Wayne Forrest is living proof that having a passion can take you to faraway places you could’ve never otherwise imagined. In fact, it is effectively how Forrest came to be the President of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, a position he has held since 1988. It was Forrest’s zeal for Indonesian music that ultimately led him to a lifelong journey and career.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware that a large portion of the world’s kratom supply hails from Indonesia. What isn’t typically well known are the intricate details that go into importing such an herb, or the industries that go hand in hand with the process. Forrest graciously sat down via Zoom with Top Extracts to offer us a fascinating look at the country’s operations, and what he deals with as a liaison between the United States and Indonesia. He also talks about the best places to visit in Indonesia, should you ever have the privilege of being able to vacation on any of the beautiful islands the country has to offer.
A Passion Is Born
Forrest, who grew up just outside of New York City, had the honor of playing with his high school band at the New York World Fair in 1965 and 1966.
“We’d wander around and go to the Indonesian pavilion [at the fair], and they had these great performances outdoors with this fabulous percussion based music called Gamelan,” Forrest told Top Extracts. Gamelan, a traditional type of music in Indonesia, “typically refers to a percussion orchestra composed predominantly of tuned gongs of various types and metal-keyed xylophone instruments,” according to BATES. “The ensemble is conducted by a drummer, and often includes vocalists, bamboo flute, xylophone, and stringed instruments.”
Five years later Forrest attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut which had purchased one of the gamelan sets used at the New York World’s Fair.
“I recognized the instruments that I had seen at the World’s Fair while playing there with my high school band,” said Forrest. He continued:
Wesleyan had one of the few programs in America where you could actually play the music taught by a master musician from Java. So it was just a fluke that in the early 1970’s I was able to study the traditional music of this one very large region of Indonesia called ‘central Java.’ Gamelan ensembles exist primarily in Bali, central Java, and West Java.
A Dream Comes Into Fruition: Experiencing Indonesia
It was a dream for Forrest and several other members of his college gamelan group to travel to Indonesia once they graduated…a dream that would eventually become a reality.
“After playing this music for a few years it became less foreign to us and we really wanted to see the country where all of these instruments came from,” Forrest explained. “So we figured that we should learn the language since English wasn’t widely spoken there. So we were able to enroll part-time at Yale University, 20 miles from Wesleyan, to study the Indonesian language. Our class of 5 included only two Yale students.”
While his friends weren’t able to join him, upon graduation Forrest had saved up enough money working odd jobs to take the trip of a lifetime, not realizing just how integral it would be to his future.
Forrest found an Indonesian family renting a room, where he had two meals a day, and even had his laundry done, for a mere $40 per month. This allowed him to experience the country in a very unique way, such as seeing firsthand the customs and how Indonesian people actually go about their daily lives. “The house had one 60 watt light bulb and the bathroom was in a separate building. There was no toilet paper and no shower. However the Javanese have a wonderful splash bath tradition. Everyday at 4 p.m. I took one.”
It wasn’t exactly the norm for natives to see an American white man on their land, and children became curious about Forrest, along with his intentions.
“Travelling out to small villages, little kids would run away because they thought I was a doctor from the World Health Organization [WHO] coming to give them shots,” Forrest stated. “They would run away at first, but then they’d find out I wasn’t a doctor and then they’d be all over me! They weren’t used to seeing white skin, and the curiosity was quite apparent. They’d ask for money but I would give them pens. Those kids were the best!”
A New Chapter Begins, & the History Behind American Indonesian Relations
About five years following his first trip to Indonesia, Forrest found himself in the professional world, where he first began working at a university. He was also making money playing music at the time.
“Then somebody I knew from the music world whose Dad worked for Mobil Oil recommended me to the people running the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce,” Forrest told Top Extracts. “I went to these interviews kind of skeptical, but thought, ‘I’m going to take this seriously anyway.’ My dad was a businessman, so I had a little bit of it in my blood. And so I interviewed with a few people, including the President of Uniroyal Tire and Rubber.
Soon, Forrest was taking in a plethora of information related to international affairs and business involving Indonesia.
“The rubber market grew exponentially after the invention of the Model T Ford in the early 1920’s, and those simple vehicles needed it for tires, belts, and wiper blades,” Forrest explained. “Uniroyal and Goodyear looked around the world at who could grow rubber, because you can’t grow it in the United States. It’s a tropical commodity. The Dutch were then the colonial power in Indonesia, They had good terms for foreign investment in plantations. And there was an area in Sumatra that looked to be terrific for growing rubber. So Uniroyal went there in the 1920’s, and shortly after that Goodyear followed. For years, 70% of American rubber needs came from what was then called the Dutch East Indies.”
