- Residents of the Sumatran village of Muara Jambi strive to preserve their ancient practice of growing and using medicinal plants.
- The village is also home to an ancient Buddhist temple complex which may be linked to the herbal medicine tradition, but some fear government plans to restore the site could threaten the plants growing there.
- Other threats come from oil palm plantations and coal mines operating nearby.
MUARA JAMBI, Indonesia — In a wooden plank house on the banks of the Batang Hari River, a dukunor traditional healer, named Siti Hawa, 62, wields a herbaceous plant topped with white and purple flowers.
Its leaves can cure fever, she says, while the flowers can be boiled to soothe coughs. Outside, Siti grows more than 20 different types of medicinal plants, used to treat everything from stomach bloating and broken bones to malaria and even cancer.
“I was born a breech baby – a breech baby is sure to become a dukun,” she laughs, referring to a condition where the fetus lays feet down in the womb. “So you see a lot of drugs in my garden.”
Siti is not alone. In Muara Jambi, a village in the Indonesian province of Jambi, the cultivation of medicinal plants is considered an ancient tradition, and it is still common today. “Almost every household grows medicinal plants,” says Mukhtar Hadi, founder of the Menapo House Association, a local medicinal plant conservation group.
Indonesia is home to about 10% of the world’s flowering plant species, more than half of which are found nowhere else on Earth. But unbridled human development is decimating this wealth. In few places is this truer than in Sumatra, home to the province of Jambi, and where the expansion of palm oil plantations and coal mining has wiped out much of the rainforests and the biodiversity of the island.
Besides the cultivation of medicinal plants, Muara Jambi is important for another reason: it is home to dozens of ancient temples, most of them unexcavated. Some say the area once served as a “green university” for Mahayana Buddhism, an idea echoed by President Joko Widodo, who said during a visit to the site in April that it had once been “the largest educational center of Asia in the seventh century”. .”
But when the president announced on the same occasion his intention to carry out restoration work on the temples, it stoked fears among some locals that the program would actually harm the region’s medicinal plants, which not only grow in gardens. residents, but also freely among the ruins of archaeological sites.
Gedong Temple, for example, is full of kapung trees (Oroxylum indicum), also known as the Indian trumpet tree, whose seeds are used by locals to treat seasonal flu, and sungkai trees (Peronema canescens), the leaves of which are used as an ingredient for an ointment against fever.
Some have turned to the sungkai leaf as a tool against COVID-19. During the pandemic, Al Haris, the chief of Merangin, another district in Jambi province, went so far as to distribute traditional sungkai medicines to coronavirus patients. In early 2021, he won the race for governor.
Madyawati Latief, head of the department of mathematics and natural sciences at Jambi University, said while she wouldn’t go so far as to label sungkai leaf as a cure for COVID-19, research has confirmed that it had certain anti-inflammatory properties.
“Drink it in the evening, in the morning you are fine, Al-HamdulillahYadi, a 27-year-old Menapo House Association member, said of the sungkai leaf potion.
Hilmar Farid, director general of culture at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology, said restoration work on the temples would pay special attention to local medicinal plants. Jakarta is working with regional officials to develop a master plan to develop the site and is coordinating with the Medicinal and Aromatic Crops Research Institute, an agency of the Ministry of Health, to ensure that plants important are retained.
“The master plan includes the restoration of a number of temple sites still covered by earth,” Hilmar told Mongabay.
Mukhtar, the founder of the Menapo House Association, said the medicinal plants of Muara Jambi have been part of the culture throughout the ages.
“What [President Widodo] said that here in the past there was a medical learning center was okay,” he said. “This is reflected in the culture of the people of Muara Jambi.”
He said sand miners at the Batang Hari River had found tin scrolls with mantras supposedly written in Sanskrit. The song is “Sirih [betel leaf]sirih… help cut gently, with a starch cloth, plant yourself, then pick sugar cane grass, palm sugar and rootless sprouts, protect, protect!
The book Dreams of the Golden Isle says that this mantra is a healing mantra that invokes the names of medicinal plants. This 2018 book by Elizabeth Inandiak is an account of Sumatra’s historic role at the crossroads of the Buddhist sea route in the 7th century.
“The betel plant we know as a medicinal plant. Its leaves are red, green and black and can cure 99 kinds of diseases,” Mukhtar said.
Yadi called on authorities to pay more attention to medicinal plants that grow in non-flood-prone areas of the district.
“These are the plots where living pharmacies are located and can be developed into centers for education and plant tourism,” Yadi said.
However, oil palm plantations and coal mining near the temples may also destroy the habitat of medicinal plants in Muara Jambi.
Yadi counted 12 companies that hold stocks of coal not far from the temple complex.
The Menapo House Association claims that of the 3,981 hectares (9,837 acres) that make up the temple complex, 1,000 hectares are under the control of oil palm and coal mining companies.
What is more upsetting for the villagers is that the authorities of Muaro Jambi district have classified seven villages around the temple complex, including Muara Jambi village, as being located in an industrial zone, which allows companies mines to stockpile coal there.
Meanwhile, water-intensive oil palm plantation operations have disrupted the local water catchment area. “Now flooding can easily happen because the catchment area has shrunk,” said Ridho Saputra, president of a youth environmental organization in Muaro Jambi district.
The frequency of flooding makes medicinal plants in lowland areas vulnerable to extinction.
“All must return to harmony for human romance with nature to endure,” Ridho said.
Read more: Indonesian herbal medicine research center moves frankincense harvesters
Banner image: Yadi, a member of the Menapo House, cultivates medicinal plants. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/Mongabay Indonesia.
A version of this story was reported by the Indonesian Mongabay team and published here on our indonesian site April 22, 2022.