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April 22, 2002

San Victorious in Bio-Piracy Case

The San community of South Africa has recently emerged victorious in a landmark case of indigenous knowledge bio-piracy. One year ago the government-funded South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) patented a new drug known for its appetite-suppressing capabilities. The drug, dubbed P57, is derived from the Hoodia cactus of the Kalahari Desert. For thousands of years nomadic San communities have used the Hoodia to endure long periods of hunger and thirst during hunting expeditions in the desert. A length of stem cut from the 6-foot tall cactus could last a band of hunters for several days, enabling them to keep from consuming procured game before arriving home to their families. Now the appetite-suppressing ingredient of the Hoodia is widely believed to be the next miracle drug in the weight loss industry of the West.

Last year CSIR granted the development rights of P57 to UK pharmaceutical firm Phytopharm. Shortly after, Phytopharm sold the licensing rights for $2 million to the American firm responsible for developing Viagra, and the drug suddenly gained international fame. Only then did the San community become aware of the political and economic implications of the situation. They approached the international firms through renowned San lawyer Roger Chennell, who later reported “There is a strong moral case for the drug companies to pay proper compensation to those whose knowledge they have taken and now claim to own.” The executives of the firms responded with disbelief that the “Bushmen” still existed in South Africa.

Discussions over the patent have been underway between the San and CSIR for the past year, and only last month have the two bodies reached a preliminary agreement. In their recently released “memorandum of understanding,” both the indigenous knowledge of the San and the technical expertise of CSIR in isolating the active ingredient of the drug are acknowledged as the foundation of an official “benefit-sharing” agreement that should be implemented by September. Although details of the agreement are still confidential at this time, some of the San benefits under discussion include royalties from the finished product, knowledge exchange, official conservationist status, and job creation for the paid cultivation of the indigenous plants. Representative Petrus Vaalbooi of the San council has stated, “We see this as an opportunity to engage with a partner in a way that will achieve benefits that will permeate to the very poorest people within our communities.”

The San of southern Africa are among the most impoverished and marginalized communities on the continent. Theirs has been a legacy of forced assimilation, eviction, oppression and murder, from which the decimated population is now attempting to emerge. Even before colonization of South Africa by Europeans, neighboring Bantu herders preyed upon the “Bushmen,” routinely killing adults and stealing their children to use as slaves. This pattern of persecution reached genocidal porportions in the colonization era, when white settlers were encouraged by governmental officials to hunt down and shoot whole communties to death.

Numbering an estimated 100,000 today from a precolonial population of several million, and stretching across Namibia, Angola, Botswana and South Africa, San are in most cases struggling to retain their ancestral homelands and cultural heritage. Many, especially in Botswana and Namibia, reside in relocation camps on the fringe of the desert, where depression, alcoholism, domestic violence, and canned goods have replaced their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle. However, there are those who maintain the intimate knowledge of their ecosystem’s flora and fauna which was once so vital for survival in the harsh Kalahari environment. The recent agreement between CSIR and the San of South Africa demonstrates that the indigenous community may finally be on the threshold of reaping outside benefits from this precious cultural inheritance developed over tens of thousands of years.