Social Science and Culture Coordinator, Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO, and Culture Coordinator

The use of plant remedies in the treatment of ailments and diseases has been practiced by indigenous peoples for generations. In Timor-Leste, there are many plants commonly used as folk medicine such as papaya (known as ai-dila in the local language. It is a small, bushy tree with a hollow trunk, large palmate leaves, and oblong smooth-skinned fruits). In traditional practice, the most popular among Timorese communities is papaya as medicine to prevent various types of diseases. Medical papaya plants are potentially valuable medicine concerns on health reasons for both indigenous and modern communities in Timor-Leste. Therefore, it is crucial to protect its natural habitat. Realizing the importance of medical plant conservation has been ongoing for ages by the indigenous communities as intangible cultural heritage. This article focuses on the importance of conserving local practices (knowledge) about the role of papaya leaves as local medicine to prevent various types of illnesses.

Importance of papaya leaves as herbal medicine among Timorese society 
Many years before traditional herbal medicine from papaya leaves (ai-dila tahan) has been used by Timorese ancestors as a local medicine for good health to treat various dishes such used for colic, fever, headache, and abortion. During the long-running and post-conflict background from 1942 to 1999, Timor-Leste was blocked from public services, including hospitals in which the majority of the Timorese community was vulnerable from health services, including thousand peoples were starving and suffering from death. From this critical situation, the herbal medicine of papaya leaves was practiced as a significant role to prevent and treat diseases, including malaria, dengue, asthma, and beriberi, which was a significant increase at the time.

Papaya leaves © Abraão R. Mendonça

Nowadays, the level of consuming traditional herbal liquid from papaya leaves remains popular as a health food and purported medicinal proprieties among Timorese community. Specifically for those living in a remote area, the herbal papaya liquid is used to prevent diabetes, dengue, kidney problems, and blood pressure, including cholesterol. Young leaves of papaya are used in cooking and eaten like spinach, and function as atonic for heart disease, treatment for stomachache, anticancer, antiseptic, and anti-tumor. Specifically, during a critical situation of the pandemic of COVID-19, the majority of peoples consume herbal papaya leaf liquid for daily consumption, which aim to prevent antiviral activity as well as maintaining antibodies.

The process to made herbal liquid from papaya leaves 
To treat various kinds of illnesses, papaya leaves have a significant role in Timorese generations. The process of making traditional medicine from papaya leaves requires skill and time. The papaya leaves are put into boiling water; however, to have good results, the level of water should be
adjusted with the amount of papaya leaves that will be used. Meanwhile, the conventional methods are used and applied during the boiling process, using wood to ensure perfect heat and, more importantly, to remove any bacteria from the water. During the final process, papaya leaves move away from the water, which is approximately thirty to forty-five minutes after being boiled. Due to the complex tasks, it’s usually done by the eldest of the community. The herbal liquid transforming from papaya leaves could be stored for only a maximum of two days, and it’s consuming any time (drink as much you can) before lunch or dinner. The juice from papaya liquid may provide several health benefits, including preventing viruses, and it’s easily consumed; however, due to the very bitter taste, it’s commonly only consumed by adults.

Conservation local practice of traditional medicine of papaya leaves as ICH 
Traditional medicine use is common in Timor-Leste. The majority population, specifically those living in remote areas, use traditional medicine for current illnesses. Traditional medicine use in Timor-Leste may form part of shared social and cultural norms promoting belonging to a social group; this has been particularly important during the war of resistance. Traditional medicine made from papaya leaves was one of the traditional herbal remedies that were consumed by Timor-Leste resistance fighter during the previous twenty-four years by Indonesian military occupation. Commonly they carried the herbal liquid in a small bottle as medicine to treat malaria, fever, and dengue, more importantly, to maintain body resistance during long periods resist in the forest.
The local knowledge concerns traditional herbal medicine from papaya leaves as local belief should be conserved as ICH, which has been practiced by the Timorese generation. While there is limited data to support most of these uses, there is some evidence that herbal medicine from papaya leaves has been proven to heal colic, fever, headache, malaria, dengue, and heart disease, and more importantly, to improve antibodies. For instance, during the global pandemic of COVID-19, the demand or level using consuming traditional herbal of papaya leaves was extremely high. This was recommended according to the local belief that using herbal form papaya leaves could prevent viruses and maintain antibodies for any illness.

The process to make herbal medicine starts with conventional boiling using wood to ensure perfect heat and more importantly to remove any bacteria from the water © Abraão R. Mendonça