Hoodia - Does Indigenous Knowledge Pay

Taby Moyo

Windhoek, Namibia - Jun 2007

  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab

The San people in southern Africa, also referred to as Bushmen are unhappy that international pharmaceutical companies are reaping huge economic benefits from the hoodia plant, an appetite-suppressing cactus plant that grows in the desert, while no economic benefit is coming to them.

Hoodia gordonii is an indigenous plant found in arid parts of southern Africa where the San people live, mostly in the Kalahari and Namib deserts.

The cactus-like plant has been used traditionally by the San people as an appetite suppressant, thirst quencher and as a cure for severe abdominal cramps, haemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion, hypertension and diabetes.

Various uses have been recorded among Anikhwe (Northern Botswana), Hai om (northern Namibia), Khomani (north western South Africa) and the !Xun and Khwe (originally from Angola ) communities.  But now experts fear that with the rising international demand in hoodia the plant may become extinct within two years.

In a letter to the South African, German and Swiss governments, the Working Group on Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) urged them to take steps against the continued trade in hoodia plants and products without a share of the profits going to the San Bushmen.  “Commercially traded hoodia products today contain illegally acquired resources and traditional knowledge according to the Convention for Biological Diversity.  But so far no user country has made any move to stop the sale of such products,” the letter said. 

Roger Chennells, the lawyer for WIMSA, said hoodia products came onto the market about 11-and-a-half years ago and about 150 products were on sale in Europe and the US, as well as a smaller number in South Africa.

WIMSA, with the support of Biowatch, the Berne Declaration in Switzerland and the Church Development Service in Germany, suggested in the letter that a structure to prevent the biopiracy of hoodia and other genetic resources should be established.  Rachel Wynberg, of the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Evaluation Unit says hoodia in the wild was being devastated. “We really need to act on illegal exports,” she said.

Namibia’s Environment and Tourism Minister Willem Konjore says “we need to find a way to address the root causes of hoodia’s decline before the situation becomes dire.”  The minister says the skyrocketing international demand for hoodia posed negative consequences for the survival of the species in its natural habitat. The growing demand, he says, had resulted in several incidents of illegal harvesting and exports of hoodia, mostly to European markets.

Hoodia has been classified as a protected species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to prevent its exploitation through wild harvesting and over-utilisation.  Currently, no export of hoodia material is authorised in Namibia but illegal trade is rife, with seeds and plant shoots being smuggled out of the country for cultivation and production purposes.

In 2006 alone, at least 500 tons of hoodia were cut from the wild and exported.  Now, there are growing calls for a ban on hoodia exports until the authorities are able to control what appears to be extensive illegal harvesting.

In 1997 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa patented hoodia’s active appetite suppressant ingredient, P57, and in 1998 signed a licence agreement with the British company Phytopharm to develop and commercialise it.  This was done without the San’s involvement, although it was the San’s knowledge that led to the CSIR’s research.  The San were also excluded from the lucrative commercialisation deals.

The San took up the issue and the CSIR later agreed to give 6 percent of the royalties that it received from Phytopharm to the South African San Council.