- A newly published study highlights the importance of medicinal plants that thrive on the ancestral lands of the Manobo Indigenous group in the southern Philippines.
- The Manobos of the highland Agusan region have for generations depended on their vast compendium of ethnomedicinal plants to treat a wide range of ailments.
- The popularity of this folk medicine has spread beyond the members of the tribe, with many of the treatments showing similar properties to established Western medicines.
- Further documentation and study of these ethnomedicinal plants could help in the preservation and conservation of the Indigenous group’s lands, say the authors of the recent study.
MINDANAO, Philippines — In his 52 years, Vicente Bandojo says, he has never been admitted to a hospital or consulted a medical doctor for any ailment that afflicted him.
Bandojo is known within his ethnic Manobo tribe as Datu (chieftain) Palagsulat. The Manobo, whose name means “people of the river,” live in the Philippines’ Agusan del Sur province and other parts of the southern region of Mindanao. Pushed to the fringes by the arrival of foreigners and settlers from elsewhere in the Philippines centuries ago, the Manobos have been able to preserve their cultural identity, which is firmly grounded in nature.
With few job opportunities in the mountains, most highland-dwelling Agusan Manobo live below the poverty line, making a living from farming, manual labor or hunting. Despite this, they’re the keepers of a treasure, though an open secret, that they believe safeguards them when they fall sick. This is the vast compendium of ethnomedicinal plants that the Manobo have passed down from generation to generation, and that’s the subject of a recent study for scientific conservation purposes.
“Our tribe have been using these plants since time immemorial and they are effective in treating various illnesses such as fever, diarrhea, cough and skin diseases, among others,” Datu Palagsulat told Mongabay in a phone interview. “I have never been admitted to a hospital ever since because I used these plants that are abundant in the forest or in our backyards for treating various malaises that I would feel.”
Mark Lloyd Dapar, a biologist at the University of Santo Tomas’s Research Center for the Natural and Applied Sciences, said the Agusan Manobo have managed to preserve their cultural knowledge and medicinal practices over the generations through oral communication.
“It is still highly important to conserve these ethnomedicinal plants and document their medicinal plant knowledge to perpetuate their cultural tradition and medicinal practices, as well as protect and conserve these important plant genetic resources,” Dapar told Mongabay in an email.
Dapar and three other scientists — Grecebio Jonathan Alejandro from the University of Santo Tomas, and Ulrich Meve and Sigrid Liede-Schumann from the University of Bayreuth’s Department of Plant Systematics in Germany — conducted the study to take stock of the medicinal plants used by the Agusan Manobo. The study, “Ethnomedicinal appraisal and conservation status of medicinal plants among the Manobo tribe of Bayugan City, Philippines,” was published in August in the Biodiversitas Journal of Biological Diversity based in Indonesia.
The researchers spoke to nearly a hundred residents of five highland villages in Bayugan, the biggest city in Agusan del Sur. The villages are far from the heart of the city, where three hospitals operate, and their residents have poor access to the public health system.
The study cataloged 90 plant species from 82 genera and 41 families as being ethnomedicinally important to the Agusan Manobo. Conservation assessments for these plants range from endangered to near threatened, and many were found to be endemic to the five highland areas of the Agusan Manobo.
Most of the documented medicinal plants were trees (35%), followed by herbs (33%), shrubs (20%) and climbers (12%). The Agusan Manobo use various parts of the plants to treat different health problems, including asthma, coughs, bone fractures and dislocation, arthritis, aches and pains, cysts, poisoning, skin diseases and infections, tuberculosis, snake and insect bites, tumors, ulcers and wounds, and more.
According to the study, three of the most cited medicinal plants are piper or lunas-bagon tapol (Piper decumanum), lunas-taguli (Anodendron borneense), limeberry or lunas-kahoy (Micromelum minutum). Also popular among the Agusan Manobo are the yellow fruit moonseed or albutra (Arcangelisia flava) and cinnamon or kaningag (Cinnamomum mercadoi). These medicinal plants are highly prized for treating insect and snake bites, reproductive problems (impotence and sterility), cancer, ulcers, and diarrhea.
“The results of this study present the rich ethnomedicinal knowledge of the Agusan Manobo cultural community, which could serve as a useful source of information to improve community healthcare and environmental conservation and management,” the researchers wrote.
