Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, November 1999

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Biodiversity, traditional medicine and the sustainable use of indigenous medicinal plants in Indonesia

by Walter R. Erdelen, Kusnaka Adimihardja, H. Moesdarsono, Sidik

Traditional medicine may be seen as a product of the twofold wealth of Indonesia: its biodiversity and its cultural diversity. With a view to maintaining this diversity and ensuring the long-term future of the country’s health care system, Indonesia needs to devise a programme for the sustainable use of medicinal plants. The authors have identified seven urgent needs.

Indonesia is an archipelago comprising some 17,000 islands. Although it covers only 1.3% of the earth’s surface, it contains almost 15% of all higher plants, as well as a significant share of the world’s animal diversity (for details see Mittermeier & Mittermeier 1997). Indonesia is one of the world’s top two megacentres of biodiversity (alongside Brazil). It is also a country of enormous cultural diversity. Among its 210 million inhabitants, there are no fewer than 336 different cultures, speaking over 250 languages (Mittermeier & Mittermeier 1997). The fact that the country is an archipelago has serious implications for the country’s politics, economy and infrastructure. Indonesian governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) foster the use of the rich natural resources that are to be found all over the country, in an effort to make it less dependent on imports. For purposes of this article we will focus on the Indonesian flora, specifically those plants which have therapeutic properties. The Indonesian Country Study on Biodiversity (ICSBD 1993) puts the number of species of flowering plants in Indonesia at between 25,000 and 30,000, while Mittermeier and Mittermeier estimate that there are 37,000 species of higher plants. Some 10% of the total flora of Indonesia is thought to have medicinal value (Schumacher 1996). Some 40 million Indonesians depend directly on biodiversity, and Indonesian communities make use of around 6000 plant species, 1000 animal species and 100 microbe species on a day-to-day basis (State Ministry for Environment 1997; Government of the Republic of Indonesia 1997). Many plants which are useful for medicinal purposes have been imported, together with details of their use. In some cases this has led to the development of new uses, while formerly unknown species are regularly integrated into traditional Indonesian medical systems.

Traditional medicine in Indonesia

Not surprisingly, there are many different varieties of traditional medicine in Indonesia, all associated to a greater or lesser degree with the different ethnic groups and the historical processes that have shaped this archipelago nation. Among the various patterns are mixtures of older elements (from hunter-gatherer stages) and knowledge gained during the different historical periods. They display not only the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, but also that of the colonial era and the period after independence. The oldest and most widespread system, and the one which is best understood, is the jamu system of herbal medicine. It originated in Java, and probably dates back to the construction of the world-famous Borobudur in the late eighth and early ninth centuries (Jansen 1993). In the course of time, jamu spread not only to the whole island of Java and to neighbouring Bali, but also to many of the other islands. This dissemination was greatly furthered by the policy of resettlement, which dates back to the period of Dutch colonial rule. Under this policy, which was known as ‘colonization’, 200,000 people were moved away from rural Java during the period 1905-1940. After independence in 1945 the scheme was continued, as part of the Indonesian government’s Transmigration Programme. Between 1950 and 1994, upwards of 7 million people left Java and Bali as transmigrants, some 7% of them with government support (see Department of Information 1996). Today, jamu plays a decisive role in national development; it is an important component of national health care and plays a major role in the economy of the rural areas, as one of the authors has outlined in an earlier article in the Monitor (Sidik, ‘The current status of jamu, and suggestions for further research and development’, IKDM 2(1), April 1994, pp. 13-15). As a result of the continuous exchange of information between various cultural groups, traditional systems of medicine are not static but dynamic, regularly incorporating new knowledge and uses. While all the various systems are based on more or less the same plant material, users are limited by what is available in their own locality and the existing knowledge with regard to their use. This has resulted in an interesting series of often complex patterns of use.

Here we will give the local name followed by the English name, if available, and the Latin name in parentheses

Utilization patterns

We will now look at a few examples, which illustrate the complex utilization patterns of medicinal plants in Indonesia. As a rule, people use specific plant species to cure specific diseases. In Kampung Gumpang, Aceh (North Sumatra), the Acehnese use puding hitam (Graptophyllum sp.) to cure eye diseases (sakit mata); besi-besi (Justicia gendarussa Burm.f., syn. Gendarussa vulgaris Nees.) for stomachache; and rutih or geceh, devil’s tree, dita bark tree (Alstonia scholaris (L.) R.Br.) for malaria. However, a particular plant species may also be utilized to cure different diseases within different ethnic communities in different regions of the country. This is true, for example, of alang-alang, lalang, cotton grass (Imperata cylindrica (L.) Beauv.), one of the most widespread grass species in Indonesia, which is found as high as 3000 m above sea level. Alang-alang grows wild in dry forest, open fields and dry land. The roots of this species are used to cure high blood pressure, fever, cough, and hepatitis. Another example is temu lawak (Curcuma xanthorrhiza Roxb.), used for a wide variety of different diseases (for details see P.T. Eisai Indonesia 1995). A third possibility is that different ethnic groups in different geographic areas, use different plant species for the same disease. For malaria, people in Aceh use rutih or geceh, while in Bengkulu they use medang (Beilschmiedia madang Blume), and in East Timor idara laut (Strychnos lucida R.Br.). This pattern reflects the geographic variability within the same area (Aceh and Bengkulu are both in Sumatra) and on different islands within Indonesia (Sumatra/Timor). And finally, people also make use of plant mixtures. For instance, people from Seberida, Province Riau (Sumatra) treat large wounds with a mixture of the bark of loban, wild pepper (Vitex trifolia L.), dukuh, langsat (Lansium domesticum Correa) and rambutan, rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum L.). It will be clear that the greater the geographic distance, the more pronounced the differences will be between the systems of traditional medicines used by the respective communities. However, in some cases different ethnic communities living close to each other maintain distinct traditions and different healing systems. The most obvious example is the case of ‘modern’ Indonesian ethnic groups such as the Sundanese or Javanese living next to ‘older’ ethnic groups such as the Kubu and Talang Mamak tribes of Sumatra, the Penan of Kalimantan, the Asmat of Irian Jaya, and the Baduy of West Java. But even ethnic groups like the Sundanese of West Java and the Javanese of Central Java use different methods of healing and disease prevention. For liver infections, for instance, the Sundanese eat Curcuma domestica, turmeric, as lalab (salad, fresh vegetable), while the Javanese use boiled dried turmeric to treat the same ailment.

