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04 Jan 2003 08:53
Hunting with bows and poisoned arrows over the bleached sands of the Kalahari, it was sometimes days before the San bushmen had food or water. So precarious was survival that some believed their god was a “trickster” who played jokes with the land and their fate.
The San learned that in this arid wilderness of southern Africa they could trust one thing.
Sprouting 6ft high amid the prehistoric vegetation, green, prickly and sour, it was a plant they called Xhoba.
Hunters would cut a slice, munch it, and within minutes hunger and thirst would evaporate, leaving a feeling of strength and alertness.
The trickster god has played another joke, except this time it is to the benefit of the San. Xhoba, a member of the Asclepiadaceae family of plants, is known in English as hoodia, but is more likely to become better known as P57.
Dotting the Kalahari desert of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola, it is being hailed as a wonder plant whose qualities as an appetite-suppressant could revolutionise treatment of obesity for 100-million westerners.
Patented by a South African research institute and licensed to a British Buddhist entrepreneur, the plant is now being developed by the US drugs giant Pfizer, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, with the objective of turning it into a pill which will zap food cravings.
For the San it could be the second time they have been saved by Xhoba. Their hunter-gatherer culture, stretching back 20 000 years, has been promised a share of the royalties from the drug.
After years of talks a deal between tribal leaders and the Pretoria-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which owns the patent, has just been clinched, raising hopes that the San will receive millions of dollars each year.
The solicitor representing South Africa’s aboriginal people, Roger Chennels, said yesterday that both sides had reached an accord. “In the last two weeks we have finalised the percentages. The deal has been struck. It means job opportunities, salaries, scholarships and the right to grow the plant.”
A council of elders who sit on the working group of indigenous minorities in southern Africa decided at a meeting in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to share the money equally between all the San scattered across southern Africa, said Chennels.
“They felt very strongly that traditional knowledge was a heritage which had to be shared. The San in each country will set up an audited trust. The focus will be on education and training of leaders, though in some cases the funds will be used to buy land where the San are tenants.”
Chennels would not say what proportion of the royalties will go to the impoverished bushmen but left no doubt it will add up to a meaningful sum for the estimated 100 000 people scattered across the Kalahari, whose culture was recently feared to be on the verge of extinction.
Under the accord it is expected that San youths will be given scholarships to study abroad and those left at home will be employed tending plantations and teaching scientists what they know about hoodia.
“The scale of the thing is mind-boggling,” said Nigel Crawhall, of the Cape Town-based South African San Institute. “The San are riding a huge wave in the pharmaceutical industry which is catering for the body adjustment market. Profits from the drug should be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
The hunters who snacked on hoodia to ward off starvation would be amazed to know it might end up in a capsule for Americans and Europeans wanting to trim waistlines, he said.
“It is an affirmation of the value of traditional knowledge. The challenge for the San community leaders will be to harness these resources to bring real economic change to their people,” said Crawhall.
A big challenge. In some ways today’s San resemble certain communities of the aborigines of Australia and north America: depressed, unemployed, poor, prone to alcoholism. Optimists hope the San will use the windfall well.
“You could say it is grim here. There are no jobs and alcohol abuse is a problem. Children are told to study hard at school but there are very few opportunities after they graduate,” said Betta Steyn, speaking from a dust-blown craft shop in the Kalahari.
The San in Botswana and Namibia are often regarded as a nuisance by the authorities and herded into towns. Those in South Africa were persecuted by the apartheid regime and to redress that grievance Nelson Mandela’s government granted them ownership of more than 40 000 hectares.
Yet they remain impoverished. Many of the Bushmen live in houses made of grass hundreds of miles from the nearest town, including one called Hotazel, otherwise known as Hot as Hell. The lucky ones have some goats. “If this deal works out, the impact will be immense, it could transform our fortunes,” said Steyn.
Some elders attribute aphrodisiac qualities to the plant, though Pfizer, which makes Viagra, has not marketed that angle. One elder told the Mail and Guardian in Johannesburg: “When the grandfathers eat the Xhoba, the grandmothers can’t let them out of their sight.”
After identifying the relevant bioactive compound the CSIR obtained a patent in 1997, which it licensed to a Cambridgeshire-based botanical pharmaceuticals company, Phytopharm, which was founded by Richard Dixey after he returned from the Himalayas with a passion for Buddhism and traditional healing.
“We called it P57 because it was the 57th product that we spent money on. It is the only true appetite suppressant and will help those who eat a lot of ice cream at 3am and still don’t feel full.”
Clinical trials in the UK suggested it could reduce appetite by 2 000 calories a day, making it a potential runaway success in a multi-billion pound industry. Dr Dixey hopes it will be available on prescription by 2007 after further clinical trials overseen by Pfizer, which paid Phytopharm $32-million for right to develop the drug.
Using nature’s own remedies
Samoa has signed a landmark agreement with a US research group that will guarantee 20% of revenues received from the development of an anti-HIV/Aids compound called Prostratin, which is extracted from the bark of a Samoan tree called mamala. For centuries traditional healers in Samoa have ground up the stem of the plant and steeped it in hot water as a treatment for the yellow fever virus.
The treatment Exorex was launched in the UK in 1998 after its developer discovered Zulu trackers rubbing banana skin on their bodies to soothe itchy skin.
Kava has become a popular herbal remedy for alleviating stress and an acceptable alternative to valium. The plant is found throughout the Pacific and has been used for 3 000 years for its medicinal properties. Kava (Piper methysticum) plays a key role in Fijian, Samoan, and Tongan societies where it is drunk in ceremonies to honour visitors and unite participants.
Sceletium is a creeping, daisy-like plant that grows in arid conditions which has been taken by African bushmen for thousands of years. Doctors in South Africa say they have had remarkable results treating patients for tobacco and alcohol addiction using Sceletium tablets. The plant, which grows only in the Cape region of South Africa, has been used by the San people since prehistoric times to treat depression and alcohol and drug dependence.
The drugs Velban and Oncovin are regularly used in treatment of Hodgkin’s disease. They were developed in the 1960s from Madagascar’s rosy periwinkle plant, which was used in folk medicine for treating dysentery, menstrual disorders, toothache, and diabetes. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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