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Social, economic and cultural dimensions of medicinal plants in Indonesia

History of utilization
Government policy
Social and economic aspects
Cultural aspects
Problems and prospects

Satyawati Hadi
Research Scientist
Forest Products Research and Development Center


This paper reports on the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the production and use of medicinal plants, which are one of Indonesia's NWFPs.

For centuries, non-wood forest products (NWFPs) have been utilised by the people inhabiting areas in and around the forest. Two groups of NWFPs may be. distinguished. The first includes those NWFPs which are most commonly exploited in large quantities for household consumption or for sale. The second includes those NWFPs exploited only in small quantities for domestic use to meet occasional needs.

The first group, which may serve as a source of income, includes rattan, bamboo, tengkawang seeds, honey, fruits, resins, shellac, and volatile oils (e.g., cayuput oil and lawang oil). The second group includes tubers (a staple food), rhizomes (for food and medicine), young fern shoots, and leaves (for vegetables). Momentum is building to exploit medicinal plants for profit due to increasing world trends in using traditional medicines because of their price competitiveness and lower risks of side-effects.

Traditional medicines, locally known as "jamu," may be prepared by utilizing dried whole plants or plant organs, locally known as symplicia (in Indonesia, the pharmacological term symplicia refers to unprocessed or dried natural materials that are used for medicinal or health care purposes). Species grow naturally, in home gardens, surrounding orchards, or in nearby forests. An industry is developing in the small-scale and household processing and trade of symplicia. In addition, during the last two decades many larger firms have engaged in the jamu industry, including for export. Many people are involved in, and get their earnings from, the collection, production and trade of symplicia and jamu.

History of utilization

Most of the traditional medicinal plants utilised by different ethnic groups throughout Indonesia were formerly collected from the forest. As technology and markets developed, medicinal plants made increasing contributions to the economies of indigenous and other communities. Accordingly, plantations are now being established on private and community lands outside forests; some by big jamu firms. Medicinal plants, which were previously little exploited, are now becoming a commodity for domestic and export trade.

Once it was thought that jamu was used only by people on Java. It has since been learned that jamu has been used for generations by forest communities throughout Indonesia. Such traditional use of medicinal plants is part of the cultural heritage of ethnic groups on other islands such as Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Irian Jaya. Today, even in areas where modern health care has been established by the Government, some families prefer to use only traditional medication, while others use it as a supplement to modern medication.

Sutaryadi (1986) mentioned that before the Second World War, the use of jamu was common among the Javanese, Balinese, and Dayak families. Jamu was self-prescribed for curing light illnesses such as colds, fevers, coughs, diarrhea, stomach-aches and headaches. Recent information indicates that such practices were widespread among ethnic groups on different islands. However, early documentation on traditional medicine is only available for Java and Bali (Sutaryadi, 1986). In other places, information was passed on orally from one generation to the next. It was only during the last three decades that such knowledge of traditional medicinal plants was appreciated as an important and valuable heritage. Work was then initiated to gather information and to study traditional medicinal plants.

Originally, jamu was prepared by individual households for their own use. Symplicia were collected from wild plants in fields or forests, or from cultivated plants in home gardens. Later, there was some trade through local and suburban markets in symplicia, for preparation of medicines at home. Still later, a number of households began processing the symplicia and selling jamu. Plantations of medicinal plants were established by a few of the big firms in the jamu industry, although most of the symplicia processed was purchased from traders of traditionally collected material. The forests thus serve as sites for the collection and production of most medicinal plants used.

Government policy

Prior to 1942 (i.e., during the Dutch Administration), considerable attention was paid to the use of medicinal plants. During the Japanese occupation, committees were set up to study the utilization of medicinal plants. During the first years after the proclamation of independence in 1945, the use of medicinal plants was encouraged due to the shortage of modern medicines. In 1963, a law regulating different aspects of pharmacy, including traditional medicine, was promulgated.

The first seminar discussing problems related to the utilization of medicinal plants was organised in 1964 in Yogjakarta. It was sponsored by the Ministries of National Research, Health, Higher Education and Sciences, Agriculture, Forestry, Estate Crops and Fishery (Sutaryadi, 1986). Since then, interest in studying the production and use of medicinal plants has intensified and meetings are being held more frequently.

