4-Patents: New biopiracy case from Southern Africa
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TITLE: In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps men alive.
Now its secret is 'stolen' to make us thin
SOURCE: The Observer, UK, by Antony Barnett
DATE: June 17, 2001
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In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps men alive. Now its secret is 'stolen' to
make us thin
Pharmaceutical firms stand accused of once again plundering native lore to
make fortunes from natural remedies, writes Antony Barnett
For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia cactus to
stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.
The Kung bushmen who live around the Kalahari desert in southern Africa
used to cut off a stem of the cactus about the size of a cucumber and munch
on it over a couple of days. According to tradition, they ate together so
they brought back what they caught and did not eat while hunting.
Now the Hoodia, which grows to 6ft - taller than the bushmen themselves -
is at the centre of a bio-piracy row. Campaigners say the cactus has
attracted the interest of the Western drug industry, which exploits
developing countries through the international patent system.
In April, when pharmaceutical giants were being accused of failing to
provide affordable Aids drugs in Africa, Phytopharm, a small firm in
Cambridgeshire, said it had discovered a potential cure for obesity derived
from an African cactus.
It emerged that the company had patented P57, the appetite-suppressing
ingredient in the Hoodia, hoping it would become a slimming miracle.
Phytopharm's scientists boasted it would have none of the side-effects of
many treatments because it was derived from a natural product. The
discovery was immediately hailed by the press as a 'dieter's dream' and
Phytopharm's share price rose as City traders expected rich returns from a
drug which would revolutionise the £6bn market in slimming aids. Phytopharm
It sold the rights to license the drug for $21m to Pfizer, the US
pharmaceutical giant, which hopes to have the treatment ready in pill form
within three years. Having made millions from Viagra, the impotence drug,
Pfizer now believes it has in its laboratories a drug that is going to beat
fat. But it appears that while the drug companies were busy seducing the
media, their shareholders and financiers about the wonders of their new
drug, they had forgotten to tell the bushmen, whose knowledge they had used
Phytopharm's excuse appears to be that it believed the tribes which used
the Hoodia cactus were extinct. Richard Dixey, the firm's self-proclaimed
Buddhist chief executive, told the Financial Times : 'We're doing what we
can to pay back, but it's a really fraught problem... especially as the
people who discovered the plant have disappeared.'
Yet this weekend leaders of the people Dixey believed had disappeared are
having their annual gathering at a farm 45 miles north of Cape Town. One of
the top items on the agenda is to plan their strategy against Phytopharm
and Pfizer. They are angry, saying their ancient knowledge has been stolen,
and are about to launch a challenge and demand compensation.
Roger Chennells is the lawyer for the tribal bushmen, who number 100,000
across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. He argued their case in
1999 when the bushmen won 100,000 acres of white-owned farmland on the edge
of the Kalahari.
Speaking to The Observer, Chennells said: 'They are very concerned. It
feels like somebody has stolen their family silver and cashed it in for a
huge profit. 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.
'I believe there is grounds for a legal challenge, but there is certainly a
strong moral case for the drug companies to pay proper compensation to
those whose knowledge they have taken and now claim to own.'
Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner for ActionAid, the international development
charity, said: 'This is a major case of bio-piracy. Corporations are
scouring the globe looking to rip off traditional knowledge from some of
poorest communities in the world. Consent or compensation is rarely given.
The patent system needs urgent reform to protect the knowledge nurtured
over generations by groups like the African bushmen.'
When presented with news of this weekend's tribal gathering and the
bushmen's anger about what has happened, Dixey reacted with genuine
He claims that one of the reasons he set up Phytopharm was precisely to
help tribal people profit from their ancient medicinal knowledge of plants.
He said: 'I honestly believed that these bushmen had died out and am sorry
to hear they feel hard done by. I am delighted that they are still around
and have a recognisable community. The ownership of medicinal plants is
extremely complex, but I have always believed that this type of knowledge
is the most valuable asset of indigenous tribes. Instead of weaving baskets
and taking tourists around, royalty payments from medicines could transform
Dixey, who insisted that he would now be happy to enter into talks with the
bushmen community, said that Phytopharm was approached with the deal by the
South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which had
been investigating the properties of the Hoodia cactus.
He claims it was the CSIR that told him the bushmen tribes who used the
cactus no longer existed and assured him that agreements were in place to
help local communities.
Dr Marthinus Horak, the man in charge of the CSIR project, defended the
deal. He claimed there were only a few hundred bushmen left in South Africa
itself, living in isolated areas, and 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 on the clinical tests and been finally approved. We did not want to
raise their expectations with promises that could not be met.' Horak said
the CSIR was committed to sharing financial benefits and had a track record
in dealing with local communities through a variety of benefit-sharing
Yet critics - such as the South African campaigning group BioWatch -
believe that these benefit-sharing agreements are nothing but a sham and
mainly result in money being invested back into CSIR itself - which is half-
funded by the South African government.
Rachel Wynberg from Biowatch said: 'All we hear is words, but we see
nothing on paper. They talk of benefit-sharing, but it seems more of a myth
than reality and most of the money seems to end up back in the CSIR.
'The details of agreements are all confidential and we have no access to
them. The Hoodia drug has the potential to be South Africa's first
blockbuster drug and this should have all been sorted out before the patent
was awarded and not after.'
Sandy Gall, the broadcaster and former ITN newsreader who next month is
publishing a book on the bushmen of southern Africa, described the
situation as 'disgraceful'. He said: 'These ancient people have been
exploited for years and it is disgraceful that it is still happening.
'They have been displaced and dispersed, but for someone to claim they
thought the bushmen no longer existed is either naive or deceitful.'
The harsh environments in which the Kung bushmen have lived for thousands
of years have led them to become expert botanists. They can readily
identify more than 300 different types of plant with different properties
and campaigners believe that the row over the Hoodia patent is just the
first of many such battles to come.
Tomorrow pressure groups will converge on a meeting of the World Trade
Organisation in Geneva to protest against the system of patents which they
claim helps drug corporations to exploit developing countries and prevents
them from getting access to cheap drugs.
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