In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps
men alive. Now its secret is 'stolen' to make us thin
Pharmaceutical firms stand accused of once again
plundering native lore to make fortunes from natural remedies, writes Antony Barnett
For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the
Hoodia cactus to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.
The Kung bushmen who live around the Kalahari desert in
southern Africa used to cut off a stem of the cactus about the size of a cucumber and
munch on it over a couple of days. According to tradition, they ate together so they
brought back what they caught and did not eat while hunting.
Now the Hoodia, which grows to 6ft - taller than the
bushmen themselves - is at the centre of a bio-piracy row. Campaigners say the cactus has
attracted the interest of the Western drug industry, which exploits developing countries
through the international patent system.
In April, when pharmaceutical giants were being accused
of failing to provide affordable Aids drugs in Africa, Phytopharm, a small firm in
Cambridgeshire, said it had discovered a potential cure for obesity derived from an
It emerged that the company had patented P57, the
appetite-suppressing ingredient in the Hoodia, hoping it would become a slimming miracle.
Phytopharm's scientists boasted it would have none of the
side-effects of many treatments because it was derived from a natural product. The
discovery was immediately hailed by the press as a 'dieter's dream' and Phytopharm's share
price rose as City traders expected rich returns from a drug which would revolutionise the
£6bn market in slimming aids. Phytopharm acted quickly.
It sold the rights to license the drug for $21m to
Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant, which hopes to have the treatment ready in pill form
within three years. Having made millions from Viagra, the impotence drug, Pfizer now
believes it has in its laboratories a drug that is going to beat fat. But it appears that
while the drug companies were busy seducing the media, their shareholders and financiers
about the wonders of their new drug, they had forgotten to tell the bushmen, whose
knowledge they had used and patented.
Phytopharm's excuse appears to be that it believed the
tribes which used the Hoodia cactus were extinct. Richard Dixey, the firm's
self-proclaimed Buddhist chief executive, told the Financial Times : 'We're doing what we
can to pay back, but it's a really fraught problem... especially as the people who
discovered the plant have disappeared.'
Yet this weekend leaders of the people Dixey believed had
disappeared are having their annual gathering at a farm 45 miles north of Cape Town. One
of the top items on the agenda is to plan their strategy against Phytopharm and Pfizer.
They are angry, saying their ancient knowledge has been stolen, and are about to launch a
challenge and demand compensation.
Roger Chennells is the lawyer for the tribal bushmen, who
number 100,000 across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. He argued their case in
1999 when the bushmen won 100,000 acres of white-owned farmland on the edge of the
Speaking to The Observer, Chennells said: 'They are very
concerned. It feels like somebody has stolen their family silver and cashed it in for a
huge profit. The bushmen do not object to anybody using their knowledge to produce a
medicine, but they would have liked the drug companies to have spoken to them first and
come to an agreement.
'I believe there is grounds for a legal challenge, but
there is certainly a strong moral case for the drug companies to pay proper compensation
to those whose knowledge they have taken and now claim to own.'
Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner for ActionAid, the
international development charity, said: 'This is a major case of bio-piracy. Corporations
are scouring the globe looking to rip off traditional knowledge from some of poorest
communities in the world. Consent or compensation is rarely given. The patent system needs
urgent reform to protect the knowledge nurtured over generations by groups like the
When presented with news of this weekend's tribal
gathering and the bushmen's anger about what has happened, Dixey reacted with genuine
He claims that one of the reasons he set up Phytopharm
was precisely to help tribal people profit from their ancient medicinal knowledge of
plants. He said: 'I honestly believed that these bushmen had died out and am sorry to hear
they feel hard done by. I am delighted that they are still around and have a recognisable
community. The ownership of medicinal plants is extremely complex, but I have always
believed that this type of knowledge is the most valuable asset of indigenous tribes.
Instead of weaving baskets and taking tourists around, royalty payments from medicines
could transform their prospects.'
Dixey, who insisted that he would now be happy to enter
into talks with the bushmen community, said that Phytopharm was approached with the deal
by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which had been
investigating the properties of the Hoodia cactus.
He claims it was the CSIR that told him the bushmen
tribes who used the cactus no longer existed and assured him that agreements were in place
to help local communities.
Dr Marthinus Horak, the man in charge of the CSIR
project, defended the deal. He claimed there were only a few hundred bushmen left in South
Africa itself, living in isolated areas, and were very hard to contact.
He said: 'We always intended to speak to the community at
some stage, but we did not believe it would be appropriate to do so before the drug had
passed on the clinical tests and been finally approved. We did not want to raise their
expectations with promises that could not be met.' Horak said the CSIR was committed to
sharing financial benefits and had a track record in dealing with local communities
through a variety of benefit-sharing programmes.
