- 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 …….