Early morning, East Java. The cold air is still and silent atop Mt. Kawah Ijen, home to Indonesia’s largest sulphur mine. A flame flickers from a makeshift torch fashioned out of a plastic bottle, lighting our way down the jagged edges of the crater. A miner takes my hand as we descend. Hati-hati - Be careful, he tells me.
We have climbed from the base of the volcano for over an hour. It is still dark. The steep decline into the crater makes my already tired legs weaker. I slowly navigate my way down as the sun rises over boulders and sharp rocks. Further down, toxic gasses spew out of the basin. The strong smell of sulphur becomes more intense. I put my mask on.
At the bottom of the crater the activity is startling. Miners dive in and out of the gas clouds, protected only by small pieces of fabric covering their mouths. Armed with a metal shaft, they break large pieces of sulfur from the wall of the crater. With temperatures reaching 200 degrees centigrade the sulphuric gasses burn their lungs, skin and eyes. From a distance it is a place of staggering beauty. Close up, it’s hell.
Large chunks of sulfur are loaded into wooden baskets. Once filled, a long and painful walk ensues for the miners. To reach the weighing station they will have to climb 250 meters to the rim of the crater, an abstract path traced by memory alone. The journey continues in a steep descent for three kilometers through humid jungle. Each miner carries a load of approximately 70 - 100kg, and to make ends meet they often make the trip twice per day.
Non of the miners are employed on a permanent basis. They work by the day, and get paid by the load. Fourteen tons of sulphur are produced every day at Kawah Ijen. The refined sulphur is later exported, mainly to China, but also to Southeast Asia and several other countries around the globe. Sulphur is a key material in the production of vulcanised rubber, refined sugar and sulphuric acid, and can be found in medicines, cosmetics, matches and fertilisers.
To these industries the miners remain faceless. These men are at the bottom of the chain, paying the highest price. Their life expectancy is, at most, 50 years. This is the world they live in.
These are the miners of Kawah Ijen.
Filip Hammar and Fredrik Wikingsson met for the first time in 1996 while working for the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. Since then their friendship has evolved and together they have created over fifteen TV productions, written four books and their podcast was voted Sweden’s Best Podcast in 2011. Over the years they have gained a large following and have deservingly become two of the biggest names in Swedish media, constantly pushing and re-inventing their work.
The heat from the sun rising over the mountains of garbage makes the stench yet more intense. The ground underneath me is soft lie a swamp and has a colorful, irregular pattern. The air is thick with flies. Men, women, old and young work side by side. Some of them as young as four years old. This is Bantar Gebang. Situated just outside of Jakarta, Indonesia, it is one of the worlds largest landfills. Over four thousand people live and work among the waste here.
Everyday, around 100 trucks arrive at the site. The scavengers sift through the loads for items that can be sold on to other businesses. Many of the trash pickers used to be farmers but have over time moved on to picking trash rather than rice. For one thing is certain. Farming is seasonal but trash is constant. It is an industry fueled by Indonesias demand for cheap raw material.
In Jakarta the scavengers are scattered out across the city. A majority have found home in illegal slum settlements along the railway tracks, under highway bridges and on riverbanks. Most live without electricity and clean water. They work for a Lapak, which acts as an agent between the pickers and the buyers.
The people on the landfill can pick up to 50kg of salable waste on a good day, that would give them 500 rupiah per kilogram. Less than $3 per day. Despite this the scavengers play a very important, although not recognized, role in society. It is estimated that in parts of Indonesia, trash pickers can reduce the daily waste up to one-third. An impressive amount considering that Jakarta alone is producing a staggering 50’000 tonnes of solid waste every day. The scavengers are part of one problem and solution to another.