Bushmen to share gains from ‘slimming cactus’

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[CAPE TOWN] A group of South African hunter-gatherers has reached a preliminary agreement with South Africa’s 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. This had been isolated by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which subsequently negotiated development rights to a UK-based pharmaceutical company.

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.

In a joint statement issued last week, the San people and the CSIR announced that they had reached a “memorandum of understanding” under which the CSIR formally acknowledge the San as the custodians of their traditional knowledge.

The San, in return, will acknowledge the CSIR’s need to protect its investment in isolating the hoodia’s appetite-suppressing ingredient by patenting it in the CSIR’s name.

Roger Chennels, the lawyer for the San Council, said that the preliminary agreement was a significant step towards a negotiated benefit-sharing agreement, which the two sides hope to have in place within the next six months.

The San only discovered that the government-funded CSIR had isolated the hoodia’s active ingredient following media reports that the council had licensed its development rights to the UK-based company Phytopharm, which had in turn sold the licensing rights to the pharmaceutical company Pfizer for US$21 million.

The San reacted angrily to the news, threatening the CSIR with legal action to ensure that they derived some benefit from the plant that looked set to solve the world’s obesity problems.

In the past few months, however, the mood between the two parties has shifted dramatically.

Petro Terblanche, the director of the CSIR branch that deals with bioprospecting, declines to reveal the specific benefits that the San are likely to attain. She says that it is proving difficult to map out a benefit-sharing agreement without knowing precisely what the return on the CSIR’s investment in P57 will be.

Rob Adam, director general in the South African Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology says that for the San and the CSIR to have reached a memorandum of understanding is a significant achievement.

He points out that South Africa currently has no legislation governing bioprospecting and indigenous knowledge, and figuring out how to share the benefits of the intellectual property surrounding P57 will be a significant challenge.

Tamar Kahn is Business Day’s Science and Education correspondent.

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