In 1973, a decree was issued by the Minister of Health concerning requirements to be met in the production of jamu, including the trade and storage of symplicia, the establishment of laboratories, marketing, and trading. In 1978, the Ministry of Health published its fivevolume publication, Materia Medika Indonesia (Indonesian Medical Materials). In 1985 and 1986, the first two volumes of Tanaman Obat Indonesia (Indonesian Medicinal Plants), were published in which different plant species and their therapeutic properties were described.

As the jamu and cosmetic industries further developed, the need to secure sustainable production of symplicia and to conserve the genetic resources of medicinal plants was realised. To address these issues and also to improve the welfare of farmers living around forests on Java, the Indonesian State Forestry Corporation launched a program to allow the villagers to cultivate certain medicinal plants in forest areas (Bratamiharja & Haryoto, 1985). However, this program was terminated as the villagers had difficulties in marketing their produce. Nevertheless, the government still believes that jamu production and the utilization of medicinal plants can help meet medicinal needs, and also improve the welfare of local people.

Social and economic aspects

Supply and utilization of symplicia

To illustrate the significant increase in the supply and consumption of symplicia during the last two decades, the estimated national consumption of symplicia by the jamu industry from 1972 to 1992 is presented in table 1.

Many people earn additional income from trading and processing symplicia and jamu, although farmers and collectors get the least benefit. No data is available on the quantity of symplicia extracted from forests compared with that produced from plantations. In smallscale businesses jamu is prepared by traditional methods (i.e., rinsing the symplicia, followed by solar drying and further processing). There is a possibility that the water or air in which the symplicia are rinsed and dried is polluted. The quality of the symplicia is determined by the age of the plant at the time of extraction, the stage of the development of plant parts, and the method by which the symplicia is prepared.

Table 1. Estimated consumption of symplicia by Indonesia's jamu industry, 1972 -1992


Quantity * (tonnes)

























Source: Hargono (1985) and Directorate General of Food and Drug Administration (1992).

* Excluding the consumption of symplicia by jamu gendong (household manufacturers).

Table 2. Quantity of imported symplicia used by the jamu industry, 1984-1993


Quantity (tonnes)

Value (US$ millions)



no data



no data


no data













1 016.45



no data



no data



no data

Source: Sandra and Kemala (1994) and the Directorate General of Food and Drug Administration (1992).

For some jamu, imported symplicia have been needed. The quantities imported in recent years are shown in table 2. The need for imports is due to the unavailability, or inadequate quality or quantity of certain symplicia.

Surprisingly, some of the imported symplicia were also exported. The quantity of exported symplicia during 1988-1993 is shown in table 3. It may be feasible to replace imports with locally grown products through a program which would train villagers in the methods of extracting fresh medicinal plant materials and preparing symplicia to required standards.

Trade of symplicia

Trade in symplicia is carried out at several levels. The first transaction is between the people who gather the symplicia from the forests or nearby fields, and the village traders. This is followed by transactions at the sub-district, district, and provincial levels. Bigger firms or retailers who commonly purchase symplicia at the provincial or district levels, distribute it to agents, retailers and ultimately, after processing, to consumers. For certain symplicia, the needs of these larger traders may also be met by harvesting their plantations or by relying on imported symplicia.

The villagers who gather the symplicia get the smallest returns, whereas the big companies and retailers get the most. Sandra and Kemala (1994) reported that the retailers' selling prices for symplicia may be as much as 7 times the buying prices from the villagers. Based on results of their studies in villages surrounding Meru Betiri National Park, East Java, Sandra and Kemala (1994) suggested that this system of trade did not improve the welfare of these village communities, although it did benefit collectors at the provincial level and the retailers. It would thus be desirable to encourage direct transactions between the villagers and the jamu producing firms, for example, by organizing transactions through village cooperatives.

In the case of the jamu gendong industry, direct contacts between jamu gendong vendors (who periodically visit families in their villages) and symplicia collectors at the village or sub-district levels, have been common practice. Transactions occur in the sub-district markets.

Table 3. Quantity of exported symplicia, 1988-1993


Quantity (tonnes)

Value (US$ millions)

Average price (USS/tonne)

























Source: National Agency for Export Development.

