RIGHTS: Reversing History of Exploitation of Indigenous Peoples

Mercedes Sayagues

ANDRIESVALE, South Africa, Mar 28 2003 (IPS) - It might look like an ordinary cactus but the Hoodia Gordonii has become a symbol of efforts to reverse the worldwide history of exploitation of indigenous peoples.

At a ceremony in a remote corner of the Kalahari, the South African San peoples were recognised as official holders of traditional knowledge.

It looks like an ordinary cactus – thin, thorny fingers growing less than a metre tall in the reddish sands of southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert – but on Mar 24 the Hoodia Gordonii reversed a worldwide history of exploitation of indigenous peoples.

At a simple but moving ceremony in Andriesvale, a remote corner of the Kalahari, the South African San Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa signed an agreement that recognises and rewards the San as holders of traditional knowledge.

The San will get up to eight percent of profits from a diet drug derived from the Hoodia, a plant they know well. For thousands of years, the San – the oldest people in southern Africa – have chewed the bitter Hoodia twice a day to suppress hunger and thirst during long hunting trips.

"Our ancestors taught us to survive by being attentive to the land, rain, game and plants," says Kxao Moses, a Namibian San and chair of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa. Even today the San treat hunger, fever, eye allergies and stomach pain with the Hoodia.

In 1996, scientists from the parastatal CSIR isolated the Hoodia’s hunger-suppressing chemical component, or P57, and patented it.

In 1997, CSIR licensed the UK-based firm Phytopharm to further develop and commercialise P57. The following year, Phytopharm licensed drug giant Pfizer – of Viagra fame – to develop and market P57.

Throughout, CSIR retained the patent. It may be worth billions of dollars. The market for a natural appetite-suppressant drug is huge. In the United States alone there are between 35-65 million clinically obese people. Worldwide, obesity is rising fast.

The San, who had shared their knowledge with CSIR scientists, were out of the picture. To the extent that, in mid-2001, when a Pfizer spokesperson in Britain described P57, the San were said to be extinct.

The San peoples of southern Africa angrily complained. An international scandal ensued.

The timing was right. Back in 1996, indigenous knowledge was an abstruse issue and the CSIR is an institution still shaped by the apartheid regime it had served well for 40 years.

Five years later, protection of indigenous knowledge is debated at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and promoted by the post- apartheid CSIR.

It was a thorny issue at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg because indigenous knowledge systems clash with Western intellectual property rules (IPR). The latter view knowledge as the property of an individual or a company, while traditional knowledge is collectively owned and handed down through generations.

Under pressure from the developing world – WTO is reviewing the IPR system. Buoyed by international agreements like the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biological Safety, an addenda to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, countries in the South are passing laws to prevent biopiracy.

In 1999, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) approved an African Model Law that comprehensively covers IPR issues for biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. African countries must now pass domestic laws that comply with it. Few have done so.

The South African government is considering a draft bill that requires proof of prior informed consent of communities before granting patents for products or elements derived from their traditional knowledge.

The agreement between the San and the CSIR reinforces bioprospection as opposed to biopiracy.

"Big pharma can’t do business as they did before. It’s payback time," says Tom Suchanandan, an academic with the Council for Human Sciences Research of South Africa.

He points that "this is no hastily construed document but took lots of time and effort", one reason being the public scandal, another South Africa’s legal vacuum on this matter.

"The CSIR and the San had to produce an agreement able to withstand international scrutiny and it does," says Minister of arts, culture, science and technology, Ben Ngubane.

For three years, the South Africa San Council negotiated with the CSIR on behalf of the San in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In a unique novel arrangement, the San will share profits across borders.

The CSIR will pay the San eight percent of milestone payments made by its licensee Phytopharm during the drug’s clinical development over the next 3-4 years. If and when the drug is marketed, possibly in 2008, the San will get six percent of royalties.

"The CSIR, being owned by government, was rather embarrassed and we played that embarrassment hard," recalls human rights lawyer Roger Chennels, the San’s legal counsel.

Already R259,066 has been paid. Milestone payments for the San could reach R8-12 million while royalties could top R60 million annually during the 15-20 years before a patent expires, says Petro Terblanche, CSIR Biochemtek Director.

The San badly needs such windfall. Present in the region for 40,000 years, in the last 2000 they have been dispossessed by several waves of newcomers. Today, commercial ranching, large- scale agriculture, even national parks threaten their hunter- gatherer lifestyle.

"The San’s soft culture does not do well in a Western capitalist world," says Chennels.

For centuries their culture has been devalued as "uncivilised". Even their language is on the verge of extinction, squeezed out by Afrikaans and English. Less than two dozen elderly San speakers survive in South Africa. A handful was at Andriesvale to witness their leaders sign the agreement.

Ravaged by low self-esteem, poverty, alcoholism and unemployment, the San remain marginalised. Only recently a wave of interest is re-valuing San rock paintings and crafts, their harmony with nature, practices of heightened consciousness states and cultural beliefs.

"This (agreement) is about more than money, it’s about our culture," says Tina, a trainee tracker at Molopo lodge in Andriesvale.

Asked about their needs, a group of young women quickly say "jobs and education in our language".

If the diet drug is produced, it is not yet clear whether the Hoodia will be grown commercially or the molecule laboratory-produced. "For South Africa’s economy, it is preferable to farm it. For risk management, to use a reactive in a lab," says Terblanche.

Dreadlocked, decked in an opossum tail headdress, beads and a handmade leather medicine pouch, community leader Jan van der Westhuysen, 47, crouches and gingerly touches the prickly plant. "This is life to us, it gave us energy and sustenance," he says.

He looks around the dry savannah. Hoodia was plentiful here when he grew up but no longer, he says. "Humans are not taking good care of the world."

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