Yet critics - such as the South African campaigning group
BioWatch - believe that these benefit-sharing agreements are nothing but a sham and mainly
result in money being invested back into CSIR itself - which is half-funded by the South
Rachel Wynberg from Biowatch said: 'All we hear is words,
but we see nothing on paper. They talk of benefit-sharing, but it seems more of a myth
than reality and most of the money seems to end up back in the CSIR.
'The details of agreements are all confidential and we
have no access to them. The Hoodia drug has the potential to be South Africa's first
blockbuster drug and this should have all been sorted out before the patent was awarded
and not after.'
Sandy Gall, the broadcaster and former ITN newsreader who
next month is publishing a book on the bushmen of southern Africa, described the situation
as 'disgraceful'. He said: 'These ancient people have been exploited for years and it is
disgraceful that it is still happening.
'They have been displaced and dispersed, but for someone
to claim they thought the bushmen no longer existed is either naive or deceitful.'
The harsh environments in which the Kung bushmen have
lived for thousands of years have led them to become expert botanists. They can readily
identify more than 300 different types of plant with different properties and campaigners
believe that the row over the Hoodia patent is just the first of many such battles to
Tomorrow pressure groups will converge on a meeting of
the World Trade Organisation in Geneva to protest against the system of patents which they
claim helps drug corporations to exploit developing countries and prevents them from
getting access to cheap drugs.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
Excerpt from Assoc. Press 8/25/92:
Witdraai, South Africa - The slight, wizened man kneels in the sand and speaks of the long
desert hunting treks of his youth, where his grandfather gave him the fleshy pulp of the
hoodia cactus plant to stave off hunger and thirst. "The bushmen?? are always in the
bush so we know a lot," said David Kruipeir, 67, a traditional healer for the nomadic
African people known as the San. But the San have been wary of sharing their knowledge
since their battle with the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and a South African lab over
plans to turn the hoodia into a new diet drug without acknowledging its discoverers.
"The lid must stay on the pot," Kruipeir said.
The case is one of several to be discussed at the World
Summit for Sustainable Development as examples of the difficulties indigenous people
encounter when they try to cash in on medicines they have used for generations. The San,
who number about 100,000, live in the region of the Kalahari Desert of southwest Africa
where the hoodia, which they call Xhoba is native. For as long as they can remember, the
bitter-tasting plant has kept them from feeling hungry on long journeys when they have
little other food or water. The issue is part of a pattern of being exploited relating to
their lands and their rights. It can't be looked upon in isolation. It is an indigenous
people's human rights issue. The San case started when researchers at the Council of
Scientific and Industrial Research, a South African lab partly funded by the government
patented P57, the appetite suppressant derived from the hoodia, without acknowledging the
San. The lab then licensed P57 to the small British pharmaceutical company Phytopharm
which said the San clan that discovered the hoodia had died out, and subleased the patent
to Pfzier. Eventually that San clan, which had been relocated by the apartheid government
but was very much alive, found out about the patent. After legal wrangling an agreement on
royalties was reached. Folk remedies have greatly contributed to modern medicine. By some
accounts up to a quarter of present day drugs can be traced to plants --and many of those
came from traditional medicine. The difficulty of translating traditional knowledge into
Western medicine equitably has been a source of contention around the globe.
In India, the government working to create a national
database of plants used traditionally for medicinal purposes is in a bid to head off any
legal disputes. In South Africa, at the Collaborating Center for Drug Policy at the
University of Cape town, researchers are working with traditional healers to develop
anti-malaria drugs from local plants. Together, the researchers and healers have drafted a
plan to split related profits equally with the communities. As for the San, although they
remain annoyed that, in their view, they were almost swindled and they can't help but be
amused by the prospect of Westerners using the hoodia plant to slim down.
A group of South African
hunter-gatherers has reached a preliminary agreement with South Africas leading
research organisation to share any benefits arising from the commercialisation of an
appetite-suppressing substance in the hoodia cactus. Both sides hope that the agreement
will end a sharp dispute over the intellectual property rights of the hoodia's active
ingredient, dubbed P57.
For thousands of years, the knowledge that a slice of
hoodia cactus can stave off hunger and quench thirst has remained the sole preserve of the
San, the hunter-gatherers who today still inhabit the desert regions of Southern Africa.
The cactus is now seen as a potential goldmine, as it could be the first plant to give
rise to a commercially viable appetite-suppressant drug. The United States alone, which
has an estimated 35 to 65 million clinically obese people, offers an enormous market for
such a drug.
