous.  In 1976, a bubble had formed on the entire surface of the lake.  It asphyxiated forty-nine people over the fifty who were in the crater that day.  On February 1989 same process, and same drama which killed twenty-five people.


The Javanese authorities would like to ignore the reality of these accidents.  Even Soekarmo affirms that the danger is not that great.  “In the morning, I am here first, to check in what state the lake is to see if it is not too boiling.  When all is well, I give the signal to start the work.”  And as if to show how it goes, the muscular man climbs on the mount of sulphur and starts digging with a bar which breaks the yellow rock into pieces.  Not caring about the hot gas that burns the throat!  Even though it comes from all the cracks and gaps in the wall.  At moments he disappears inside the sulphuric mist.  Only his coughing tells us that a man is there obsessively trying to survive.  Not for an empire would he give his place.  Isn’t he the strongest man who defies the volcano?  He is one of the five on salary with the company P.T. Candi Ngrimbi, the company that exploits the sulphur.  What about the other 245 men?  They are paid according to the amount of work done.  Soekarmo earns 75.000 rupees (about 250 Francs) per month, an amount that he increases with the extra sulphur he takes to sell in the city.


Soekarmo is always at the top of the dome, still hidden in the smoke and gas.  The others, the subordinates must stay at the bottom of the wall where the rocks that have the color of the sun come to crash.  With care they arrange them neatly in the baskets to carry them.  For each man two fifty centimeters round baskets, attached to the two ends of a 1.20 meters bamboo stick.  The balance of the baskets is essential for it is quite difficult to carry on the way back sixty kilos and sometimes even the double for the workers that are stronger.  At the beginning the walk seems easy, the baskets swinging at the end of the bamboo give the rhythm of the bouncing, but all this hits the wall of the crater making the walk even more difficult.


The fake lagoon fascinates to such a state that it becomes mesmerizing.


It is a wall almost vertical, 280 meters high, where steep slopes and staircases are succeeding in a maze of big blocks.  One has to calculate each step take not to look at the stony landscape, don’t get too mesmerized by the lake, at the bottom is the fake tropical lagoon.  Only two exceptional people tried to reach it, the carriers still remember it.  Their names were Maurice and Katia Krafft (See Geo No 141) it was in 1971.  After a few days of work at measuring the surroundings of the crater they decided to take a ride aboard a little plastic boat on the lake in order to take the measures of its depth and take some samples.


Once the top of the wall is passed, the road is still long for the sulphur carriers, over 20 kilometers.  The little trotting that has become a characteristic of the job has now taken a faster rhythm, and soon we leave the high parts of the volcano to get to the grand tropical forest, in which one has to snake through the ferns and the trees covered with epiphytes.  Another stop, another story, with those famous Thai cigarettes made of clove and called the Kretek, they are the emblems of Indonesia.


Tasripan tells us that he will work another five years at least and after he will retire in his little house that he got from his fifteen years of hard work.  His only wish being for his son to succeed him in the mine of sulphur.  He hopes that he will be able to make him take the tests that are necessary.  If the young man can carry a load of 40 kilos for three trips then he will get his card as a temporary worker.  Then he will have to increase the weight progressively in order to become a main carrier.  Supraman knows in detail the story of the company that manages Kawa Ijen.


The authorization for exploiting the sulphur inside the volcano was officially given to the army.  However, the massif of the Ijen being at the crossroad of three different districts, their authorities did not hesitate in getting into a sulphur war that had no mercy.  The armies of Bondowoso, Banyuwangi and Jember got into fights in order to acquire the right to the crater.


Today everything has been solved.  A concession was given to the company that gives some money back to the national army.  And the Indonesian live at last in peace.


Leaving the forest the carriers are reaching the plantations of rice and coffee, then the village and at last the factory.  At the end of the path just a pocket full of Rupees.  The carriers line up in front of an antique scale behind which are two cold looking white-collar managers.  Without a glance or a word of acknowledgement for the hard effort these carriers have just achieved, which is in itself an exploit, they weigh quickly the loads and give each of the carriers a pay slip on which the carried weight and the price paid for it are written.  The miners have to go to the cashier to get their pay.  The price of the sulphur for one kilo is 100 rupees; these people will get between 6.500 and 10.000 rupees.  At Jakarta, the capital, a clerk has a salary of about 150.000 rupees per month.


Powder that whitens the sugar cane


When it is delivered, the sulphur is poured into some enormous caldrons.  It is then melted again.  The same smell of gas as in the crater.  It goes through various filters to eliminate the impurities.  Then, it is poured on the wetted ground, where it is again solidified into thick leaves, which are crushed into pieces and put into bags.  First destination: the sugar factories where the sulphur is used to whiten sugar cane.  The rest will be used in the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry or the making of explosives.


There is more and more a need for sulphur.  According to the factory manager, the Kawa Ijen production barely covers the needs in Indonesia and it would be good to find some new exploitation sites.  A few years ago, the company was thinking about using the Egon Volcano, on the island of Flores.  Soekarmo, with four other experienced workers and some scientists went there to check the possibilities of exploitation.  The members of the expedition noticed there that there was a crater in which there was a lake of hot mud and on the edges of which some liquid sulphur could be seen, the same kind as the one of the Kawa Ijen.  The daily production could be close to 6 tons.  But the exploitation is not for tomorrow.  They have not yet found workers in Flores able to carry a load equivalent to the carriers of Kawa Ijen.

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