After three major eruptions 3,500 years ago that created a caldera measuring 22 by 25 kilometers, the Ijen volcano rose to world fame for its crater lake with the most acidic water in the globe.
Looming behind the natural beauty and geothermal energy potential of the Ijen crater or Kawah Ijen, however, is a threat to millions of people settling around the East Java volcano.
Stefannie, 35, a French tourist, snacked on a small dish of locally grown macadamia nuts while she finished her cup of luwak coffee — made of beans fermented in civets’ bowels — before setting out from the Arabica Homestay.
“I’ve got to rush to the Ijen crater to watch the rising sun, and take some pictures of sulfur collectors going up and down the pit for a living,” she said, putting two cameras into her backpack. This was her third trek to the mountain peak, and in addition to her fascination with the splendor of the turquoise green lake water, Stefannie was also attracted by the sulfur mining activity.
Miners were carrying 75-90 kilograms (kg) of sulfur, covering a distance of 300 meters from the bottom of the crater to its rim, with a gradient of 45 to 60 degrees.
“I wonder why they’re doing this job. I myself get dizzy and sick at the bottom even for a few minutes. They have to do it for hours without wearing masks and only earn Rp 50,000-75,000,” she added.
Once out of the crater, the workers still had to carry their sulfur chunks three kilometers (km) from Ijen’s summit to the Paltuding valley to get paid. The sulfur they mine is eventually sold on to cosmetic firms. With about 200 miners operating in the crater each day, the sulfur they extract reaches 14 tons daily.
About money: A miner waits in front of the mining administrative office. JP/Indra Harsaputra
According to the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center (PVMBG), the amount of sulfur being mined is only 20 percent of the total potential in the Ijen crater. Such traditional mining, also found on Mount Welirang in East Java, is only found in Indonesia.
Mas’ud, 40, a native of Taman Sari village, Banyuwangi, has been mining sulfur for 15 years and can carry 180 kg each day. “I have no choice of other jobs to support my family,” he said. Another miner, Ahmad, suffered from injuries to his feet, bruises on his back and persistent respiratory trouble. Ranging in age from 29 to 55, most miners come from Situbondo and Banyuwangi.
The Ijen crater boasts a magnificent crater lake, which is over 182 meters deep and has 32 million cubic meters of beautiful turquoise green water. The high acidity of the water gives it a unique, bitter flavor. The crater rim encircles the lake, measuring 960 by 600 meters at its lower portion and 1,600 by 1,160 meters and its top.
Pudjianto, 45, a photographer from Surabaya, said the beauty of the crater lake could be enjoyed in the early morning from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., or at night when it is easier to see the glowing sulfur flames.
“The flames look like those of LPG gas stoves, but it’s dangerous to go down the crater in the dark as the path is steep, and sulfurous fumes hurt the eyes and make breathing difficult,” he warned.
Kawah Ijen is located northwest of Mount Merapi, between Banyuwangi and Bondowoso regencies, East Java, and has long been a magnet for local and foreign tourists. By September 2011, over 10,000 tourists of a variety of nationalities had explored the crater, including French, Dutch, Belgian, German, British and Asian visitors.
Manager of Jampit Park, Ardi Iriantono, said the number of tourists to this destination has been increasing steadily each year. In 2010, for instance, 3,390 visitors stayed at the Arabica Homestay, up from 3,189 visitors in 2009.
“From the tourist occupancy of our two hotels in Kalisat-Jampit and Blawan, Bondowoso, we contributed over Rp 90 million to the regency’s local income in 2010, more than the previous year,” he noted.
Apart from enjoying Arabica or luwak coffee and macadamia nuts, hotel guests can also pick and eat strawberries from the plantations managed by the estate company, Ardi said. “Tourists are allowed to observe Arabica and luwak coffee making, and our guests are also provided with internet facilities,” he added.
