Squeeze Money From a Humble Cactus
By GINGER THOMPSON
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.
when they stood before it, a puny cluster of spiny stalks
that looked like wrinkled cucumbers, the magnitude of the
moment escaped them.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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