Following World War II, despite the Dutch returning to their colonies, Indonesians leaders declared independence. Hostilities ensued. It was soon after, “about 1948, that the United States was beginning to see the Indonesian cause,” Forrest explained. “And they were mediating with the Dutch and the United Nations for Indonesia’s eventual full independence, which occurred in December 1949.
The American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce Emerges
Those supporting Indonesia’s independence included companies such as Uniroyal, along with smaller-scale businesses that specialized in spices, tea, and other goods. In 1949, before Forrest was born, the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce [AICC] emerged and was incorporated in New York. Forrest told Top Extracts:
The man who interviewed me from Uniroyal had lived in Indonesia on a plantation as a young man in the 1950’s learning the business. He had an experience not all that different from my own. And I told AICC’s board, ‘I don’t know a lot about your business,’ and they said, ‘we don’t care, we will teach you about it….we know you speak some of the language and we need somebody like you.’ And that’s what happened, they kind of talked me into it! And I stuck with it because every couple years something interesting happens, new companies come in, and most importantly the job gave me the opportunity to travel back every year. It truly appealed to me.
The organization has served as a mediator between the United States and Indonesia since that time.
“We know the policy makers of both countries,” Forrest continued.
Business Dealings & Kratom in Indonesia
The way in which business runs in Indonesia is very unique, and not what one may assume when comparing, for example, business in the United States. Such things as marketing, sales, and supply chain business are drastically different.
“To understand how business is transacted there, it’s not always what you see, or not even always what the government says it is,” Forrest explained. “Not a lot of the senior leaders in Indonesia really know a lot about business. They might have very good credentials as lawyers, economists, investment bankers even, but not business or operating a business.”
Since kratom has become so popular in the United States, it’s hard to imagine that, in a country that supplies so much of it, many have never even heard of it, according to Forrest, who only first heard of the herb himself in 2018. This surprisingly includes governmental officials.
“In fact I just had a conversation with the new Trade Minister of Indonesia, and he had no idea what it [kratom] is,” Forrest said.
He went on to explain that when he assisted Mac Haddow, Senior Fellow on Public Policy for the American Kratom Association (AKA), in visiting Indonesia, very few officials they met had ever even heard of kratom before.
One of the challenges that Forrest said that he faces, along with the AKA, is getting the word out about kratom in the right way to Indonesian officials, which is quite a process.
He explained, in part:
There was an attorney in Washington who represented a business group that was selling kratom. They saw that Indonesia had put out a ban, so he must’ve heard about me or the Chamber. And I told him that I didn’t know much about it, first of all. I honestly only thought of it as ‘legal weed.’
I went down to the first kratom leaders’ meeting in Atlanta, after being invited by the AKA, to talk about Indonesia and trade operations. When the Dutch eventually left Indonesia, the Chamber started to get more involved with the issues of imported commodities at that time. Without the Dutch in the picture, quality control was not the same. And members of the chamber wanted to make sure those things could be kept up, and standards could be imposed. So I discussed our history in supporting commodity shipments out of Indonesia.
Some of those at the meeting became members of the Chamber, and I made it very clear to the AKA that I would need a constituency of companies who are dues paying members. I know that it’s an expense, but if we have enough members, that puts us on the line to have a dog in the fight. You have to have a constituency to represent something, to push for things in Indonesia. So we have achieved that, a bit of a critical mass of companies.
Forrest emphasized that the Chamber “can always use more” members, adding that “the dues aren’t very high.”
Some of the issues that Forrest faces in regards to kratom comes from what consumers are far too familiar with, i.e. negative publicity about the herb, much of which is misleading.
Interestingly enough, many of the products that so many use, which are labeled as “Made in Indonesia,” actually don’t originate from the region at all. Forrest expanded on this:
When you look at the commodities that we buy from Indonesia, rubber isn’t really native to Indonesia. It was originally imported from Brazil. Teak, which some of our members use to make garden furniture, grows in Indonesian plantations but is not natural to Indonesia. Coffee, tea, and different varieties are grown but kratom is natural. It grows wild. You can farm it, but it’s mostly still a picked crop. Rattan is another rainforest product. You can’t plant it, as it grows in symbiosis with a tree. We have other botanicals that come from the rainforest, such as essential oils that are used in perfumes as well as quinine, used as a flavoring and an antimalarial agent.
