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Indonesian research center for medicinal plants displaces incense harvesters

  • Incense harvesters in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province say the construction of a new center for research into medicinal plants threatens their livelihoods.
  • The government says the center will boost Indonesia’s food and drug security, and maximizing the economic potential of Indonesia’s wealth of medicinal plants.

HUMBANG HASUNDUTAN, Indonesia — Indonesia has an enormous variety of plants with medicinal properties, and traditional herbal medicines such as jamu are still widely used by both urban and rural populations. At least 80% of the medicinal plant species in Southeast Asia can be found in Indonesia. In 2021, the Indonesian government announced plans to build an expansive research center to study these plants.

“Indonesia has 30,000 herbal plant species, so the president is aiming to build a world-class herbal research center, which we are currently developing together with the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology [BPPT] and five universities,” said Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating investment minister, while visiting the research center’s construction site in North Sumatra in February 2021. He added the university leading the development is the Del Institute of Technology, which he founded in 2001.

The research center, which the government has dubbed the Herbal and Horticultural Science and Technology Park, known by its Indonesian acronym TSTH, is located in the Pollung area of Humbang Hasundutan district, North Sumatra province.

Government officials say the goal of the project is to create a central location for the cultivation and study of herbal plants from all over Indonesia so that the country can manufacture herbal medicines on an international scale. The TSTH is also meant to help develop new plants and seeds that can be used to improve the country’s agricultural efficiency.

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

Construction of roads for access to the herbal plant research center. Image by Barita Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

The food estate program will see the government develop millions of hectares of land into productive farmland, 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 is expanding into the provinces of North Sumatra and South Sumatra in the country’s west, and East Nusa Tenggara and Papua in the east.

But the food estate program has been criticized by many who worry about its environmental impact. Huge swaths of forests have and will be cut down to make way for the 2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) of farmland allocated to the program, a major setback to the country’s efforts to stop deforestation and reduce its overall carbon emissions. It also threatens the livelihoods of populations who derive their income from the forests themselves.

The TSTH project also has its critics, including farmers in North Sumatra who make their living off the trees felled to make way for the facility’s construction.

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

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

Ama Jelita said farmers used to be able to build temporary shelters in the nearby forest to make working through the long benzoin-harvesting process easier, but that they were no longer able to do so due to the TSTH construction. Additionally, many productive kemenyan trees have already been cut down to make room 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 farmers refused the government’s offers to compensate them for their losses. But he says that eventually almost all of the other farmers gave up and took the government’s compensation, which was, on average just 1 million rupiah ($70) per farmer.

“Now I am the last one who still refuses, the land has been taken over by the forestry ministry, and we are prohibited from building 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 governments of Indonesia and China to work together to research and develop the medicinal plant industry.

The agreement was also signed by Nani Hendiarti, Luhut’s deputy for environmental and forestry management, who said that bilateral cooperation would encourage innovation in the sector and ultimately help improve Indonesia’s food and drug security.

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

“The local community should be involved in this herbal plant research. [The government] should not just take land from the people so that the locals become spectators. It’s just like the food estate situation,” Avena told Mongabay Indonesia.

Banner image: Construction of roads for access to the herbal plant research center. Image by Barita Lumbanbatu / Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on Nov. 28, 2021.