ECO-SEA: The Ethnobotanical Conservation Organization for South East Asia
Lisa Gollin's PhD Work

My dissertation research builds on prior ethnomedical and ethnobotanical projects I have conducted in Java, Sumatra, and Maluku. Fieldwork took place in Dayak Kenyah communities in East Kalimantan, Borneo (Indonesia) first in 1994 and then in 1997-98 Funding for dissertation research was provided by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (award no. PO22260043) and by a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant (award no. SBR96-14148).

I lived in a small village (pop. 165) situated in a river valley bordering the Kayan-Mentarang National Park, one of the largest rain forest reserves in Southeast Asia.  Dayak Kenyah Leppo' Ke is the majority cultural group in the study village, although there are other cultural groups represented as well.


Study village (click for larger photo)
A view of the study village from the Bahau River
view from a family rice field overlooking the Bahue River and settlement (click for larger image)
Leppo' Ke villagers are shifting ("slash and burn") cultivators. This view is taken from the family rice field atop the mountain overlooking the Bahau River and settlement below.


Ba'un Uluk interviews fellow villager (click for larger image)
Field associate Ba'un Uluk interviews fellow villager, Oko Bat, about the use of a forest plant for ringworm.
village plant specialists gather to discuss and collect botanical medicines
A focus group of male village plant specialists gather to discuss and collect botanical medicines in old growth forest.
name cards were used for structured interviews and to assist in catorigization, etc. (click for larger image
Name cards were used for structured interviews to ascertain how people categorize disease, and how people rank the efficacy of a given taxon for a given health complaint, and more.
village elder holds example of plant that is part of local pharmacopoeia (click for larger image)
Village elder holds an example of one of the more than 200 plants that are part of the local pharmacopoeia.

Interviews were conducted in Bahasa Indonesia and the local language (Kenyah Leppo' Ke) by myself and my local field associate, Ba'un Uluk, in the study village as well as in neighboring settlements along the Bahau River.

Broadly, my research examines health and healing in a community heavily reliant on plants -- be they grown, gathered, or managed -- for primary health care. I start by looking at the epidemiology of the area and how people conceptualize health and illness. How do the Leppo' Ke organize and categorize disease? What are the recognized causation factors of illness (e.g., spirit-borne, natural causes such as wind, and rain)? How are botanical and other (e.g., animal, mineral) therapies prepared and administered (e.g., orally, topically, via incisions, tattoos, enemas, etc.)? Are they combined with Western pharmaceuticals? What are indigenous concepts of efficacy? In other words, what is the expected outcome of botanical preventives and treatments? Is their purpose to, for instance, "draw out" disease (apan tai kawang), to "cool" a feverish body (apan sengim), or to cure (apan tai ndeng)? I also cover how Leppo' Ke understandings of illness and therapy converge and diverge from those of the biomedical perspective.

Two key questions asked by ethnobotanists are: what is the cultural and chemical basis for the discovery and ongoing use of medicinal plants by indigenous peoples, and, how do botanical preparations have the potential to influence physical health? A common fallacy in ethnobotany has been that people discover new botanicals by "trial and error," suggesting a random approach to selection of medicinal plants. But this is a precarious and potentially lethal proposition for negotiating the chemical cocktail of the rain forest environment. Recent research demonstrates far more systematic approaches to how people negotiate, exploit, and manipulate their natural surroundings. People tend to favor plants with distinctive taste, smell (e.g. bitterness, astringency) and physiologic features (e.g. blood red or milky latex) for their native pharmacopoeia; plants that are also particularly high in secondary metabolites known to be of pharmacological value.

I center my study on the chemosensory and symbolic attributes of plants that guide the Leppo' Ke in their selection and utilization of medicinal flora from the wide array offered by their local environment. How do the Leppo' Ke classify their floral and chemosensory environment? What gives a specific plant its power to cure? What are the therapeutic attributes of chemosensory properties (e.g., astringent plants are favored for GI problems)? By conducting an extensive investigation of the chemistry, pharmacology, and cross-cultural use of study plants, I am able to consider questions such as: What do bioscientific assessments of the Leppo' Ke pharmacopoeia reveal about the biological activity and potential physiological effect of plant use? What compounds might people be identifying in their sensory cataloging of medicinal plants, and what is the predictive value of this system? Is "informant consensus an accurate indicator of a plant's efficacy?


study plants were pressed and dried over the kitchen fireplace
Study plants were pressed and dried over the kitchen fireplace.
Lisa prepares voucher specimens
Lisa prepares voucher specimens in the kitchen of her Kenyah host family. Specimens have been taxonomically identified by the Herbarium Bogoriense in Indonesia, and Leiden Rijksherbarium in the Netherlands.


Findings will be published in 2000. The data generated by this study will benefit the Kenyah communities' current effort to preserve and develop medicinal knowledge and resources, will aid government workers to design culturally-appropriate health services, and can be used to influence policy decisions on nature conservation at a regional, national, and international level. Research findings on remedies that enjoy the highest degree of local success, coupled with phytochemical analysis, can be used to expand the availability of pharmacological resources. Toward this end I have been collaborating with study participants in putting together a guide to the local pharmacopoeia to be written in Indonesian and Kenyah. The botanical guide will also include information on the ecology and abundance of medicinal taxa. (Funds for completion of guide are still being sought).


Villagers young and old contributed their knowledge of medicinal plants. These drawings were done by school children as part of an education program sponsored by the author.

child's drawing (click for larger image) child's drawing (click for larger image)
child's drawing (click for larger image)


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