Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A hell of a job

Mount Ijen (2,368m) is one of the three volcanic cones dotting the Ijen Plateau, together with Mount Merapi (2,800m) and Mount Raung (3,332m). The plateau is mostly covered with coffee plantations, the rich soil and the cool nights making Java Jampit one of the best arabica coffees in the world.

Witnesses of volcanic activity are everpresent. Hot sources, waterfalls on mixed hot and cold water, hissing steam, bubbling pools and, most of all the turquoise sulphure lake of Kawah Ijen remind us that we are on dangerous terrain.

Dangerous it is, especially for the workers who extract sulphure blocks from this hot inferno.

As we do, they walk the steep 3 kilometer road leading to the observation post and weighing station, then make the trek up to the ridge of the crater before going down to the lake where they collect huge sulphur blocks from the several vents down there. These blocks, stacked in two rattan bags carried together over the shoulders with a pole, have again to make their way up to the ridge, over the weighing station and down to the starting point, where they can be loaded on trucks first to Banyuwangi, then to Surabaya where the sulphur is processed and sent to China.

The path down to the crater is strenuous, concentration is required, as is a wet cloth covering mouth and nose as you get closer to the vents.

The porters, there are about 200 of them, stay at a small post close to the crater, work for a couple of weeks, and set off to visit their families ans deliver their wages.

There are few work opportunities in the mountains of East Java. Working on a coffee plantation is one. There is a bit of security in the form of a house on the premisces of the plantation, a school for kids, but wages so desperately low that it reminds of bondage.

In comparison, the Rp100,000 (approximately US$10) that the sulphur porters earn for a day of labor are a lure. But the costs are high. The 70 -100kg heavy load wreaks havoc on the workers’ shoulders and backs, and the sulphur fumes are highly noxious for lungs, mucosa .... Too many kretek cigarettes to ease the pain also take their toll.

But the distant possibility of giving their own children a better future is drive enough for such an exhausting life.

A few questions arouse concerning the existence of this sulphur mine: First, it is located inside a National Park. Second, the labor standards are appaling. And third, is it really profitable to exploit sulphur in such a way, given the fact that it has to be taken out in many metal processing operations (steel for instance)?

Ijen volcano, East Java, November 2009.

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