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An Expedition Deep Into The Borneo Forest Where the Medicines Grow

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-04-29

This story follows last week’s introduction to Borneo. It is an account of an expedition into the interior of the island to look for plants which could be used developing a new generation of drugs.

The huge Southeast Asian island of Borneo has few roads. Its main thoroughfares are rivers. It is still mostly covered in forest and remains home to thousands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. If you want to go to the interior you take a canoe.

However, most Borneo journeys start in one of the coastal cities. The oil and gas boomtown of Balikpapan, in the part of Borneo claimed by Indonesia, is untypical. Two hours up the highway you find sleepy towns like Tenggarong, where the best hotel costs nine dollars a night and the receptionist says “A lot of tourists come here”.

“Every day?”

“No, but every week.”

Two days’ travel up the coast by longboat, jeep north of here are small trading settlements like Pengaden, which had its last Western visitor three years ago.

I was part of an expedition to gather medicinal plants for analysis. Research scientists Paul Rankin and Deborah Shaw had been commissioned to get botanical samples for Kew Gardens in Great Britain and for drug research by the American Laboratories of SmithKline Beecham.

Paul explains, “Forty percent of Western prescription drugs have been made from substances discovered in tropical rainforests, so while there are still some trees standing it is in their interest to research what is there.”

Our expedition also included Pascale Berthier, a French photographer, three Bornean guides, a cook, and the organizer, Ida Rastini, a Javanese woman resident in London.

Our first stop was Kutai National Park. There we were shown a reed-like lemongrass call Serai Wangi. This had a strong lemon smell when cut and contained an oil which could be pounded out of the root and stem, distilled and used, we were told, as a mosquito repellent, an ingredient to make soap or as an oil for massage. A tree fruit, jambon, was taken for dysentery.

An 18-inch high plant similar to nicotiniana, tapak dara, with small white flowers, had leaves that could be boiled and drunk for stomach cancer. It was said infusions of this plant made one live longer.

The stem and roots of the galangga, a tree that grows to ten meters, are made into an application for skin disease. The kelakai had young red leaves which, when boiled, could be made into an infusion and drunk to purify the blood.

Kutai is the home of a colony of orang utans that have been rehabilitated back into the wild after various forms of captivity. We went into the forest accompanied by rangers. Their calls brought a group of orang utans swinging through the trees. We were warned to put aside all grabbable items. The rangers then fed them some snacks and allowed us to cautiously approach. We also fed them and soon two adults and a young one were clambering all over us, smothering us with hairy embraces.

At Pengaden near a cave populated by giant spiders and screeching bats, grew a type of ginseng root called pasak bumi. It is sold all over Borneo as a natural remedy for malaria. The leaves of another bush, kerihau, with white fruit, could be crushed and the juice drunk, also to counteract malaria. Benkudu, a large tree with a straight trunk, was useful for its roots, which could be boiled and ingested to improve the milk quality for nursing mothers. Red-flowered ketaver was good for itching eyes. Ulin tree bark, when put in water, could be used as an antiseptic for bathing babies.

After attending a traditional wedding, we headed inland with some Indonesian boatmen. Our aim was to meet the nomadic Punan, acknowledged by other Borneo peoples to be the island’s true experts on all varieties of forest produce.

We stopped at a river bank in deep jungle and climbed up a notched palm trunk, serving as a ladder. In a small wooden house on stilts lived two couples, semi-settled Punan, who still hunted the forest but were no longer nomads. They had a few basic possessions. The important ones were their spears, machetes and blowpipes. I spotted only one ‘luxury’, an ancient cassette player with no batteries and in the absence of both cassettes and electricity, no way of playing it.

We shared their home for three days, engaging in such novel pursuits as practicing hitting a green paw-paw, suspended from a tree, with blowpipe darts. One day we went out on a pig hunt with the boatmen. One had a home-made, muzzle-loading single barreled shotgun, which he stuffed with powder, and rammed with a slug, as we waited at a hide near a salt lick. Soon some wild pigs appeared but the boatmen made no attempt at silence and scared them off. This happened several times and they explained that as they were Moslem and could not eat pig, they would prefer to wait for deer to appear. None did and eventually our marksman, growing bored, took aim at a large black pig. The bang set up a jungle chorus of screeching birds and monkeys and the poor pig was lying bleeding by the water hole. When the animal had stopped struggling and its eyes glazed over, the men slung it from a bamboo pole, trekked back sweating through the jungle and heaved it into our boat. Back at the house, our Punan hosts butchered it and started cooking large pork chunks in a cauldron over a fire. The parts they didn’t immediately want to eat they cut up and tied to the jetty, dangling underwater – the Punan refrigeration technique.

