First people's fight for rights

August 29, 2003

South Africa has set up a project to protect indigenous knowledge from being plundered by big business. Karen MacGregor reports.

Earlier this year, the San, South Africa's first people, won the first round in a wrangle over rights to hoodia, a naturally occurring drug that suppresses the appetite, has the potential to earn billions of pounds and impacts on how indigenous knowledge (IK) and technologies are understood.

In 1997, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research licensed the UK's Phytopharm plc to develop the hoodia extract. In turn, Phytopharm contracted pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to develop it into a prescription obesity drug, P57, which is currently being trialled.

To the San, who believe that soldiers learnt about the plant from local trackers, this plant is their IK. But by the time they became aware of the trials, it was too late to claim patents. However, in March the San reached a landmark deal with the CSIR that allows them to benefit from the sale of potential drugs based on the plant.

South Africa has prioritised IK, committing R10 million a year (£850,000) to researching fields from medicines to indigenous food, sociocultural systems, arts, crafts and materials use.

Concerns about the plundering of IK by advanced-country companies, with little benefit to the creators of that knowledge, led South Africa to undertake an audit of knowledge in African communities in the late 1990s.

The idea is to protect traditional knowledge and technologies that may be profitably developed in the future so that the knowledge generators reap some benefit.

Between 1997 and 1999, historically black universities - including the North, Fort Hare, Transkei, Free State (QuaQua campus), Venda, North-West, Zululand and Vista, and the distance University of South Africa - were contracted to research IK.

One of the academics involved was Mogomme Masoga, an African studies specialist and herbalist who manages IK for the National Research Foundation.

He worked with 80 students familiar with the language and traditions of Sesotho to interview and collect examples of IK ranging from building patterns, culture and music to medicinal herbs and immune-system boosters being taken by people with HIV/Aids.

"Using a questionnaire as their base, the students went around interviewing IK 'owners' and translating, interpreting and storing the information," Masoga says.

They found many ideas and practices, but encountered some problems with language: students were prone to incorrect translation.

The IK collated was entered into a database that now resides with the CSIR.

And there the project stalled. The CSIR put the data on a template, but is wrangling over control issues with the Department of Science and Technology.

Masoga says: "The data haven't been made public, and we can't use them because of this and the intellectual property issue: we're waiting for an IK bill to pass through parliament. There are lots of issues, such as who owns the knowledge - individuals, the local community, the Sesotho, South Africa? We need to work out what rights people have and what forms of representation we need."

Masoga says that other obstacles to the formal use of IK are a myriad of controls - for instance, in the use of medicines.

So while several traditional medicines have been found to enhance the quality of life for people with HIV/Aids, their recognition, development and mass use have been delayed because the Medicines Controls Council insisted on western-based processes of trials and registration. "Western and traditional science need to react with each other, and we're trying to find ways of making this happen," Masoga adds.

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