DR. WIWAT SALYAKAMTHORN
Former Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives and Founder of the Agri-Nature Foundation
Although historical records of medicine practice in Thailand begins only in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767), historians have agreed that the knowledge has been preserved and handed down orally for over 2,000 years, judging from the existence of some herbal knowledge that is still practiced today.
Despite that, traditional Thai medicine is still largely shunned by the majority of Thais who prefer a quick fix that modern medicine delivers. But that perception has quickly changed almost overnight when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country in early 2000. Within weeks, herbal medicines with strong infection-fighting properties were sold out.
Among the top stars were finger roots and kariyat plants which have proven to be highly effective with fewer side effects than modern medicine as backed by numerous studies in Thailand and overseas.
So, it is no surprise that a small group of Thais were hardly hit during the lockdown, not because they were rich enough to flee to a safe place or stock up supplements and vitamins. They only relied on a diet rich in herbs which is what they have been doing for years under the guidance of their mentor, Dr Wiwat Salyakamthorn, founder of the Natural Agriculture Foundation.
Known as aka Ajarn Yak (Teacher Giant) by tens of thousands of his students, Dr Wiwat has made his name for decades as a prominent aide of the late King Rama IX. Before he left to become a full-time farmer, he worked the Office of the Royal Development Projects Board (RDPB) for 16 years, in charge of promoting selfsufficiency, eco-friendly economy. His last post was SecretaryGeneral of the RDPB.
One of his long-term missions is the promotion and revival of traditional Thai medicine. Born to a family of traditional medicine practitioner with a background on agriculture, Dr Wiwat has advocated self-reliance as part of his goal to alleviate poverty, especially in farmers. During the pandemic lockdown, he and almost a hundred alliance organizations across the country worked day and night to distribute herbal medicines and foods to heavily-hit and vulnerable areas to stave off the spread of the virus.
As the situation escalated to a full-blown fear and frenzy for prevention, Dr Wiwat realized how urgent his mission is. Despite Thailand’s good public healthcare system, access to medicines has remained a problem for poor people.
Would the situation during the pandemic be different if Thais have had an equal access to medicines?
It’s all because Thailand cannot manufacture our own drugs. We are good at buying medicines, but not developing them. When we’re sick, we just ask for help from foreign drug companies although our local knowledge is enough for us to rely on ourselves. There was once a law that stipulated that anyone who owned a book on traditional medicine must burn it. When Westerners set foot on Siam, they drafted a law to press Siamese people to rely more on them, and abandon our knowledge. But we saw that if we can rely on ourselves through coordination within the community and adding value to the knowledge, everything will pass smoothly.
How did you manage to find enough herbs to make medicines for the patients (in the communities under the foundation’s project)?
Everything is local herbs. We didn’t buy any. Even if you wanted to buy them, you couldn’t because they were sold out. People were in a panic and bought everything from fresh version, dried version to capsule versions. It was a mess. What I asked the people in our programs was that they brought the herbs to us on the condition that they must be chemical-free. Otherwise, the medicine would be a poison.
Do you know where the biggest crisis was? It was Bangkok and major cities because people there weren’t self-reliant. Foods weren’t even available. What we did was put all kinds of vegetables including herbal plants with medicinal properties in a basket. We also gave them soil so they could start planting these herbs.
So you weren’t afraid or worried at all even during the height of the crisis?
That’s right. It was because we knew (that the disease is easily treated) and that we’re already producing the medicines since the previous generation. For traditional doctors, even Hepatitis-B is a small matter. Medicines were easy to make in the past because nobody used chemicals in agriculture. Nowadays, traditional medicines don’t really work because they’re contaminated with those chemicals. That’s why we need to revive the knowledge. We’ve recruited and trained people for some time.
Speaking of herbal medicines, one of the most contentious issues is the lack of quality because we don’t have a standardized production system.
We do have a drug-making formula. We also have a treatment method. We just don’t have a production capacity. The standardized production needs capacity which, according to the critics, is seen from the World Health Organization lens. That lens is established by pharmaceutical companies, not by physicians.
This pained me a lot. I was almost put in jail because of those companies. I’ve been trying to teach people how to treat themselves when they’re sick, how to make home remedies based on the knowledge handed down by our ancestors. We’ve taught them more than a hundred formulas, and also how to grow them without using chemicals and pesticides.
At one point, my work dealt a huge blow to drug companies, so they tried to put me in prison on the ground that I promoted medicines which are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Eventually, I won because my motive was to help people, not breaking the law. For agrichemical and drug companies, I’m their No.1 public enemy, classified as “market threats” in their SWOT Analysis.
How can we permanently instill the sense of self-sufficiency in Thai people, that it’s important to further develop the local wisdom and knowledge into an innovation?
From my experiences working in this sector, I don’t believe the government policy is helpful. In China, it would work because the Chinese government is tougher. If you want to see it last, you have to establish the foundation on the public support, then put a pressure on the government to follow suit. I see this as an upcoming global trend because governments around the world are very weak nowadays…I believe this trend will spread far and wide, but the growth will be a little slow because it’s not in the mainstream. Still, things will get much better. Before it was a real struggle to make something like this trendy. It used to be 2 steps forward, 10 steps back. Recently, the steps backward are fewer.
Anyone whose livelihood depends on foreign incomes have already found that they could fall into debts very easily.