Commentary by Wayne Forrest

Its often thought that Indonesia’s future resides in its ability to grow a stronger manufacturing sector, one that can compete with China, Vietnam, and other regional players for foreign investment. That’s been the rationale behind its controversial natural resources and other “value added” policies as well as the strong push to build infrastructure, improve vocational education, and lower logistics costs.

At only 20% of GDP there’s plenty of room for manufacturing to grow, but I would argue that Indonesia’s future equally involves its commodities and the healing powers of its verdant soils and rainforests. Scientists have always told us that the biodiversity in a square kilometer of an Indonesian rain forest is many times that of one in the temperate zones. Some great things with strong medicinal and commercial value come from that cornucopia of plants and trees. I was thinking of this as AICC contemplates whether or not President Jokowi will attend this year’s Global Climate Change Summit that’s part of September’s UN General Assembly gathering. (So far, no official word.)

One tree in the coffee family that grows wild along deltas and rivers throughout the country produces a leaf that has been used for centuries as a natural pain reliever. It turns out that millions of Americans trying to curtail their addiction to opioid prescription medications have found relief from it. It goes by many names, including kratom, and Indonesia has a 95% share of the US market. The American Kratom Association (AKA), a new AICC member, estimates Indonesian exports to the US are $1 billion a year, mostly from West Kalimantan, where 65,000 small farmers are increasing their livelihoods in ways they did not consider possible.

Recently the food and drug authorities of both the US and Indonesia have become alarmed by drug overdoses where kratom was involved. Further analysis of the cases points away from kratom as a root cause. Like many things that come from places that have a different climate than our own we tend to ban them first and ask questions later. The AKA argues that FDA has not fully recognized the existing but limited science on kratom. Herbal remedies often don’t have the research money behind them that they should, but people (ethnobotanists, anthropologists, etc.) discover them and they work. Kratom, much like marijuana, is an evolving product and US states are often ahead of the Federal government. 4 have already passed kratom consumer protection legislation while a few have banned it. A Utah State Senator, Curt Bramble, told me he held hearings in which he heard only one negative case from over 650 kratom consumers who entered testimony of the product’s health benefits. The FDA has issued a warning on kratom but the DEA has not scheduled it. Indonesia health authorities have so far followed FDA’s lead and are seeking a ban.

Last month the AKA brought scientists to meet with Indonesian officials and is encouraging research collaborations with local scientists. They argue persuasively that Indonesia should not follow the FDA lock step. Kratom, an eco-friendly sustainable resource, could very well be one of the best resources to fight America’s opioid crisis while becoming a top export earner for Indonesia.

Other Indonesian products that have healing powers include: cinnamon (used to control diabetes), quinine derivatives (used in anti-malaria medications, health drinks and tonic water), galangal root (dyspepsia), and a whole variety of herbs used in aromatherapy and antiviral treatments. Research on kratom is evolving and it will probably eventually join this lineup. As Indonesia considers strategies and policy changes to revive manufacturing it should not neglect the power of its commodities and their important use in new and existing therapies.

(The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce or its members)