Bushmen Squeeze Money From a Humble Cactus

April 1, 2003

TWEE RIVIEREN, South Africa - The educated city people - a government minister, a chief executive and several directors of the nation's most important scientific organizations - traveled at sunrise to this barren region of the Kalahari Desert to see for themselves the cactus that has been trumpeted as a natural wonder.

But when they stood before it, a puny cluster of spiny stalks that looked like wrinkled cucumbers, the magnitude of the moment escaped them.

"That's it, huh?" asked Dr. Ben Ngubane, minister of arts, culture, science and technology. "How do you know this one is safe to eat?" A grin from Petrus Valbooi, a leader of the San people, or Bushmen, who scrape life from this barren landscape, reassured the skeptics. He cut off a stalk, shaved off its spines, and sliced into its milky center, bidding them to taste. That's where its power lies, he told them. Indeed.

From a desert weed known as hoodia, one of the world's oldest and least developed peoples hopes to enjoy its first taste of prosperity. The San have sucked on hoodia for generations, principally to raise their energy and fight hunger during long hunting trips. Now, Pfizer, the international pharmaceutical giant, has begun work on an appetite suppressant from the plant, and agreed to share the profits. The deal, which includes the government, is considered a landmark in the field of international property rights.

The company, with a British-based research partner, has spent millions working to develop the drug from the active chemical in the obscure runt of a cactus, hoping to make it as profitable as Viagra. Here among the San, the concept of wealth has begun to sink in. The first payment to the San, some $30,000, was made last month, and there are already plans to buy land and build clinics.

But at the formal signing of the agreement in March, most of the Bushmen seemed happy just knowing that the modern world had recognized that there remained wealth in ancient knowledge, and that at least one tradition in their dying culture might be saved. "I am very happy because it was not written that this day would happen," said Mr. Valbooi, who arrived at the ceremony wearing traditional shorts made from deerskin and a crown made from the tail of a wild cat. "Now I know that God has not abandoned the Bushmen."

It was a happy ending to a protracted legal conflict that began in 1996 when the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a government-financed laboratory, patented the active chemical of the hoodia, called P57, without acknowledging the San. The government then licensed rights to develop P57 to the British pharmaceutical research company Phytopharm, which sublicensed the rights to Pfizer. After years of legal wrangling, an agreement was reached between the San and the government. Under the agreement, some 100,000 Bushmen in four countries - South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola - will receive at least three more payments during the clinical testing of the drug.

Then the South African government will pay the San some 6 percent of the royalties it receives once the drug goes on the market. Roger Chennells, a lawyer who represented the San in their legal fight, acknowledged that the community was getting the smallest slice of what could be a multibillion-dollar pie. "If this is a cop-out," he said, "then it is a cop-out I can live with because it is going to bring these people benefits no government has ever given them."

The San trace their history back some 150,000 years, to the world's first humans. The hunter-gatherers are still considered expert trackers, with abilities to read animal movements from the sand. But they became the prey under South Africa's colonial rulers, who shot them for sport. Under apartheid, the San were enslaved and robbed of their ancestral land. The South African military used them to find black opposition leaders living on the run. To the marvel of anthropologists, the San have been able to cling to their traditions. After the end of white rule, South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, returned them to their lands, as arid as the face of the moon. Today, however, fewer than a dozen people speak their language, and even fewer know how to hunt. Children learn traditional dances, but prefer polyester T-shirts and tennis shoes over animal skins. Most young people abandon the desert for schools and jobs in cities.
Jan Vander Westhuitzen, 47, a Bushman tracker, said hoodia is struggling, too. "Hoodia used to cover the desert, " he said, cutting a leaf from a shriveled specimen and stuffing it in a deerskin medicine pouch. "Now the land is too dry." He said the plant had been a center of life for the Bushmen for as long as he could remember. A sip of its bitter liquid gave them enough energy to walk all day or make love through the night. It cured a morning hangover, or, brewed like tea, soothed an aching stomach. He seemed to delight at the idea that its secret was out.

"I do not think we are being robbed of our knowledge," he said. "I think that people who know how to live from the earth should share.