Climate Change in Indonesia
“We have a big concern around the world about climate change, carbon ‘capturing,’” Forrest told me. “The rainforests of the world are the lungs of the world, so the more we can find ways to use them without destroying them the better. A product such as kratom fits in that category. It is part of the ecosystem that still contains large stands of rainforest. Although you can pull it out and grow it on a small plantation, you still want to maintain the leaf you get when picking it in the wild.”
While many kratom vendors and consumers alike have tried, even successfully, to grow their own kratom, it can be extremely difficult to imitate how the herb thrives naturally in Indonesian rainforests.
When I asked Forrest to expand on the future of kratom in Indonesia, he emphasized what has and continues to happen with other products supplied by the country.
“Companies that plant rubber, palm oil, and other trees constantly play around with the agronomy (defined as the ‘science of soil management and crop production’) involved in that product.”
It’s Forrest’s belief that there will eventually be “much more agronomy involved” with kratom, which could lead to a better, more productive and resilient product. This also means that there would be an emphasis on protecting the environment, with Indonesia still being able to profit from the botanical.
“It’s about trying to find ways to preserve rainforests through education of what other products you can get without taking down an entire rainforest,” Forrest said. He continued:
So you don’t have to just take the easy path, which is cutting down the entire rainforest for palm oil. You could keep it, use it for ecotourism, and other products that the local people may not know are useful for export.
There are groups in Europe who we are starting to connect with, who we want to get kratom into the mix of, along with other sustainable products. That’s an effort I’ve done with the Chamber. We’re just starting, and one of the reasons is that we have other members that are active in some other parts of Indonesia where kratom is sourced, who are also focusing on renewable products.
The Importance of Organic Goods
Buying organic products may seem “trendy,” but it’s also a good way to help support sustainable agriculture. Many of you likely only purchase certain products organically, such as coffee or dairy products, because you know it isn’t filled with preservatives and chemicals.
“Sustainability is the paradigm that I think Indonesia should follow. You can grow things organically, which of course is much better,” Forrest said. “I believe most, if not all of the kratom is organic, because of course it’s picked and is in the coffee family. Hence, it doesn’t need fertilizer. If you know what you’re doing and don’t just rip it out completely, it will grow back in five months.”
Brainstorming With the AKA, & a ‘Kratom Mafia Mentality’
Forrest facilitated Haddow’s first trip to Indonesia, and explained the different channels one must navigate in order to get through to the right officials, which can be another challenge. However, together with the AKA, they are coming up with ideas that he believes will be of definite help to kratom’s sustainability, as well as its continued availability. Forrest said:
Mac and I talk about what might be helpful and workable in Indonesia. I came up with some ideas early on, when people were ominous for the export. People suggested maybe we needed just one exporter and everything would go through them, so the government would know what’s going on…I explored that for a while and realized many in the industry were not happy with that idea, but it was just an idea. What I’m saying is we’re still learning as we go. So we need to keep talking and having cooperation.
Of course with kratom’s growing popularity comes those who will naturally want to profit from the botanical, and those who are already in it to continue to do so. With that said, it’s only natural that competition surrounding kratom’s growth can get tense at times.
“Kratom is a product that has a dimension to it, like many other commodities in Indonesia where there’s a local trader mentality that somewhat borders on mafia,” said Forrest. “And that’s something that we’re going to have to have a better understanding of in the future if this product is going to mature to where, say, rubber is today.”
Since Indonesia is still very much a developing country, “Farmers can be easily enticed by money,” Forrest explained. “And, for example, be told things about pricing that may not be true.”
While Haddow’s efforts are mainly focused on the United States in terms of preserving kratom’s legality, Forrest’s are naturally and primarily focused on the Indonesian side. This includes “putting out fires,” and educating those who either have a misconstrued vision of kratom, or who simply aren’t familiar with the botanical at all.
“Indonesia will come around and be much more embracing of kratom once they see that the FDA gives a green light rather than either a red light or caution light,” Forrest said. “Our regulatory system has difficulty with traditional herbal products, mostly because there hasn’t been enough research. Kratom is not a scheduled drug and anyone conduct studies on its various benefits. In my opinion eventually they will prove to the FDA what many consumers in both Indonesia as well as the US already know.”
The history of kratom dates back hundreds of years in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia being no exception.
