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PETRUS VAALBOOI: SAN “BUSHMAN” ELDER AND FORMER CHAIRPERSON OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN SAN COUNCIL




The Hoodia plant (Hoodia gordonii) is a type of desert cactus, which was traditionally used by the indigenous Khomani San people of southern Africa (the so called “Bushmen” of the Kalahari in southwest Africa) as an appetite suppressant and thirst quencher, especially during prolonged hunting expeditions in their harsh desert environment.


The San are one of the oldest communities in the world (ancestors of the San have resided in the Kalahari for 20,000-40,000 years according to scientists such as Peter J. Mitchell). In fact, the Ju/’hoansi San in northwestern Botswana and northeastern Namibia exhibit some of the highest genetic diversity of any population on the planet!


Today they have a population of around 130,000 individuals living in eight countries in southern Africa including South Africa, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (Eswatini).


Many of these San groups inhabit the Kalahari Desert, described as a huge sand sea sunk into a large basin. The entire region spans an estimated 360,000 square miles (930,000km square) and extends across Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and encroaching into part of southern Angola, southwestern Zambia and western Zimbabwe. The Kalahari is covered almost completely with trees, woodlands and savanna grasslands.


Several San groups live on both sides of the international border (a common occurrence across the African continent due to the criminal legacy of European colonialism); examples include the Ju/’hoansi of Botswana and Namibia; the !Xun of Namibia and Angola; the Khwe in Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe; and the Tshwa in Zimbabwe and Botswana.


In apartheid South Africa most of the Khomani San in the Northern Cape region were classified as colored, did not own land, and worked as farm laborers or domestic help for whites. But after the collapse of apartheid in 1994, the new South African government moved to return ancestral lands to the San.


In spite of their unique humanity and illustrious heritage as well as having organized themselves into various San organizations with the help of their national governments and NGOs, they (like many indigenous peoples worldwide) face a toxic mix of survival challenges-many linked to the advent of globalization. Some San groups have experienced involuntary re-settlement from their ancestral areas because of the establishment of protected wildlife conservation areas, agricultural projects, road construction. Other San communities have been persecuted due to the criminalization of subsistence hunting and gathering of botanical species for traditional medicine and food.


The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa’s central and premier scientific research and development organization based in the city of Pretoria, conducted research on the Hoodia, they isolated the plant’s active ingredient, P-57 and finally registered the patent in 1995 without any attempt at obtaining prior informed consent from the sources of the research lead that led to their ‘discovery’.


In 1997, the CSIR licensed P57 to a small British biotech company, Phytopharm, which conducted double blind clinical trials of the chemical, confirming its appetite suppressing qualities. In a phase I trial, obese people were given P57 or placebo, and the group receiving the active compound spontaneously reduced their daily food intake by 1000 calories. Phytopharm then sub-licensed the product to Pfizer for $21 million.


Roger Chennells, a lawyer representing the San, found out about the license to Phytopharm of the CSIR P57 patents. Later, the San, through the South African San Council (SASC) and Chennells, entered into a series of negotiations with CSIR.


In 2002, the San Council and the CSIR entered into a memorandum of understanding recognizing the San contribution in the form of traditional knowledge. The benefits were reportedly to be shared not only with the South African San, but also with San communities in Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.


The agreement admitted that the traditional knowledge of the San lead to the patent P57, and compensates the San by paying to the San Hoodia Trust 8% of all milestone payments, and 6% of all royalty payments, received by the CSIR from their licensing of the patent.


In 2003, however, Pfizer, the first pharmaceutical company to develop an effective anti-Covid-19 vaccination, discontinued its development program for P57 and returned the sublicense rights to Phytopharm (Unilever, the British multinational consumer goods company, later partnered with Phytopharm but according to media reports cut its ties with the biotech company and cancelled a 20 million Euro project to develop the Hoodia due to poor research results).


But some observers say that CSIR and Pfizer both dropped out of doing further work with the Hoodia because they could not propagate the plant since only the wild species had thirst and hunger allaying properties. The two bodies were reportedly only interested in getting big profits from going into the market for diet drugs.


Others, like David Stephenson, a Native American lawyer from Colorado who has worked on some of the cases in southern Africa, say that Pfizer stopped pursuing the diet pill because it had developed a comparable, less problematic, and probably less expensive alternative product in the lab.


American anthropologist Robert Hitchcock, who has lived and worked with the San, has his own ideas about why the big pharma decided not to pursue the development of a weight-loss pill that, in theory, had the potential to “cure” global obesity.