Under the IUCN Red List, 22 of the species cataloged have a conservation status of least concern, three are vulnerable, and two are data deficient. Under the Philippines’ national list of threatened species, however, three species are classified as threatened — C. mercadoi, Machilus philippinensis, and Angiopteris evecta — and Calamus megaphyllus as near threatened.
The study said the ancestral territories of the Agusan Manobo are habitats of abundant medicinal plant resources that should be extensively documented and protected.
“Both local people and the local government unit should positively get involved in biodiversity conservation programs and strategies for sustainable protection and management of medicinal plant resources as part of the world’s cultural heritage,” the authors said. “Ethnomedicinal appraisal such as this study could pave the way for further pharmacological investigations and clinical studies to validate folk medicinal uses of these plants.”
Dapar said he was able to validate that some of the medicinal plants have comparable phytochemical and biomedical properties as commercial drugs. This includes piper, which shares similar properties to the antibiotic chloramphenicol, used to treat bacterial infections such as conjunctivitis, meningitis, cholera and typhoid fever.
Dapar said it’s important to conduct field surveys and ethnobotanical studies through interviews with the tribe first as the basis for scientific testing and further pharmacological investigations.
He said he would even recommend the use of the tribe’s ethnomedicinal plants to other people, including those with better access to health centers, due to their curative effects. Dapar added that some local physicians and rural health workers were already recommending the Manobo herbal plants as medicines to their patients.
In one case that he documented, Dapar said a doctor was shocked that a Manobo member who had been bitten by a venomous king cobra was still alive upon arriving at the hospital, more than 30 minutes after the incident.
“When a patient is bitten by a king cobra, it can kill the person within 15 minutes,” Dapar said.
The Manobo tribe uses piper to treat snakebites, by soaking the vine in coconut oil and applying it to the wound, he said.
It wasn’t easy for the researchers to study the tribe’s medicinal plants, as they had to adhere to the tribal cultural practice of mamaid, a ritual to seek permission from the tribe’s magbabaya (deity), via the babaylan or spiritual healer, to enter the forest by offering a pig as a sacrifice.
If the pig was killed with a single thrust of a spear, the researchers wouldn’t have been permitted to enter the forest. If it was killed on the second thrust, the babaylan would be “possessed,” a sign from the deity that they could proceed with going into the forest. Luckily for the group, the pig died on the second thrust.
In studying and pushing for the conservation of the tribe’s medicinal plants, Dapar, who also hails from Agusan province, said he has heard a lot about their potential for treating various ailments. Some enterprising tribal members even concoct and sell potions made from these plants.
Tribal leader Datu Palagsulat said some of the elders continue to use herbal medicines and shun commercial drugs that the government provides for free to remote tribal communities.
“On my part, I am more accustomed to our medicinal plants than commercial drugs,” he said. Datu Palagsulat said the tribe’s babaylan continues to play an important role in the community: their go-to person in the mountains if they get sick, holder of the intimate knowledge of medicinal plants to cure various diseases.
Many tribal families already know what plants to use to treat certain ailments, with the knowledge passed on by word of mouth for generations. Yet they still seek out the babaylan as their intermediary to the magbabaya, Datu Palagsulat said.
Lowland outsiders, especially poorer people, have recognized the efficacy of herbal medicines, the chieftain said, and often seek out the healing intervention of the babaylan.
“Our tribe welcomes those who come to us for medicinal help,” he said. “We don’t discriminate and it is not exclusive to us.”
To help conserve the herbal medicine in the modern age, Datu Palagsulat said he is passing on his knowledge of the medicinal plants to younger members of the Agusan Manobo. That way, the next generation will continue to enjoy the benefits of centuries of nature-based health solutions even amid the rapid advance of medical science.
Dapar, M. L., Meve, U., Liede-Schumann, S., & Alejandro, G. J. D. (2020). Ethnomedicinal appraisal and conservation status of medicinal plants among the Manobo tribe of Bayugan City, Philippines. Biodiversitas Journal of Biological Diversity, 21(8), 3843-3855. doi:10.13057/biodiv/d210854
Banner image of the piper or “lunas-bagon tapol” (Piper decumanum). Image courtesy of Mark Lloyd Dapar, PhD.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.