On a Javan volcano, tourists and brimstone

A porter emerges from the sulfurous mist on the path from Mount Ijen's crater.

A porter emerges from the sulfurous mist on the path from Mount Ijen’s crater.

The mountain path was wide but steep. Tourists carried backpacks with water bottles and snacks, seeking exercise and fresh air. Meanwhile, local porters carried woven baskets, carefully balanced on bamboo rods, overflowing with impossibly lemon-yellow hunks of stone. Welcome to Java’s Mount Ijen: national park, sulfur mine, active volcano.

“I can carry about 75 kilos at once,” one of the porters, Misnanto, told me. “I do two loads a day; some of the stronger men can do three.” This worker was excited to talk to a foreigner about his life. Misnanto told me he earns about 800 rupiah per kilo of sulfur — about 7 U.S. cents.

Making two trips up and down this steep mountain, Misnanto earns less than US$12 per day.

He is proud of his strength; at 75 kilos he carries a heavier load than some of his counterparts, who carry 65 or 70 kilos at a time. Some men on the trail told us they were carrying as much as 81 kilos.

Misnanto is 45 years old, but appears older due to the backbreaking work. He told me he could no longer manage three loads in a day. Though his back is strong, there is a deep divot in his shoulder where the bamboo rod of his load rests. Like all the porters, he has developed a large callus there. The lines in his face are deep; the few teeth he still has are yellowed, both effects of exposure to the sulfur-laden gases spewing from the center of the crater, whose lake is so acidic that its pH approaches zero. Twenty-six years of carrying sulfur has taken its toll.

The scene at this working national park is discomfiting, as tourists whip out their smartphones to snap photos of (or with) the porters. Yet the porters tell us that they are glad the mountain is a national park visited by hikers on weekends. On this holiday weekend the tourists seemed to outnumber the workmen, but this is rare; the mostly Indonesian tourists tend to arrive on weekends only. Visitors offer some change of scenery and the chance to make a little extra income, as they may pay for homemade souvenirs (miniature sulfur sculptures) or even photos with the porters. That additional income may make a world of difference to the porters.

More important, tourists come because the mine sits in the center of a conservation area of forested mountainside. The protected area ensures that the company cannot build roads and drive trucks right up to the crater to mechanize the sulfur extraction. Most commercial sulfur is now produced through other industrial processes (such as oil refinement). In places where it is still mined from volcanoes the process is usually mechanized, according to the BBC. Were that the case at Ijen these porters would be out of work.

I wondered about the value of having jobs like these. But to the miners this is a livelihood. In fact they say it is one of the better options for them.

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