“Pfizer was using the Hoodia laboratory analysis to invent around the South African patent and thereby avoid any need for future licensing milestone or royalty payments to third parties,” says Dr. Hitchcock.


It’s questionable whether or not the San have benefited financially from the Hoodia royalties agreement, because the Hoodia growers Association, nearly all white, is said to have captured the benefits.


“…whether the San have received any kind of reasonable compensation or not from the initial Hoodia licensing agreement is fraught with controversy,” says David Stephenson, “and probably the general consensus amongst the numerous commentators is that they have never received any significant compensation and were taken for ride--a story that is all too common when indigenous peoples engage in contractual relationships with outsider entities in either the political or business realms.


“My personal take,” Stephenson added, “has always been that even though the South African San Council only got token monetary compensation [he estimates in the neighborhood of $90,000] and, even though that token amount was probably siphoned off to local vested interests and not invested back into the community in accordance with the obligations of the Trust that had been established, the original licensing agreement with the various entities involved, with the San as the ultimate "potential" beneficiaries in the form of milestone and royalty payments, was a landmark "demonstration project" showing how indigenous peoples could ultimately benefit from the enforcement of their intellectual property rights--or cultural heritage rights--through the application of Western intellectual property law principles.”


WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO BECOME AN ACTIVIST FOR YOUR COMMUNITY?

After [Nelson] Mandela was released [from prison], everyone was talking about a new constitution and human rights. I started thinking about how much my people have suffered and began to get actively involved in the Khomani land claim.

HOW DID YOU BECOME CHAIRPERSON OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN SAN COUNCIL?

We have very democratic structures now, since the San became organized under WIMSA [Working Group of Indigenous Minorities of Southern Africa] in 1996, I had been leader of the Khomani for many years, and when the South African San Council was formed in 2002, the leader of the three major San groups in South Africa came together. They elected me chairperson. The San trust me as a leader.

WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES?

Apart from normal community issues, where I am still concerned about my own Khomani people, at the San Council we focused on issues that affect the San broadly. The main focus so far has been protecting our heritage, which has been given away and lost over so many years. Fighting the Hoodia case was part of protecting our heritage. Traditional knowledge, our rights to rock art, and other intellectual property issues.

HOW DID YOU FEEL KNOWING THAT THE! KHOBA (HOODIA) MIGHT GIVE THE WORLD A POTENTIAL CURE FOR OBESITY.


We felt good. It is difficult for us in the Kalahari to understand how people can have so much food to eat that they become fat. We are so poor, I do not know one fat San! But if our knowledge can help the world, we are happy.



DOES IT SURPRISE YOU THAT MANY PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD ARE OBESE TO THE POINT OF NOT BEING ABLE TO TIE THEIR OWN SHOELACES?

(laughing!) Of course. We cannot imagine people who have the luxury of growing so fat. I feel very sad for these people.


IS THERE A WORD FOR OBESITY IN THE KHOMANI LANGUAGE?


No. The entire idea of being so fat is impossible to imagine in our world.

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU HEARD THAT ONE PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANY CLAIMED THAT THE SAN COMMUNITY, WHO HELD THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE HOODIA, HAD BECOME EXTINCT?

We just laughed. There is so much rubbish and ignorance in the world about the San. Then we also became annoyed, as we realized that they had stolen our knowledge.

WHAT WAS THE MOST CONTENTIOUS ISSUE OR ISSUES OF THE NEGOTIATIONS, AND HOW WAS IT RESOLVED?

The question of “how much is enough” to pay for our knowledge. We knew that CSIR would not have known about the! Khoba, and its properties if we had not told them. But we also knew that we did not have the knowledge to get a patent. We could not see the future, so we did not know how much money would come, and if others would say that we did not negotiate well. Eventually, we settled on 6% of the royalty.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE OTHER TRADITIONAL USES OF THE HOODIA BESIDES AS AN APPETITE SUPPRESSANT AND THIRST QUENCHER?

We have been told not to tell this information to the world. However, I can tell you that we in the Kalahari know that the Hoodia is one of the most powerful medicines to be used when there is trouble between a man and his woman. I can say no more!

HAVE YOU USED HOODIA YOURSELF? WHAT IS IT LIKE?

Of course! I use it often. Every time I go to the veld to hunt or gather some food, or to check on my sheep, if I pass a Hoodia plant I will cut off a piece and eat it as I walk along. The taste to me is good. Other people say it is too bitter. In the rainy seasons, it is less bitter and [sweeter].

TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE OTHER INTERESTING PLANTS THE SAN STILL USES, SUCH AS THOSE FOR MEDICINES.

