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Africa's Bushmen May Get Rich From Diet-Drug Secret

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
April 16, 2003
 
The wheel of fortune could be turning for southern Africa's San, or Bushmen.

Sidelined over decades because of their dwindling numbers and ancient way of life, the San have been reduced to a few struggling communities living on the fringes of society. But now their traditional knowledge may be their salvation; they stand to make a lot of money—and gain much respect—from the international marketing of an appetite-suppressant they have been using for thousands of generations.

The drug named P57 is based on a substance scientists found in the desert plant Hoodia gordinii. The San call the cactus !khoba and have been chewing on it for thousands of years to stave off hunger and thirst during long hunting trips in their parched Kalahari desert home.


A deal has been signed between the South African San Council and the country's Scientific and Industrial Research Council (CSIR), which identified the appetite-suppressing ingredient in Hoodia during research into indigenous plants in 1996. At a small ceremony recently held in the Kalahari desert near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which South Africa shares with Botswana, the San and the CSIR made a deal to share royalties earned by commercial sale of the San's ancient knowledge of the plant.

The overly nourished millions of people in the developed world spend billions of dollars a year on preparations and remedies to combat obesity. Effective new products that help shed weight are always in high demand.

Children danced and sang as members of the San community watched their leaders sign the deal. The chairman of the San Council, Petrus Vaalbooi, said, "We are thankful that the traditional knowledge of our forefathers is acknowledged by this important agreement, and that we are making it known to the world. As San leaders we are determined to protect all aspects of our heritage."

The landmark deal signed by the San could blaze the trail for indigenous communities elsewhere in the world. Many traditional cultures have ancient knowledge of the healing powers of plants—intellectual property that is often not recognized, let alone protected for commercial gain.

Defining Moment for the San

For the San the agreement could be a defining moment as it could mark a turn for the better in ways other than a financial windfall.

In terms of the deal, the CSIR will pay the San 8 percent of milestone payments made by its licensee, UK-based Phytopharm, during the drug's clinical development over the next few years. This could come to more than a million dollars.

The biggest revenue stream could come from 6 percent royalties the San would receive if and when the drug is marketed by the international drug giant Pfizer, which has in turn been licensed by Phytopharm. Given the international demand for obesity drugs, the market for P57 could run to billions of dollars.

The South African San Council was stung into action by a reported remark by a Pfizer representative to the effect that the San had used the Hoodia but that they were extinct. This was in answer to questions by journalists whether the San could expect compensation for their contribution to the prospective blockbuster drug.

South African human rights lawyer Roger Chennels, who took up the San's case, said they immediately challenged the CSIR. "The negotiations were tough, but the San had the moral high ground. Once their moral ownership of the intellectual property rights was recognized, and once they wisely agreed to enter into a partnership, the dealings became reasonable," Chennels said.

Though the South African San Council was set up in 2001 to represent the country's Khomani, !Xun, and Khwe tribes, a trust has been set up (please see side bar) that will share the money with other San groups in neighboring Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola. This is in recognition of the fact that indigenous knowledge, as with the Hoodia plant, is mostly shared by tribes across national boundaries.

The San are southern Africa's oldest human inhabitants, having lived in the sub-continent for at least the past 20,000 years and possibly going back 40,000 years. But from the many, possibly even millions, who once roamed the plains and mountains, only about 100,000 remain.

Brink of Extinction

The South African San Institute (SASI), a non-governmental organization that mobilizes resources for the benefit of the San, explains they have been driven to the brink of extinction first by African agro-pastoralists who started arriving from central Africa from about 1,800 years ago, and then by European settlers who arrived from the mid-17th century.

SASI says few San are able to live by hunting and gathering today. Most work as farm laborers. A few groups run nature conservancies, but others live unemployed in marginal settlements, with no income other than small pensions from the state.

Nigel Crawhall, a San linguist who heads up SASI's culture and heritage management program, believes the Hoodia-drug deal could help rescue what remains of San culture.

The SASI program is essentially about trying to mend San society and reconstruct San culture, and so set its remaining communities on a more sustainable path.

The San have largely lost their sense of community and identity by being dispossessed of their territories and becoming physically dispersed. They have suffered language loss and some of their important social institutions have become dysfunctional.

Reconstructing San society and culture is an intricate process which is aimed at getting dialogue going between the elders who still have knowledge of some of the old ways and the younger generation who have lost it. The purpose is to get them talking about what had gone lost and what not, and about safeguarding that which is important. It is a process of self-discovery, says SASI.

Apart from the prospective financial benefits from the Hoodia deal, Crawhall says, there is much it could do to assist this difficult process, also by way of creating a more helpful relationship between the San and the world they live in.

He explains: "The San thought nobody was interested in them. Now Hoodia has come along. They are excited and have even become a bit secretive about their use of plants, even though most of this has already been written up in books. But their young people do not know about these uses, and that could change now that there is this mass market of the developed world wanting to use their discovery for body cosmetics.

"What struck them was that anybody would want to use such medicines to lose weight. So there is also this interesting interface with the outside world."

Fortuituous Confluence

To Crawhall, the Hoodia deal forms part of a fortuitous confluence of factors which could spell a better future for the San. It fits well with the consciousness of human rights that has come with South Africa's new democratic constitution and which has already resulted in important land-restitution breakthroughs for the San. It also fits well with the growing international awareness of indigenous minorities and their rights.

Chennels, who has also been fighting the San's legal battle for restitution of their traditional land, says he believes the deal represents notable recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of the traditional knowledge and heritage of the San peoples.

"This groundbreaking, benefit-sharing agreement between a local research council and the San represents enormous potential for future bioprospecting successes based on the San's extensive knowledge of the traditional uses of indigenous plants of the area.

"We are optimistic that this case will serve as a sound foundation for future collaboration, not only for the San but also for other holders of traditional knowledge," he said.
 

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