“The product itself has been used in the country for centuries, but is not packaged and sold commercially,” Forrest explained. “ It’s used primarily as a household medicinal product like an herbalist would have.”
The use of medicinal herbs and botanicals also dates back far into Indonesia’s history. Western medicine is only beginning to start emerging in the country, a stark contrast from the United States. Forrest spoke further about Indonesia’s fascinating history in the world of natural healing:
If you’re in Indonesia, there are women herbal healers of different types. Some are experts at massage, understanding it from an intuitive perspective rather than scientific. There are even women known who can set bones by hand, even correcting for scoliosis. And there are others who use local herbs and things to make preparations they know will help people with different ailments.
There’s still this whole universe of local products called ‘Jamu,’ which are herbal remedies. It’s not really all that regulated, it’s more about what people know and they trust.
Forrest told Top Extracts about how sometimes kratom may be referred to as something else, and so more people may actually know about it than it may seem. He said this was the case at a meeting about kratom in Indonesia he helped set up a few years ago. The participants were having trouble understanding what word kratom is, and then “somebody said, ‘well it could be this,’ and used a different phrase,” Forrest stated. “And then she said, ‘Oh I know what this is! My sister gives it to me for pain that I get in my shoulder.’ Stuff like that isn’t going to stick around if it’s dangerous.
Forrest added that kratom is just one of many natural products that has been scrutinized over the years.
“I mean it was once thought that coffee was very dangerous,” he stated.
Why Some Kratom Shipments Are Being Detained by Customs
If you’re a kratom vendor, you’ve undoubtedly heard or even experienced kratom shipments being held by the United States Customs and Border Protection [aka Customs]. If you’re a kratom consumer, chances are you may have experienced a time or two when your order was delayed, or you were notified by a vendor that it was confiscated by Customs.
Forrest believes that most shipments that have been detained are due to “health concerns”.
While the detaining of products is indeed stressful for vendors and customers alike, having kratom regulated will only help to avoid such instances in the future.
The Importance of Regulating Kratom From Indonesia, & the Future of the Herb
The most important aspect of importing kratom from Indonesia is safety. While it remains in a limbo state for now, consumers must choose wisely when deciding who to purchase the herb from.
“There is bad kratom that comes into the United States,” Forrest told Top Extracts. “And it should be detained because it could have salmonella, heavy metals, or other contaminants. A lot of those are private courier shipments, products sold through Facebook transactions and such.” He continued:
The farmers are often susceptible to bad trading practices of others in the business. But on one hand, they do have a lot more power now because they’re more connected. When I lived in Indonesia, nobody was connected in the way that we have today. Farmers have cell phones, and that’s how they’re getting onto the internet. And they learn quickly how to use that ecosystem of the internet for transactions. They can wrap kratom up and send through a courier, and boom that package is on its way. They haven’t had their product inspected. Forrest, as well as the AKA is, at least for now, against these types of shipments.
It’s always a good idea to vet any kratom vendor you intend on purchasing from, to ensure the product’s safety. An accredited lab should always be used in order to ensure the botanical’s safety once it arrives at your home.
That said, on a positive note many kratom farmers are indeed going about getting their kratom tested before it reaches consumers’ hands.
There are Indoensians that sell, who are getting their material inspected. There is one member of the Chamber that I know of, for example, who has a warehouse facility in the United States. And he gets his product inspected by a company in Colorado.”
There is also some testing of kratom being done in Indonesia, but that aspect is really just beginning to emerge, according to Forrest. “They do have equipment that can test, however, vendors here shouldn’t go without a U.S. based lab test, not yet.”
Asked where he sees the future of kratom going, Forrest said he sees it as possibly getting into the medical landscape.
“There’s a company in New York, and it’s going to take them years to get there because of the testing and money involved, but they want to make an acute pain relief prescription medication from kratom,” Forrest stated. “And it’s something, for example, that you could take directly following back surgery. But I can also see it as being sold over the counter as a supplement. We’re not there yet, but it could certainly happen.”
Indonesian Government Involvement With Kratom
One way that could possibly have a more enticing effect on getting the Indonesian government to embrace kratom would be to garner funds from it, which hasn’t yet happened.
