Indonesian sulfur miners brave volcano, fumes, earn pennies

Stunning Mount Ijen in eastern Java draws tourists by day and hundreds of sulfur miners by night. They endure toxic fumes and backbreaking loads to earn pennies hauling out a substance used to bleach sugar and vulcanize rubber.

Just after midnight, wearing headlamps to find their way through the darkness and volcanic smoke, the miners descend into the crater with shovels and crowbars, often without protective masks.

They break up the mustard-yellow slabs of sulfur that are formed by planting pipes into the crater, forcing sulfuric gases to condense and then solidify.

Bearing loads of up 70 kilograms (154 pounds), the men make an agonizing climb out of the crater and then a 3-kilometer (2-mile) journey down the mountain.

They face deformities and shortened life spans working in a job that in other countries is mechanized because of the high dangers. Lethal gas explosions are an ever-present risk.

"This is very hard work," said 42-year-old miner Suratna, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "I barely make enough money to buy food for my family and for my children's education, but I still thank God for giving me something".

The miners earn 1,000 rupiah (7 cents) for each kilogram, or about $10 a day if they make two trips up and down the smoldering 2,799-meter (9,183-foot) volcano.