Stolen Knowledge: The Hoodia Case

The San people, indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa, are among the most researched people in the world. They are also among the poorest and most marginalised. Now the active ingredient of the Hoodia plant, traditionally used by the San, has been patented by a British company.

Stolen Knowledge

The San people are indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa. Rock paintings drawn by their ancestors date from 27,000 years ago. San language groups include !Kung, !Xoo, Ju|'hoansi, ‡Khomani, and Hai||om. After centuries of discrimination, present day San groups, numbering around 100,000 across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola, have formed the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) to protect their rights and interests.

The San – known for their survival skills, rock art, trance-dancing and mystic symbiosis with their semi-desert or savannah environment – are among the most researched people in the world. They are also among the poorest and most marginalised. In 1997 the WIMSA board of trustees (all San) announced it would no longer allow the media or researchers free access to the San and drew up contracts for payment in return for access to their lives and ancestral knowledge. They invest the money in education and community development.
“We were just objects for exploitation,” says Joram |Useb, a Namibian Hai||om San and WIMSA’s assistant coordinator. “We want recognition as people, with the same rights as anyone else in the world.” 1

The Hoodia succulent

Hoodia is a succulent plant that grows throughout the semi-arid areas of Southern Africa. The San have traditionally used Hoodia stems to stave off hunger and thirst when on long journeys, as it acts as an appetite suppressant. Now, the active ingredient in Hoodia has been patented by a British company who say it will become a best-selling slimming drug. Roger Chennells, a South African lawyer who acts as consultant to WIMSA, said, “They are very concerned. It feels like somebody has stolen their family silver and is making a huge profit out of it. 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.” 2

The Case

The active ingredient of the Hoodia succulent cactus was identified by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa (CSIR), and patented. They passed on their work to Phytopharm, a British Company, who patented it as P57. Phytopharm declared that they had found a potential cure for obesity, with none of the side effects of other treatments because it was derived from a natural product. Their share value rose immediately, and they were soon able to sell the rights to license the drug for 21 million US dollars to Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant. Richard Dixey, Phytopharm’s chief executive, claims that he set up Phytopharma precisely to help tribal people profit from their ancestral plant knowledge, but that he originally believed the people who discovered the useful effects of the succulent cactus had disappeared. This was what the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research had told him. Dr Marthinus Horak, the man in charge of the CSIR project, also claimed that there were only a few hundred bushmen left in South Africa, and that they 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 the clinical tests and been finally approved. We did not want to raise their expectations with promises that could not be met.”2 Pfizer hopes to have the Hoodia active ingredient ready to market in pill form within the next three years. They believe they have a drug that will corner a big part of the six billion dollar market in slimming aids. The Hoodia pills therefore have the potential to become the first major drug from a southern African plant.
In June of this year, San leaders had their annual gathering at a farm 45 miles north of Cape Town. There they planned their strategy to negotiate and defend their rights to a share of the patent. The San people are extremely poor and a share of this money could help their efforts to save and value their own culture and communities. Through their actions, both Pytopharma and CSIR have clearly failed to comply with the rules of the Biodiversity Convention, which requires the prior informed consent of all stakeholders, including the original discoverers and users. At the same time, the TRIPS Agreement allows the patenting of “inventions” based on stolen traditional knowledge and genetic resources. NGOs demand that the TRIPS agreement must be changed in order to comply with the Biodiversity Convention.

EU/FM 9.2001
1. ‘The Hunter-Litigators’ by Peter Hawthorne, Cape Town, in Time, August 6, 2001
2. ‘In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps men alive. Now it’s secret is ‘stolen’ to make us thin.’ By Antony Barnett, in The Observer, Sunday June 17 2001.