“Because of the way that kratom leaves Indonesia, the government isn’t getting much revenue from it,” Forrest stated. “And maybe that’s why it hasn’t attracted all that much attention. So in a way it’s going out without an excise tax on it, unlike say palm oil. The government would have to figure out a way to put out a tax that doesn’t cut off the export….and they’re not always good at that.” He further explained:
Another battleground that the kratom community doesn’t face yet, but could, would be an export ban on the raw material, like happened with rattan. Indonesia decided at one point to ban the export of raw rattan because they wanted to have people make rattan furniture in their country. Soon after that, they did the same thing with wood. They said you couldn’t send any kind of logs or timber. Those policies come from an economist investment business mentality. But what ended up happening with rattan, the Indonesian islands where it came from was over 1,000 miles away from where the factories were in Java. So it ended up being more expensive than if they exported it. They got the same or a higher level price if they export the raw material, because the buyers have to factor a very high shipping cost. They can make more money sending it to other countries.
It’s Forrest’s thought that Thailand will probably begin shipments of their own kratom in the coming years, which will hopefully only help the kratom industry in Indonesia. “And I’m using that as leverage with officials in Indonesia,” Forrest stated. “They’ll understand this, because they’ve seen it happen with other countries in their region. They’re trying to respond to developments in the region.”
Forrest also believes that “taking some risk is necessary in order to mature the industry.” He further explained:
Because the FDA still views kratom negatively but yet it is not listed as an illegal drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the US situation remains murky. Forrest hopes the AKA efforts to create state-level consumer protection legislation will eventually prompt a more open policy form the FDA as well as more support from the Indonesian government. Meanwhile too many vendors and suppliers are trying to operate “under the radar screen”.
To have a kratom industry that is basically ‘everybody trying to be a cowboy’ is not the right way, to start with. Of course it’s probably idealistic to think that everybody could be acting like a good pharma company, which may be difficult to do for a lot of reasons. But there’s got to be something in the middle, where there’s enough of a sympathy between the regulatory system and the product, so that players can act as responsibly as possible. And that’s the goal I’d like to work on. Because this is the future, where the product has the legitimacy that I think everybody wants to see. And it may be a one step forward and two steps back, or two steps forward and one step back process, and there has to be more than one problem being worked on at the same time. When that happens, of course there will be some players who were happy with the cowboy system, and they’ll exit because they can’t keep up with the regulatory system.
If you’re a vendor who’s already doing things the right way, such as testing each kratom batch using an accredited lab, you have a much higher chance of being able to make it in the industry once regulations are in full effect. It’s never too late to start, and your return on investment should show this.
Pack Your Bags! Forrest’s Tips for Traveling in Indonesia
When talking about travelling in Indonesia, Forrest’s enthusiastic voice fills with excitement, and he offered Top Extracts, along with all of you, plenty of tips!
First off, Forrest recommends travelling for no shorter than a period of seven to nine days. The drastic time difference is going to cause a real case of jet lag, and you’re going to want to take that into consideration. Nobody wants to be tired their entire trip, so three or four days isn’t the best idea.
“The length of time it takes to travel to Indonesia is just so arduous, and it takes a few days typically to get over jet lag,” Forrest said. “So if you’re leaving after a day or two, you’re going to think, ‘why did I even come?’”
If you’re able to go for a week or longer, you’re going to have the chance to take in much more of the beauty the country has to offer. It will be worth banking those vacation days!
Forrest also highly recommends that anyone travelling to Indonesia to visit “somewhere outside of Capital City [Jakarta].” It will help one to get a real feel for how Indonesians live out their daily lives, not just those living in the large city of Jakarta (population is 10.56 million!).
“It’s really helpful to see the other parts of the country where operations are, where important developments might be that give you a perspective different than what you get from just being in Jakarta,” Forrest stated.
Something I wanted to personally know about is the safety of travelling to Indonesia, and Forrest definitely helped me to understand that there’s not a whole lot you will need to worry about. Aside from pick-pocketing and petty crimes, Forrest said he has always felt safe when travelling throughout the country. While some “wealthy tourists may hire security,” Forrest said it’s not the norm, nor does he feel it’s absolutely necessary for most travellers. The biggest concern, according to Forrest, is health. “Eat only raw fruits with skins, drink only bottled water (widely available) and not from a faucet,” he stated. “Potable water signs are misleading, they only mean you can wash with it.”
Forrest’s enthusiasm for Indonesia is truly contagious. His passion for not only his work, but for Indonesians themselves, makes it clear as to why he’s headed the AICC for an astounding 32 years. We’re excited to continue watching where Forrest’s career takes him, and hope everyone reading this will also get the chance to visit!