Their knowledge of the local flora and fauna, weather patterns and use of roots, barks and animal organs is unsurpassed. They became the subject of countless documentaries, picture books, postcards and research. But, while the researchers and photographers earned fortunes from the San, they themselves got nothing. They were reduced to isolated, landless communities on the fringes of the modern states.
In 1996, the existence of the San tribes was recognised when they successfully claimed the return of some of their ancestral lands in the Kalahari. They formed the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) to protect their interests. In 1997, WIMSA announced it would no longer allow free access to the media or researchers and began to draw up payment contracts.
Over the past four years, the organisation has taken legal action against the unauthorised use of their name and photographs of them in books, postcards, tourist promotions and so on. Last year, reports Peterí Hawthorne of Time, for the first time, they negotiated royalty agreements with the producers of an award-winning documentary. Revenue is ploughed into education and community development.
A South African lawyer, Roger Chennells, fought two major claims on behalf of the San. The first involved rock art sites which date back 27,000 years. He wants the San to be involved in the management of the sites and to benefit from them,
The second involved their traditional knowledge. To keep hunger and thirst at bay, the San chew on pieces of the Hoodia cactus which acts like an appetite suppressant. South Africaís CSIR isolated the active ingredients in the cactus and in 1997 patented it, as P57. The CSIR negotiated the commercial rights to P57 with Britainís Phytopharm, which in turn sold them to the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for a reported $32m. Pfizer hoped to have P57 out as a super slimming pill within three years. However, Pfizer withdrew their participation after determining that this was not possible.
There is still a chance that a viable hoodia gordonii product can be sold in the future, even though it is likely several years away. The San people will benefit from this, as agreements have been made to share profits with them. In March, 2003, Southern Africaís indigenous San people signed a landmark deal, securing financial rights to a diet drug developed from hoodia gordonii.
Under the deal, the San people would
receive 8 percent of payments the Council
for Scientific and Industrial Research
receives while the drug undergoes trials.
Once the drug is commercially available, the San would be paid 6 percent of all royalties awarded to the South African lab, which holds the patent for the medication derived from the Sanís traditional knowledge of the hoodia plant.
The San are among the poorest people in the region and the deal could bring in millions of dollars. The money would be divided among its people living in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola and would be used communally, mostly for buying land and investing in education and development projects.
If you purchase illegally harvested hoodia products, you are stealing from the San people. Hoodia gordonii is not yet available as an appetite supressant in legal form.