Sunday, October 18, 2015

An ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery: The case of Bali

Ethnobotany falls within the “knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe”, which constitute humanity’s intangible cultural heritage, as defined by UNESCO in 2003. This declaration was fundamental towards the recognition of orally transmitted traditional knowledge systems as an integral part of cultural heritages needing protection.

Ethnobotany is important in tropical countries where cultures are undergoing rapid change. Many scientists have stressed the urgent need of ethnobotanical documentation to contrast the rapid decline of TK due to plant extinction and, above all, to the disappearance of traditional cultures.

The field of medicinal plants now seems highly relevant for efforts to improve biodiversity in medicinal culture. We were surprised by traditional Chinese medicine, which finally won a researcher the Nobel Prize. This success came when an ancient text revealed a method of using qinghao, the Chinese name for sweet wormwood, to extract artemisinin.

It is important to document plants traditionally consumed within a particular geographical and cultural context. Such documentation is also necessary to understand cultural issues related to medicinal acceptance and to develop insights into the investigation of phytochemical compounds.

Bali is extremely interesting for the study of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage due to its well preserved Hindu temples, and to its rich cultural landscape — the subak, an irrigation system for paddy fields unique to Bali was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012 — and a valuable immaterial cultural heritage is preserved in Balinese daily life.

Many of the medicinal plants obtained in Bali are considered tasty.

The Balinese believe that all diseases can be cured with the help of nature. Like the Javanese and other cultures, the Balinese also believe God has provided a medicine for any disease. Therefore, it is part of the Balinese culture to look for medicinal plants to solve health problems.

 As in many other regions, herbal remedies remain Bali’s cornerstone of treatment of most diseases. Though synthetic medical products have become common since early 20th century, the use of folk remedies is still high, especially in Java and Bali.

The last few decades has seen increased interest in natural products with medicinal properties — especially tropical plants in forests within the Pacific Rim. Only recently have researchers begun to investigate their pharmacological properties.

To assess the medicinal significance for traditional ethnobotanical knowledge of plant species in a relevant area, a use value was introduced in ethnobotanical study. Its value is based on the number of uses and the number of people that cite a given plant, and has been widely used within the community to indicate the plants considered most important by a given population.

Qualitative data, such as lists of used plants, are insufficient to clarify the specific role played by a given species within a given ethnic group. Quantitative indices make it possible to quantify the role that a given plant plays within a particular culture, and the use value is used to evaluate and classify these plants according to their respective medicinal significance.

Many of the medicinal plants obtained in Bali are considered tasty. Elderly people tend to appreciate their flavor and see this as a sign of medicinal properties. My findings show that plants with very high medicinal values are pulai (blackboard tree or Alstonia scholaris), sambong (Blumea balsamifera), kayu manis (Indonesian cinnamon or Cinnamomum burmanni), and sirih (betel or Piper betle).

In the case of pulai, for example, more than 400 different compounds have been isolated, and the plant is very rich in alkaloids and contains steroids, flavanoids and triterpenoids. The plant has a validated activity against the Plasmodium berghei parasite supporting its use to treat malaria. Sambong has many activities, including antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective and other pharmacological activities that are still unknown.

The medicinal use of Indonesian cinnamon is legendary. This plant is widely commercialized and is known as “Indonesian Cassia” or “Batavia Cassia”. The Balinese use this plant for various purposes from cooking to medicine. Sirih has many pharmacological activities. The plant resides in the heart of the Balinese culture, and it is incorporated in various practices and uses from wedding ceremonies to medicine.

I believe the findings will provide quality information on how and why people use plants and will contribute to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.

The writer Wawan Sujarwo is a researcher in ethnobotany at Bali Botanical Gardens, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and a research fellow at the Department of Science, Roma Tre University.

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