Indonesian herbal medicine research center moves frankincense harvesters

  • Frankincense harvesters in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province say the construction of a new herbal medicine research center is threatening their livelihoods.
  • The government says the center will enhance Indonesia’s food and pharmaceutical security and maximize the economic potential of Indonesia’s wealth of medicinal plants.

HUMBANG HASUNDUTAN, Indonesia — Indonesia has a huge variety of medicinal plants and traditional herbal medicines such as jamu are still widely used by both urban and rural populations. At least 80% of Southeast Asian medicinal plant species are found in Indonesia. In 2021, the Indonesian government announced its intention to build a large research center to study these plants.

“Indonesia has 30,000 species of herbal plants, so the president aims to build a world-class herbal research center, which we are currently developing with the Agency for the Assessment and Application of technology. [BPPT] and five universities,” said Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesian Minister in charge of coordinating investment, during a visit to the construction site of the research center in North Sumatra in February 2021. He added that the he university leading the development is the Del Institute of Technology, which he founded in 2001.

The research center, which the government has dubbed the Herbalism and Horticulture Science and Technology Park, known by its Indonesian acronym TSTH, is located in Pollung area of ​​Humbang Hasundutan district in Northern Province. from Sumatra.

Government officials say the aim of the project is to create a central place for the cultivation and study of medicinal plants from all over Indonesia so that the country can manufacture medicinal plants internationally. The TSTH is also intended to help develop new plants and seeds that can be used to improve the country’s agricultural efficiency.

The research center will also be linked to a 2,000-hectare (4,900-acre) food plantation program, part of a much larger national food plantation program that President Joko Widodo first announced in 2020. .

Construction of access roads to the research center on medicinal plants. Image by Barita Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

The food plantation program will see the government develop millions of hectares of land into productive agricultural land, with the ultimate goal of improving Indonesia’s food security and reducing its reliance on imported food. The program is currently centered in Borneo but extends to the provinces of North Sumatra and South Sumatra in the west of the country, and East Nusa Tenggara and Papua in the east.

But the food plantation scheme has been criticized by many who are worried about its impact on the environment. Vast tracts of forest have been and will be cleared to make way for the 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) of agricultural land allocated to the program, a major setback to the country’s efforts to halt deforestation and reduce its global carbon emissions. It also threatens the livelihoods of people who derive their own income from forests.

The TSTH project also has its critics, including farmers in North Sumatra who live off trees cut down to make way for the construction of the facility.

Ama Jelita Lumbangaol is one of these farmers. He harvests benzoin, a kind of resin obtained from the bark of kemenyan trees (Styrax benzoin) which is used in perfumes, incense, as a flavoring and as a medicine. He said his family has been harvesting benzoin for centuries, but the construction of the research center threatens to end his livelihood.

Ama Jelita lives in one of the villages located next to the TSTH site. He says a tract of forest about five football pitches long had already been cleared to make way for the center’s offices and laboratory. Another 70 hectares (173 acres) of forest have been cleared to grow the medicinal plant species that will be imported from all over Indonesia for study at the center.

Ama Jelita said farmers used to be able to build temporary shelters in the nearby forest to facilitate the long process of benzoin harvesting, but they were no longer able to do so due to the construction of the TSTH. Additionally, many productive Kemenyan trees have already been felled to make way for the research center.

Rubber incense that has been separated, collected before being marketed. Image by Barita Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

When the government first announced the project, Ama Jelita says he and about 40 other benzoin growers turned down government offers to compensate them for their losses. But he says eventually almost all the other farmers gave up and took the government compensation, which averaged just 1 million rupees ($70) per farmer.

“Now I am the last to refuse again, the land has been taken over by the forest ministry and we are forbidden to build shelters in the forest,” Ama Jelita told Mongabay Indonesia.

Such concerns are unlikely to derail the government’s plans for the research center, which are international in scope. In September 2020, Luhut, the minister, signed a cooperation agreement between the Indonesian and Chinese governments to work together on the research and development of the herbal medicine industry.

The agreement was also signed by Nani Hendiarti, Luhut’s Deputy for Environmental and Forest Management, who said the bilateral cooperation will encourage innovation in the sector and ultimately help improve Indonesia’s food and pharmaceutical safety.

But Avena Matondang, an anthropologist and director of Mi-Ethno Research in North Sumatra, said the central concept of TSTH made little sense since it involved importing plants from all over the country and removing them. the context of their natural ecosystems and inhabitants. who know their properties best.

“The local community should be involved in this research on medicinal plants. [The government] shouldn’t just take land from people so that locals become spectators. It’s like the food field situation“, Avena told Mongabay Indonesia.

Banner image: Construction of access roads to the research center on medicinal plants. Image by Barita Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by the Indonesian Mongabay team and first published here on our indonesian site on November 28, 2021.

Agriculture, Agroecology, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and Medicine, Conflict, Conservation, Deforestation, Education, Environmental Education, Food, Food Security, Forest Destruction, Forest Fragmentation, Forests, Land Conflict, Land Rights, Medicinal Plants, Plants, Research, Traditional Knowledge, Tropical forests

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Alvin J. Chase