issue 239 - January 1993
Inside the volcano
The sulphur-breakers of the Kawak Idjen volcano, on the eastern tip
of the island of Java, Indonesia, work in an inferno at the extreme
of physical endurance. And it's all for making sugar.
They wake in the village of Licin at one in the morning. Then they begin the 12-kilometre ascent to the summit of the volcano. Their path takes them through plantations and tropical rainforest to a small hamlet of huts where a group of about 10 miners stays for two weeks while they work in the volcano.
After seven hours of climbing to the summit there is a perilous descent into the crater itself: a lunar landscape, split into ravines and cracks like the face of an old white demon, at its centre a limpid lake of blue and yellowish water, a gigantic bath of boiling sulphur.
A team of eight workers, gripping wedges of cloth from their sarongs between their teeth to filter the poisonous fumes, chisels at the blocks of natural volcanic sulphur with crowbars. They fill wicker baskets with a 70-kilo load and carry it up to the lip of the volcano. When it finally reaches Licin, each load is worth about $3.50. It is used to refine white sugar from cane.
Once known as 'brimstone' and regarded by alchemists in antiquity as the main agent of combustion, sulphur is used widely today in many industrial processes - in the manufacture of tyres, fungicides and paper and as a mild antiseptic in medicine. Its pungent smell is characteristic of industrial pollution around the world.
But it is critical to life, too. Sulphur is regularly lost from the land in river run-off to the sea. For years, scientists have speculated about how it returns to the land - the 'sulphur cycle'. James Lovelock, the author of the 'Gaia Principle' - the Earth as an organic whole - used his background as a chemist to examine the puzzle more closely. He argued that algae in the sea emit sulphur through the gas dimethyl sulphide and assist cloud formation. This is how sulphur is transferred from the ocean to the land. In his view, this process is part of the wider self-regulatory mechanism of the Earth.