Where could I start? Nearly every single plant in the Kalahari is used for something, and we get taught this by our parents and grandparents. It would fill a book to tell you, and we have been advised not to talk freely anymore about our knowledge. The plants are like our pharmacy. Whatever your problem, you can get the solution. Cold, lung problems, menstruation, fever, men’s problems, etc.

HAVE WESTERN PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES SHOWN INTEREST IN ANY OTHER TRADITIONAL PLANTS USED BY THE SAN?

Yes, many have. We have started a project with the CSIR to record all of our medicinal knowledge onto a private database. We will be joint owners of any discoveries made from our knowledge. We are still awaiting funds to go ahead with this project.

WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE GROWING UP AS A SAN IN THE KALAHARI?


It was tough. During my childhood, the San of my generation had lost their land, and had to live on farms owned by other people or go to the villages. We were not proud to be San. We still hunted and gathered where we could, but we had to be careful, as it was no longer our land. [But life has changed for the better with the land claim in 1999 the Khomani San have their own land again.



ARE THE KHOMANI SAN VERY DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SAN?


I am not an anthropologist. There are many San groups and languages. I understand that there are seven major language groups, and the Khomani belong to one of them. So our language is very different from other San languages such as the! Xun, the Ju/hoansi, the /Gwi etc. And we are short and thin and brown. Some other San groups are bigger, or darker etc…


ARE THEY STILL HUNTING AND GATHERING?


Of course. Nowadays some hunt and gather more for sport than for survival, but we are proud that we know the Kalahari veld like our own back garden. We want to pass on this pride to our children.


I KNOW YOU LOVE THE VELD. WHAT IS IT THAT ATTRACTS YOU THERE?


How can you explain a deep love? It is like a love for a woman. Words cannot explain it. I have to go back again and again to the veld, and each time it makes me feel that I belong there.

DID YOUR LATE MOTHER, WHO WAS THE LAST FLUENT SPEAKER OF KHOMANI, ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST LANGUAGES, PASS ON THAT LINGUISTIC HERITAGE TO YOU?

No. it is my shame that I did not show any interest. When I was small, my mother was ashamed to speak the San language, which was called a bush language. We were encouraged to speak the language of the farmers, Afrikaans. So I hardly can speak any of the Khomani language.


WHY DO YOU THINK THE SAN WERE ABLE TO ACHIEVE THIS HISTORIC BREAKTHROUGH WHILE OTHER INDIGENOUS GROUPS TRYING TO PRESERVE THEIR MORAL AND LEGAL INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY FAILED?

I cannot say that we are especially clever, or lucky. There was some luck. But the most important thing was that we have worked since 1996 under WIMSA to secure San unity on the major things that bind us (Heritage). When the case came before us, we had our organizations, we had legal representatives that we trusted, and were ready to take strong action.


WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES FACED WITH SIMILAR PROBLEMS OF BIOPIRACY?

Educate yourselves about your heritage. Take some active steps to ensure that your heritage now falls under the protection of yourselves, as no government laws can protect your heritage. We have developed a media and research contract, which is a central part of our protection of all aspects of our heritage. We can give a copy to anybody who is interested, and are willing to share what we have learned with our brothers.


DID THE HOODIA AGREEMENT HELP TO BRING TOGETHER THE SAN COMMUNITIES SCATTERED THROUGHOUT SOUTHERN AFRICA?


It is like having one enemy. We are all equal protectors of the San heritage. We are all equal shareholders of the San heritage, and the way in which our leaders have approached the Hoodia case has helped create a new level of unity amongst San peoples that live far from each other. The case reminds us that we have to remember our common heritage.


WHAT OTHER EXPLOITATIONS HAVE THE SAN EXPERIENCED?


Well, we were exploited since we can remember. Some peoples took our land, others took our knowledge, and others took our stories and wrote books about us. We have now stopped that happening, as our leaders have been educated how to stop the exploitation.


WHAT ARE YOU THE KHOMANI AND OTHERS DOING TO PROTECT YOURSELVES FROM THE EXPLOITATION?


We get approached all the time by people who want to talk to us, research us, film us, ask us questions about plants, etc. We have a media and research contract that has to be filled in before we will take part in anything, and this contract protections our heritage and knowledge.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES AHEAD FOR THE SAN PEOPLE?


How to maintain our pride and our culture, whilst at the same time becoming part of the Western world. Balancing those things will not be easy. Our youth is easily seduced by the Western way of life.


I thank Roger Chennells for making the above interview possible.







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