The scenery around their house was spectacular. The river was 100 yards wide in place and trees were sometimes 100 feet tall. Some grow almost horizontally, forming a massive canopy, blocking out the sunlight.

On an island grew a three-foot bush with purple flowers called lamotin. Its leaves could be burnt and the ash used to plug holes in the teeth. Further up river, across squelchy mud flats, we entered a dark tangle of trees, secondary forest that has grown over land once used for agriculture.

The next plant, which was nameless, had red and green leaves. They were boiled and drunk to stop bleeding after childbirth. Another infusion was made from the kalak tree, a rare species, our Punan guide said. The whole plant, including the bark could be ground, boiled and drunk as a cure for stomach ache and as a digestion aid.

We tramped through the forest single file, babies slung on the backs of the Punan women and a small daughter tagging along. Two chirping young birds in their nest, put into one woman’s rattan pack, seemed to be the equivalent of toys, taken out at intervals and fed on seeds.

A tall tree, yago, with large leaves and no flowers, could be ground up whole and the oil extracted was good for massage. The bark could also be burnt to keep away insects. It was more effective than commercially produced mosquito coils, said our guides.

Some plants had purposes specific to the hazards of the forest. One creeper, camlung, with three-foot leaves could be burnt and the ash used to treat the intense irritation and pain caused by skin contact with a yellow and black hairy caterpillar.

Another unnamed bark could be rubbed on the skin as relief from bee stings. Our hosts had no access to medicaments of any kind apart from these natural cures they were showing us. But they had a plant remedy for any sickness or accident likely to befall them.

There was a thick-rooted creeper, bul, whose infused leaves could be drunk after childbirth to ease pain in the hips and back. If dried over a fire, but not so much as it became crisp, it could also be used externally, rubbed on the affected area.

A six-foot plant, jilieng, with red grape-like clusters of fruit, had a root that could be boiled as a cure for tuberculosis. It was a potent medicine, the Punans said, and only needed one or two doses.

Another plant, cunwajo, with geranium green leaves, could be made into a bitter brew for anal infections and bleeding. A thin skin inside the bark was the active ingredient, which could be scraped off and boiled.

A red-fruited plant which our Indonesian guides called terong pipit, had a root which could be infused to relieve beri-beri and hepatitis. It was a slow-acting treatment, they said, and needed frequent doses.

A tree bark the Indonesians called benaung could be pounded until soft and taken as a pick-me-up by the old and tired. A final, curious treatment for stomach ache the Punans showed us was siksok, a small plant whose pinkish roots could be ground into a paste, made into a plug and inserted into the naval.

At a Dayak settlement, Tantau Panjang, we stayed with the chief. He told us that half of the population had malaria. Ten percent died from it. The malaria cure we had come across earlier, terong pipit, was obviously unavailable here. From July to August, when the forest was full of fruit, there was also a high incidence of cholera.

There was no natural remedy for the disease, but for malaria, the young leaves of sarakung, a small bushy plant smelling of mint, were infused. A treatment for tuberculosis was also known – klemak root, chopped and boiled and mixed with ila lang, a grass we had already come across.

The chief had an imposing presence, especially in his ceremonial hornbill feathered cap. Pasted on his walls were magazine photos of Duran Duran, the English rock group and images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. This village’s main outside influence was a Pentecostalist missionary organization. Islam has never made much headway in the interior of Borneo, perhaps because of villagers’ reliance on the pig as a source of food and a measure of wealth. We attended a church service with villagers singing hymns in the local language. Incongruously beside a painted red cross were portraits of the Moslem president and vice president of Indonesia.

Other plants were identified which could be used for cuts, skin irritations, fevers, bee stings, monkey bites and tooth bacteria. A light green fern, pahusulut, could be made into a soup and given to mothers for increased milk production after giving birth. A cure for rheumatism was tubadauntelinga, a small spreading plant cooked on a fire, packed with salt and put over painful joints.

The lung plant, with a reddish stem and smelling strongly of rhubarb, had three uses. Its root was dried and blown into all the body orifices to stop fits and rigid spasms. It was also effective for fever – and, we were told, to protect babies from ghosts.

All the samples were labeled, dried and some preserved in alcohol to prevent mould. They were then shipped to Great Britain and the United States. Analysing them for useful compounds and the accompanying synthesis research for possible wonder drugs would take years.

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