A thick veil of smoke erases the sky over Mount Ijen, the scent of burnt matches saturates the air.
The noxious material that seeps from the bowels of East Java’s active volcano is incongruous with human life—it stings the eyes, burns the lungs, and corrodes the skin. But since 1968, the sulfur miners of Mount Ijen have ventured into this unpredictable labyrinth of gas clouds and superheated fumaroles to extract “devil’s gold” and carry it back down the mountain—a portrait of bone-crushing physical labor.
Mount Ijen hosts one of the last remaining active sulfur mines in the world, and while its otherworldly vistas have captivated scientists and travelers for more than two centuries, in recent decades, the miners themselves have become a controversial tourist attraction.
Sunarto, 41 years old, carries a load of sulfur out of the Kawah Ijen crater.
Every day, miners make the arduous trek up Ijen’s 9,000-foot slopes under the cover darkness before descending another 3,000 feet into the crater, where a network of man-made ceramic pipes funnels the gases responsible for precipitating elemental sulfur.
Enveloped in toxic fumes and heat, they chip away at the hardened blocks and carry 150 to 200-pound loads back up the crater twice a day, earning an average of five dollars per trip.
Around 2 a.m. when the first miners begin their ascent, hundreds of tourists are already streaming across the flanks of Ijen to witness its iconic blue flames, which can only be seen at night. Its half-mile turquoise crater lake takes on an eerie glow in the darkness. Deceptively beautiful, it has a pH lower than that of battery acid—the largest acid lake on Earth, caustic enough to dissolve metal.
Tourism or Voyeurism
Considered a form of cultural heritage tourism, mine tours can be found around the world from Africa to Australia. Unlike Mount Ijen, few are still active, and many have been “museumified.”
Some researchers propose tourists are attracted to these sites because they elicit what philosophers have termed “the sublime”—a feeling of pleasure in seeing a dangerous but awe-inspiring object, like a violent act of nature. Victor Hugo defined it as “a combination of the grotesque and beautiful as opposed to the classical ideal of perfection.”
Mount Ijen is sublime.
During high season, the mountain can see more than a thousand tourists per day. They often ask the miners to pose for photographs in exchange for small tips, what critics argue is a form of “poverty tourism”—the commodification of human suffering.
“Tourists seem to relish narrating their tales of survival in apparently dangerous situations, an attitude not unlike that found towards other potentially hazardous recreations and ‘extreme” sports,’ explains University of North Alabama geography professor Michael Pretes in the Annals of Tourism Research.
On the other hand, tourism can also be a powerful tool for economic development and expose unfavorable working conditions regardless of motivations for visiting. The tourism industry in East Java at large employs an estimated 200,000 people. Mining is one of the highest paid professions in the region, and the workers are well-respected members of their communities. Many pride themselves on their physical fitness and role in attracting visitors to the island.
“Tourists are seen as the new ore to be mined, and, like metals, have the potential to provide economic booms as well as busts,” according to Pretes, who studied the active silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia. He argues that mining tourism can have a “multiplier effect” by bringing income to local hotels, restaurants, stores, transportation, and nearby historical sites.
Despite these potential advantages, the risks remain high. Many miners can’t afford protective equipment like gloves and masks, or choose to forgo them because it hinders their work. Short-term exposure to highly concentrated levels of sulfur dioxide can be deadly, and chronic exposure can lead to breathing difficulties, airway obstructions, and impaired lung function, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
To prevent the objectification of people living in impoverished conditions, ethical travel experts recommend that tourists refrain from taking photographs altogether or solicit permission from the subjects being photographed.
Ring of Fire
The future of Mount Ijen as a tourist and mining site, however, is unclear. Indonesia is situated on the Ring of Fire—a 25,000-mile seismically active belt of volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries that frame the Pacific basin. It is estimated that 75 percent of all active volcanoes and 90 percent of earthquakes worldwide occur in this region.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
About five million Indonesians live and work near active volcanoes, where farming soil is most fertile. Java alone is home to 141 million people—one of the most densely populated islands on Earth.
The most significant recorded eruption of Ijen occurred in 1817, when a series of violent explosions persisted for several weeks. According to eyewitness accounts, the ash was thick enough to block the sun, the release of acid contaminated watersheds, and debris flattened bamboo huts.
Today, Indonesian and international scientists continuously monitor volcanic activity and are trying to find ways to mitigate future hazards. Not only are nearby communities under threat from earthquakes and explosive gas-charged magma–the release of the acid lake could be catastrophic.
In March 2018, hundreds of people surrounding Mount Ijen were forced to evacuate their homes and 30 were hospitalized after the volcano spewed toxic gases. "Because of this incident, the public—tourists or miners—are not allowed near the crater until further notice," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the national disaster mitigation agency, said in a statement.
It's not the first time the volcano has been closed to visitors, and unlikely the last. But even from afar, Mount Ijen’s smoldering crater—toxic, beautiful, indomitable—is a remarkable sight.
Andrea Frazzetta is a photographer based in Milan. Follow him on Instagram.