For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia gordonii plant 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 acted quickly.
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 and patented.
Phytopharm’s excuse appears to be that it believed the tribes which used the Hoodia plant 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 astonishment.
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 their prospects.’
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 programs.
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. Hoodia diet pills have 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 cheap access to drugs.