Production and marketing of traditional medicines

The increasing number of participants in the jamu industry, as well as the increasing value of their products (table 4), indicates the potential of this industry to create employment and contribute to community development.

Jamu has been exported to several countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, France and Taiwan. In 1991/1992, the export value was up to Rp. 1.06 billion (US$ 530,000) (Directorate General of Food and Drug Administration, 1992).

Table 4. Number of firms engaged in the jamu industry and value of national production


Large firms

Small firms

National production (billion rupiah)
































































Source: Soedibyo (1991) and Directorate General of Food and Drug Administration

* (to September only)


The potential profit from jamu appears to have stimulated the growth of the industry during the last two decades. The number of associated retailers has also significantly increased. There are currently 503 agents and 4,423 retailers in 27 provinces throughout Indonesia. The largest number of agents (54) is in West Java, while the most retailers (742) are in Central Java, where many Javanese traditionally rely on jamu. The figures indicate that traditional medicines have good markets all over Indonesia.

No records are available on the number of villagers who collect medicinal plants in the forest or cultivate them in fields outside the forest. Nor are there figures on the number of symplicia collecting traders and jamu gendong vendors.

The number of people directly employed by traditional medicine industries between 1990l 993 is presented in table 5. Soedibyo (1991) believes that the development of the traditional medicine industry may indirectly stimulate business opportunities in other activities, including agriculture and trade. As many people are now engaged in the business of symplicia and traditional medicines, incomes have accordingly improved. These better incomes, in turn, improve the social and economic conditions of the people, including their education and health.

Cultural aspects

In contrast to modern medicines, traditional medicines are prepared from plant materials without their active ingredients necessarily being known. Traditionally, the effectiveness of symplicia for curing certain diseases was based on the experience and culture of the local people, without the benefit of chemical analyses or formal experiments. Prescriptions were passed orally from one generation to the next, and the art of utilizing traditional medicines became part of the culture of different ethnic groups in Indonesia. Depending on the group, different plants or prescriptions may be used for a given disease. Traditional medicines are sometimes called native, ethnic or unofficial medicines.

Table 5. Number of people employed by jamu industries, 1990-1993











Pharmacy Assistant





Other Univ. Graduate















Source: Directorate General of Food and Drug Administration

Sutaryadi (1986) indicated that some ethnic groups believe that sometimes there is a correlation between the shape of the plant part and its therapeutic activity. Thus, a fruit shaped like a heart may be used for coronary diseases, or kidney-shaped seeds may be used against renal diseases. There is also a belief that plants with red flowers, leaves, or wood may contain substances for curing blood diseases, whereas those with yellow flowers or corms/rhizomes should be good for curing liver diseases.

Some plant parts are also used by different ethnic groups to prepare food supplements. It has long been the tradition among certain ethnic groups that pregnant women take certain traditional medicines before and after deliveries. Traditional cosmetics are still commonly used in traditional wedding ceremonies, as well as for daily cosmetic use.

Different levels of the jamu industry may be distinguished, based on the number of the people employed. For example, jamu Gendong is the popular name for the household level of the industry, which is commonly run individually by women Small-scale industries can also be distinguished by having a working capital of less than Rp. 600 million US$ 300,000); large-scale industries having a working capital of Rp. 600 million and over and equipped with modern facilities, machinery and laboratories (Menkes, 1990).

Jamu gendong is commonly consumed by blue collar workers, but also preferred by many housewives in urban areas throughout Indonesia. Individual women prepare the medicine daily and sell it door to door or at work places. While this part of the industry may involve low income levels, its scale could be large as it involves many jamu vendors and consumers in almost all provinces in Indonesia.

There are 451 firms in the jamu industry, and they usually produce jamu in the form of packaged powders for specific illnesses. Many people prefer to take this powdered medicine just like having a cup of coffee, whereas others mix it with jamu gendong because they expect a combined effect of both types of traditional medicine.

Most jamu firms only supply domestic markets. Some of the products are sold by traders using vans to visit traditional village market places. They move from one market to another, depending on when the local market is open. It is very common to encounter jamu retailers using loudspeakers to promote jamu in the markets. Local radio broadcasts may also promote certain brands of jamu. Very few large firms have developed in the jamu industry in Indonesia. However, they have nation-wide markets and some export their products (e.g., to Singapore, Malaysia, the Netherlands). They have developed modern methods of processing, packing, and marketing jamu and cosmetics.

