Native healers want drug company cooperation
Copyright © 2002 AP Online
WITDRAAI, South Africa (August 23, 2002 4:53 p.m. EDT) - 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 legal 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.
Light green and covered in thorns, the plant grows in clumps and is roughly the same size and shape as a cucumber. For as long as the San can remember, the bitter-tasting plant has kept them from feeling hungry on long journeys when they have little other food or water.
Normally the patent system protects individual achievements before they become public knowledge. But indigenous people say the system should protect them for knowledge they contributed to the public domain.
The issue "is part of a pattern of being exploited relating to their lands, their rights. It can't be looked upon in isolation. It is an indigenous peoples' human rights issue," said Gerard Bodeker of Oxford University's Medical School and chairman of the Global Initiative for Traditional Systems of Health.
The San case started when researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a South African laboratory 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 Pfizer.
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.
Richard Dixey, chief executive of Phytopharm, said there had been a misunderstanding about the clan's existence and praised the lab for coming to terms with the San.
"It's not an exploitation story," he said. "I don't think any party was trying to avoid a royalty-sharing agreement."
Roger Chennells, a lawyer representing the San, said if the drug hits the market, the clan's royalties could be substantial and would be distributed to the community, not individuals.
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 is working to create a national database of plants used traditionally for medicinal purposes in a bid to head off any legal disputes. The American Association of the Advancement of Science is also working to create an international database of traditional plant knowledge.
In South African, at the Collaborating Center for Drug Policy at the University of Cape Town, researchers are working with traditional healers to develop anti-malarial 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, they can't help but be amused by the prospect of Westerners using the hoodia plant to slim down.
"It wasn't used for that in my ancestors' days," Katerina Rooi, 69, said as she scrambled over sand dunes gathering hoodia stems.
Update on the Hoodia Agreement: Victory for the San
SOUTH AFRICA: Feature - Marginalised San win royalties from diet drug
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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 Africa.
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 expires.
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, is huge.
"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 meeting.
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 Kalahari.
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.