San Cry Foul over Hoodia Trade

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK San communities in southern Africa have urged governments of Switzerland, Germany and South Africa to act against the illegal sale of Hoodia products. While the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) stipulates that indigenous groups be given a share of the profits from the commercial use of local genetic resources and traditional knowledge, the San are yet to benefit from the many Hoodia products that are being sold in Germany and Switzerland. The San people, found in Namibia, South Africa, Angola and Botswana have known and used Hoodia, a succulent plant, for over 100 years as an appetite suppressant. The plant was however patented a few years ago by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and licensed for further development to a British company, which in turn sold additional licenses to drug company Pfizer, and later to Unilever. The San of Southern Africa, represented by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) and other organisations, namely Boiwatch, Berne Declaration and the Church Development Service have written to the governments of South Africa, Germany and Switzerland to stem the trade in Hoodia, which they say is an illegally acquired resource. In a letter to ministers of the three countries, the organisations said the intended solution would be to only suppress the illegal sale of Hoodia products but also establish a structure that prevents the biopiracy of many other generic resources as well. In the letter, Wimsa’s Roger Channels urged the countries to take “long overdue steps against the continued trade of Hoodia plants and products without the return of benefits to the San – the holders of the traditional knowledge about the plant”. He said a recent inquiry found that more than 10 Hoodia products are on sale in stores and pharmacies in Germany and Switzerland. The products are marketed in Germany, Switzerland, France and the UK as Hoodia, Hoodia Kapsel, Hoodia Plus and Hoodia L10. On the Internet, the product is marketed as a super pill that naturally suppresses one’s appetite. “Almost all sellers/distributors market their product with reference to the traditional knowledge of the San. In other countries too, notably the UK and US, there is brisk trade in Hoodia products,” he said, adding that while this is the case, the San have yet to receive a single penny from the trade. CSIR and the San Council three years ago signed a benefit sharing formula while a second such agreement was signed between the San and the Hoodia Growers Pty Ltd in early February this year. Channels said through the CSIR agreement, only the license holders, Phytopharm UK and Unilever have legitimate access to the knowledge and generic resource but for the moment, the license holders are not selling any Hoodia products. And while the Hoodia growers market the product saying the owners of the traditional knowledge benefit from the growing of Hoodia, WIMSA says this is not the case. “Therefore all Hoodia products currently on the market are not part of the above-mentioned two San benefit sharing agreements. The San have not negotiated Benefit Sharing Agreement with anyone except the CSIR and the South African Hoodia Growers. It seems safe to conclude that all commercially traded Hoodia products contain illegally acquired resources and traditional knowledge according to CBD,” reads the letter in part. So far, said the letter, no user country has made any move to stop the sale of these products. The letter also notes that the two countries that were involved in drafting the Bonn Guideline were not implementing the guidelines which state that contracting parties should take appropriate legal, administrative, or policy measures, which should include preventing the use of genetic resources obtained without prior informed consent and also to address infringements of access and benefit sharing agreements. The organisation urged the countries to “take seriously their obligations as user countries to initiate appropriate legal, administrative or policy measures to stop the sale of Hoodia products in their countries in violation on CBD rules”.