Field observations in Nguter, Central Java, show that almost 90 percent of the market place is occupied by shops carrying symplicia. jamu gendong vendors from all over Java periodically come to this market to buy symplicia because of the relatively low prices and because some symplicia that are unavailable elsewhere are abundant in this market. In addition, as jamu gendong vendors are often women who left their husbands (usually farmers), children, and parents in their home villages in this area, they make use of the buying trips to meet with their respective families and to bring their earnings home. These jamu gendong vendors also trade in the packed powdered jamu produced by small industries in the area, selling them as additional ingredients of their jamu gendong.

In the past, the knowledge and skill in preparing jamu was in the hands of women, who had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. Today, young housewives in urban areas usually are not able to prepare such jamu and, therefore, depend on the production of jamu firms and jamu gendong vendors.

During the last two decades, the expansion of jamu industries producing well-packed, powdered traditional medicines, accompanied by intensive advertising, has resulted in wider consumption. Consumers now include not only low-income, but also higher income people. Traditional medicinal plants, which formerly were collected and consumed mainly by the villagers living in and around the forest, are now consumed by a wide range of communities and are becoming part of the modern culture of the Indonesian people.

Problems and prospects

Problems encountered in the production and utilization of medicinal plants growing wild in the forests are as follows:

· The sustainable supply of symplicia needed for the production of jamu and development of the jamu industry depends on the continuous availability of the medicinal plants. Continuous harvesting, without establishing plantations of medicinal plants, may result in the extinction of some of the species.

· People living in villages around the forest who collect medicinal plants benefit less than those engaged in other parts of the traditional medicine business. Their welfare has not significantly improved.

· The villagers who collect or harvest medicinal plants are not well informed about the required standards that symplicia should meet.

There are good prospects for the production and use of medicinal forest plants. Indonesia's population growth and the increasing preference for traditional medicine in Indonesia and in other countries should expand the market for symplicia and jamu. In anticipating future opportunities, the following steps need to be taken:

· Establishment of plantations of medicinal plants in young, as well as old forests located close to villages.

· Development of a system in which the villagers who collect or harvest medicinal plants, can better benefit from symplicia production and utilization.

· Provision of guidance to villagers regarding the selection of medicinal plant species to be planted and the scale of the plantations to be established, in accordance with domestic and world market demands and site suitability.


Bratamiharja, M., and Haryoto. 1985. Establishment of Empon-empon (Corm) plantations in the Indonesian State Forestry Corporation. (In Indonesian) Paper presented at the Seminar on the Cultivation of Medicinal Plants, Purwokerto, October 11 - 15. 1995.

Directorate General of Food and Drug Administration. 1992. Annual Report 1991/1992. (In Indonesian) Ministry of Health. Jakarta.

Hargono, D. 1985. Development of the production and the utilization of symplicia in Indonesia. (In Indonesian) Paper presented at the Seminar on the Cultivation of Medicinal Plants, Purwokerto, October 11-15, 1985.

Menkes (Menteri Kesehatan). 1990. Decree of the Minister of Health No. 246/Menkes/Per/V/1990. Ministry of Health. Jakarta.

Sandra, E., and S. Kemala. 1994. A review of the demand of medicinal plants extracted from the Indonesian tropical forest (In Indonesian). In E.A.M. Zuhud and Haryanto (eds.) Sustainable utilization of medicinal plant diversity in the Indonesian tropical forest Fakultas Kehutanan Institut Pertanian. Bogor, Bogor.

Soedibyo, M. 1991. A review of the conditions of the stock of traditional medicinal plants (In Indonesian). In E.A.M. Zuhud and Haryanto (eds.) Sustainable utilization of medicinal plant diversity in the Indonesian tropical forest. Fakultas Kehutanan Institut Pertanian . Bogor, Bogor.

Sutaryadi. 1986. Traditional medicine in Indonesia: differences and similarities in basic concepts compared to Chinese traditional medicine. Paper presented at the Second World Congress on Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy, Taipei, May 19-21, 1986.

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