Plants used

Considerable scientific research has been devoted to the plants used by indigenous peoples in Indonesia, ranging from Heyne’s classical publication (Heyne 1950) to the recent compilation of the medicinal herbs of Indonesia (P.T. Eisai 1995). Scientists have also repeatedly expressed their concern that many medicinal plants are already endangered and others are likely to become so in the near future. Rifai et al. (1992) listed 29 species of medicinal plants, grouping them according to the IUCN criteria. The majority of the species were considered rare, others were classified as ‘status unknown’, vulnerable, or endangered. Siswoyo et al. (1994) compiled a list of 1260 species of medicinal plants which originated in Indonesian forests. On the basis of an analysis of this study together with our own observations, a number of conclusions can be drawn. First, the majority of rare medicinal plants are trees. Second, most of the rare plants are rain forest species. Third, the potentially endangered species include jamu plants which are still collected from the wild: of the 55 most important species of plants used for jamu, about 25% are still collected from forests. Fourth, highly regarded species like purwotceng (Pimpinella pruatjan), which is used as an aphrodisiac, have already become extremely rare or even locally extinct due to over-harvesting of wild populations. Given the commercialization of the jamu system, the importance of traditional herbal medicine in Indonesia, and its role as an export commodity (see Afhdal & Welsch 1991; Sidik 1994; Suhirman & Suhendar 1995), ways must be found to maintain the biological diversity of medicinal plants in Indonesia, while ensuring that the peoples of Indonesia will still be able to make use of their traditional medicines.

Sustainable use

Traditional medicine in Indonesia still relies to a large extent on plant materials taken from the wild. Most of these plants are species typical of more or less undisturbed forest ecosystems. It follows then that the harvesting of these natural resources must be carried out on a sustainable basis, in the interest of the long-term maintenance of the health care system of Indonesia. The most urgent needs can be categorized as follows.

Seven urgent needs

1. Inventory work on medicinal plants must be continued until it has been completed.
2. Information on how exactly these plants are used by traditional societies must be recorded now.
3. Species taken from the wild must be taxonomically identified.
4. The geographic distribution of medicinal plant species indigenous to Indonesia and their habitat requirements must be researched.

5. The wise use of indigenous medicinal plant species in Indonesia must be stimulated, starting with a thorough analysis of the sustainability of the present harvesting pattern.
6. Feasibility studies should be undertaken with a view to lessening impacts on the remaining natural stands of certain valuable species.

7. Designing and implementing monitoring programs for species that will still have to be collected in large quantities from the wild. Monitoring should be based on the principle of ‘adaptive management’ (Walters 1986). It should cover both domestic and international trade in indigenous medicinal plants, in accordance with national and international regulations.

Efforts to sustain and possibly even increase the supply of material used in traditional medicine should be seen in a broader context, including the use of wild plants for other than medicinal purposes. In this way, a broad agenda, action plan or national strategy for conservation and the sustainable utilization of the indigenous medicinal plants of Indonesia can be formulated and implemented. We hope to stimulate interest in such an action plan and find ways to implement it.

Walter R. Erdelen

(Corresponding author)
Professor, Department of Biology Institute of Technology
Jl. Ganesha 10
Bandung 40132
Tel./fax: +62-22-250 0258.
Institut Teknologi Bandung, Indonesia

Kusnaka Adimihardja

Professor, Indonesian Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (INRIK) Padjadjaran University
Jl. Dipati Ukur No. 35 R-K3
Bandung 40132


Dr H. Moesdarsono

Department of Pharmacy Institute of Technology Jl. Ganesha 10
Bandung 40132 Indonesia

Institut Teknologi Bandung, Indonesia


Professor, Laboratory of Pharmacognosy Padjadjaran University
P.O. Box 6571

Bandung 40114 A Indonesia
Padjadjaran University


For constructive comments on an earlier draft of this paper we are grateful to an anonymous referee. [Editor’s note: Dr Gopi Upreti, Executive Director, NAECAN - Nepal.] We thank Marlina Ardiyani for information on the common English names of plant species.


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© copyright Nuffic-CIRAN and contributors 1999.