Subject: SOUTH AFRICA: Feature - Marginalised San win royalties
from diet drug
U N I T E D N A T I O N S
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SOUTH AFRICA: Feature - Marginalised San win royalties from diet
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United
JOHANNESBURG, 26 March (IRIN) - It was a simple ceremony in a
remote corner of the Kalahari desert, but a landmark event for
the rights of indigenous people worldwide.
Some singing and dancing by children, four brief speeches, and
an intense sense of pride as San elders watched their leaders
sign an agreement between the South African San Council and the
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South
In an historic moment, they agreed to share the profits from
developing an anti-obesity drug from a cactus the San have used
for centuries to stave off hunger and thirst.
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 three to four years. The San could
earn six percent of all royalties if and when the drug is marketed,
possibly in 2008.
Already R259,066 (US $32,000) has been paid. Milestone payments
for the San could reach between R8 to R12 million (US $1 million
to US $ 1.4 million) while royalties could top R60 million (US
$7.4 million) annually during the 15 to 20 years before a patent
It took three years of "tough negotiations", in the words of
San Council chairman Petrus Vaalbooi, to reach a deal.
"Today we celebrate that the government and the country's highest
scientific authority have taken on the bushmen as equal partners,"
said a beaming Vaalbooi, a small wiry man wearing a chief's traditional
loincloth and an animal fur draped over his bare chest.
The San, whose 40,000-year history makes them the oldest people
in southern Africa, chewed on the bitter Hoodia cactus to suppress
hunger and thirst during their hunting trips in the dusty Kalahari.
The CSIR has been researching indigenous plants since the 1960s
and in 1996, when its scientists isolated P57, the appetite-suppressant
molecule in the Hoodia, the CSIR patented it.
The San were ignored as the concept of indigenous knowledge and
associated rights was fairly new generally, and even newer to
the CSIR, an apartheid-era institution still unreconstructed
at the time.
In 1997, the CSIR licensed the UK-based Phytopharm, which in
turn licensed drug giant Pfizer the following year for P57 development
and global marketing, while the CSIR kept the patent.
Given rising obesity trends in the Western world, the market
for this natural anti-hunger drug could reach billions of dollars.
In July 2001, describing research progress on P57, a Pfizer spokesperson
in the UK linked the Hoodia to the San but said they were extinct.
An international outcry followed and the South African San Council,
set up in November 2001 and representing the Khomani, the !Xun
and the Khwe, threatened a lawsuit. Negotiations with the CSIR
followed and the San demanded recognition of their knowledge
and a share of benefits.
"We played quite a hard ball, we pleaded and demanded and cajoled
and we got a good deal," said the San's legal counsel, Roger
Chennels, recalling how both sides bargained.
A human rights lawyer, Chennels had processed land claims and
other rights issues for the San for a decade.
"The San are the first and the last people: first on the land
but their social statistics are at the bottom of the ladder,"
said Chennels. Poverty, disease, alcoholism and lack of education
and jobs are rampant - conditions that are not uncommon among
many indigenous peoples.
The resonance of the case for South Africa, with its history
of dispossession of African people and devaluation of their culture,
"We apologise to the San for having ignored them," said Dr Marthinus
Horak, manager of CSIR's bioprospecting programme, speaking at
a workshop on biopiracy held during the World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg last year.
The apology turned into the agreement signed last Monday in Andriesvale,
near the Transfrontier Kgalagadi Park. The San are blazing a
trail in the new field of protection and ownership of indigenous
knowledge, even before South Africa has put in place the relevant
policies and laws.
One problem is that traditional knowledge, being community-owned
and handed down through generations, clashes with international
property rights, which view knowledge as owned by an individual
or a company.
To complicate matters further, indigenous knowledge is often
held by communities across national borders. In this case, the
San Councils of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Angola will share
the monies in percentages to be decided at their next general
Income will go into a San Hoodia Benefit trust set up by the
CSIR and the San. The Trust includes representatives of the CSIR,
the regional San Councils, the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities
in Southern Africa (WIMSA), and an observer from the South African
Department of Science and Technology.
The San plan to spend the money on education, skills development
and create jobs for their people, who are among the most marginalised
and poorest in the region.
"We need jobs first and, second, education in our language,"
said Tina Witbooi, 23, a local trainee tracker.
Since colonial settlers imposed Afrikaans and English, the San
language was driven to near extinction, so the San Institute
records the language and, most importantly, gets the elders to
teach it to children.
Some of the last speakers were at the ceremony, their faces sculpted
by weather, sun and age in the reddish-copper colours of the
Ragel van Rooi walked aided by a stick painted with traditional
San symbols. She wore a colourful flowered skirt. A pale blue
scarf framed her wise eyes. Van Rooi did not know her age but
neighbours estimated she must be about 70.
"I am happy that others can benefit from our plants," she said,
when asked about the meaning of the day to her.
"Yes, but it would be wrong if fat white people overseas get
slim thanks to us while our children go hungry and uneducated,"
replied Magdalena Kassie, 30, a community development facilitator
with the South Africa San Institute in Upington, 225 km away.
"We lost our land and language, we were killed, driven out and
demeaned," said Kxao Moses, WIMSA chair and a San from Namibia.
"This agreement is a positive example, for once people are not
exploiting us, as was the norm."
"It was the right thing to do," said Minister of Arts, Culture,
Science and Technology, Ben Ngubane.
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