Traditional Knowledge of the San
of Southern Africa: Hoodia gordonia
Presentation prepared by
Victoria Geingos and Mathambo Ngakaeaja
Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA)
for the Second South-South Biopiracy Summit: Biopiracy Ten Years Post
22-23 August 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa
The San of Southern Africa have collected and used the Hoodia gordonia succulent for
centuries. WIMSA, a San-owned regional networking organisation, learnt in 2001 that the
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) based in Pretoria, South Africa, had
identified the active ingredient of the Hoodia. San representatives expressed concern that
the CSIR had not consulted them before registering the research on the Hoodia for
patenting, and passing the findings of their tests on to the pharmaceutical companies
Phytopharm in the UK and Pfizer in the USA. With the assistance of their legal advisor the
San entered into negotiations with the CSIR, which resulted in a memorandum of
understanding and a benefit-sharing workshop, which
was held recently. A mutual understanding between all stakeholders has been established in
this project, the first of its kind, with a firm commitment to sharing the benefits of the
future success of the Hoodia patent with the San.
San and the Hoodia
Since 1999 WIMSA has been undertaking a Regional Oral Testimony Collection Project in
close co-operation with other San organisations and their support organisations. San
themselves conduct, tape and transcribe interviews relating to San history. Over 200
interviews have already been conducted. A number of
male and female respondents refer to the Sans knowledge of medicinal plants, and
some refer to the Hoodia. San elderly and youth alike have elaborated on the use of the
succulent, various species of which grow in sandy or rocky areas in Angola, Namibia,
Botswana and South Africa. The ||Anikhwe of northern Botswana feed children who eat
too much pieces of Hoodia to make them eat
less. If this practice is carried out for longer than three months, the child could die,
so Hoodia must be used with caution.
The Hai||om of northern Namibia still use
Hoodia sap to treat allergic reactions in the eyes, and to treat severe stomach pain they
boil Hoodia pieces in water and drink the brew.The Khomani of north-western South
Africa also refer to aforesaid practices. Already decades ago obese members of the
Khomani community were eating the Hoodia to slim down. (In the old days people
consumed the plant to meet the requirements of a healthy body whereas today overweight
young people do so to slim down to meet the requirements of fashion.) All San communities
interviewed including the !Xun and Khwe who hail from Angola and now live in
Schmidtsdrift in South Africa stated that San hunters suppressed their hunger and
maintained their energy levels on their two to three-day hunting trips by eating a slice
of Hoodia twice a day. The plant had the same effect on the hunting dogs. Every generation
in all San communities has passed the knowledge of the Hoodia on to the next generation
despite such evils as apartheid, which denied the San pride in their culture.
Most San communities enjoy extensive sharing of resources and thus have not withheld their
knowledge of the Hoodia and other plants from other ethnic groups. We have come to
realise, however, that we need to protect
our intellectual property, and we have taken measures to prevent further exploitation and
ensure benefit-sharing amongst our peoples. It was of critical importance to the San that
the CSIR acknowledged that our traditional knowledge regarding the Hoodia was the original
source leading eventually to the approval of the patent in 1995. At the last WIMSA General
Assembly meeting the San delegates appointed the South African San Council to negotiate
with the CSIR on behalf of all San in the region. The first round of negotiations between
the South African San Council and the CSIR led to the signing of a memorandum of
understanding in which the CSIR acknowledges the Sans prior intellectual property
rights in respect of the Hoodia. The council also
undertakes in the memorandum to negotiate a benefit-sharing agreement to take effect if
the plant reaps success in the marketplace. The General Assembly agreed that future
benefits deriving from the Hoodia will be shared equally by the San in all countries in
which they live, namely South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The
San are aware of the complexities arising from the CSIRs association with
partners, and do not wish to threaten the viability of the planned commercial undertaking.
At a workshop on benefit-sharing held recently it was decided that the relationship
between the CSIR and the San should involve not only monetary sharing, but
also sharing knowledge. It was also agreed that the
Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) will provide information to
the San on the patenting of all South African plants internationally.
The representatives of WIMSA, the South African San Council and the CSIR present at the
above-mentioned workshop recommended the following:
- The Government of South Africa should direct more attention and resources to support
indigenous communities who are directly responsible for the creation, maintenance,
custodianship and development of their own indigenous knowledge.
- The need for vigorous formal consultation with San should be attended to. This would
help to alleviate the perception of the lack of consideration, and to protect indigenous
knowledge across regions. The San have for example not yet been consulted by the South
African Government with regard to the proposed
laws on biodiversity and benefit-sharing.
- DACST should extend co-operation and support for a regional initiative for
awareness-raising, initially by means of a regional conference. The San hope that their
recommendations will be taken seriously, and that they will be acted on in the near
Victoria Geingos, Joram |Useb and Axel Thoma
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