Cruising along a 3-kilometer river around the Ijen crater is another tourist activity in the area. The stream is permeated with highly acidic crater water, and flows into the upstream stretch of Banyupahit River. The river cruise is made more exciting by the presence of 15 waterfalls. Care should be taken to avoid falling into the river as the acidic water causes skin irritation.
Bondowoso Regent Amin Said Husni said tourists could benefit from swimming in the warm sulfur springs in Kalianyar village, Sempol district, believed to keep people young. “The regency administration will continue to improve support facilities to make this tourist spot more attractive,” he added.
The crater area is also the habitat of Javan hawk-eagles, with a wingspan of 150 centimeters (cm). These hawk-eagles have a body length of 70 cm, and feature two crests and mostly dark brown feathers. This rare species was named the national bird in 1993 for having inspired the creation of the national coat of arms called the Garuda Pancasila.
Wildlife conservation activist Rosek Nursahid, also the founder of ProFauna, said that a survey revealed only two Javan hawk-eagles remained in the Ijen crater, while in 1996, 10 pairs of the species could still be found.
“The drop in the eagle’s population has been due to forest conversion into farmland and intensive use of pesticides, which disturbs their reproduction,” he said. The other endemic animals are wild boars, fowl and black monkeys.
Live hard, work hard: Miners carry sulfur from the bottom of the crater.
The Ijen volcanic zone is also a source of geothermal energy for power generation. Regent Amin said PT Medco Power Indonesia planned to conduct a geothermal exploration in Kawah Ijen after a survey pointed to the area’s potential to generate 110 megawatts.
“Medco plans to start its exploration in 2012. We’ve had talks and Medco is committed to assisting the Bondowoso administration in providing power supply for 200 houses still without electricity in the regency,” he said.
Several geologists have indicated dangers the volcano poses to the local population. Primarily these dangers are a result of the permeation of highly acidic crater water into other water supplies rather than its volcanic activity. On its way to the sea, the highly acidic water passes settlements, paddy fields, plantations and sugar mills.
Based on research conducted by Soegijapranata Catholic University in Semarang, Central Java in 2007, the lake’s acidic water has polluted rivers and local people’s wells. Consequently, the residents are facing tooth and bone damage, while agricultural production is reduced.
The polluted water is still used to irrigate 3,564 hectares of paddy fields, considerably affecting the lives of millions of people in the vicinity of the Ijen volcano.
The university’s report shows that the people around Banyupahit and Banyuputih rivers know they consume contaminated water but their awareness of its hazard is still low.
The study, supported by Holland’s Universiteit Utrech, Open Universiteit Nederland and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, also reveals lower biodiversity resulting from acidic water and high numbers of people suffering from fluorosis, due to too much fluorine in drinking water.
“The say the well water here gets poisoned by the crater lake water. But most residents and I don’t care about this effect because we’ve consumed it so far and felt alright,” said Khusairi, who has lived near the volcano for decades and used the water for other purposes.
Surono, head of PVMBG, said the consumption of contaminated well water could cause abnormal body growth and eventually shorten the life span of local people. He made a recommendation to the East Java governor and local authorities to channel the lake water to the sea by digging a tunnel, covering a distance of 42 km.
Yet the people living on Ijen’s slopes consider nature a reliable friend rather than a threat, feeling convinced that nature and its water will not hurt them.
“They carry on their routines … and regard [nature] as a safe home to depend on,” said Bagong Suyanto, a rural community observer from Airlangga University, Surabaya.
Kawah Ijen routes and fares
Taxi from Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, to Bungurasih bus terminal: Rp 50,000
Jember-bound bus from Bungurasih: Rp 46,000
Public transportation from Jember to Bondowoso: Rp 5,000
Public transportation from Bondowoso to Kawah Ijen: Rp 20,000
Package Tour from Banyuwangi, Rp 1.6 million per person (including one night’s accommodation and guides).
— Photos by JP/Indra Harsaputra