Stealing SA secrets ...

Pelargonium, a plant used in cold and flu remedies, has become a new battleground in the campaign to protect South Africa’s indigenous flora and traditional knowledge from bio-pirates.

Mariam Mayet, founder of the African Centre for Biosafety, complained recently that two species of the plant were being patented in the United States and Europe as a cold remedy, ‘based on Zulu and Xhosa traditional knowledge”.

This follows the hoodia bio-piracy case, involving the appropriation of the traditional knowledge of South Africa’s San people.

New regulations under the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, which will govern access by foreign companies to indigenous biological resources by requiring them to comply with access and benefit sharing (ABS) regulations, kick in this year.

However, Mayet said these were ‘too little, too late”.
The extent of bio-piracy in South Africa was under­estimated and the government had been slow in moving to stop it.

Mayet said the German pharmaceutical company Iso Arzneimittel applied for three patents on Pelargonium sidoides and Pelargonium reniforme in the US and Europe in 2001. She believed the granting of these patents violates international law. Iso Arzneimittel has been marketing pelargonium under the name of Umckaloaba for more than 50 years and Schwabe, which bought a chunk of Iso Arzneimittel, markets a coldcare remedy called Umcka in the US. 

Pelargonium is endemic to Southern Africa, and is found especially in the Eastern Cape and Lesotho. The Zulu, Basotho, Xhosa and Mfengu peoples have used it for centuries to treat respiratory illnesses and the compound it contains, cumerin, is now a key ingredient in remedies marketed abroad.

Mayet said the widespread traditional use of the plants made it ‘difficult to negotiate benefit sharing”.

‘International law requires that the holders and users of the traditional knowledge of these pelargonium species derive benefits from the use of such knowledge. However, we were not able to find any evidence of the existence of any benefit sharing agreements—a clear requirement of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which South Africa is a party,” said Mayet.

Iso Arzneimittel did not respond to questions, but its main South African supplier, Parceval, insisted that pelargonium itself was not patentable.

‘Only the innovative use of a unique ingredient, a special method of handling or extracting or processing of a plant, can be patented,” said Parceval spokesperson Estelle Vosloo.

‘In the case of pelargonium sidoides there is a patent protection on the method of extraction for a specific final preparation only. This does not prevent anyone from using pelargonium.”

Government officials this week expressed alarm about bio-piracy in South Africa. Department of science and technology official Nhlanhla Nyide said: ‘The present situation, whereby foreign organisations and individuals have enjoyed almost free access to South Africa’s genetic resources with little gain to the country or the people from whom knowledge is gleaned is a big concern.” Local patents on medicinal plants were few or non-existent.

Nyide said the country possessed up to 10% of the world’s biodiversity and was in a position to influence trade in bio-resources. The department was compiling a database of indigenous knowledge to counter piracy.

The environmental affairs department’s deputy director general of biodiversity and conservation, Fundisile Mketeni, said the new draft regulations set conditions for the issuing of permits for bio-prospecting projects, and for benefit-sharing agreements.

Mketeni added that the trade department had recently amended the Patent Act to ensure that indigenous communities were adequately compensated for a patent derived from their indigenous knowledge or a biological resource.

Mayet said South Africa’s biodiversity was also threatened by uncontrolled harvesting. Eastern Cape communities sold their harvest for between R3 and R15 a kilogramme, while middlemen sold on the same weight of produce for R1 000.

Mayet said she was also unhappy that the World Conservation Union (the IUCN) had not lobbied the South African government intensely enough for an ‘appropriate” convention on international trade in endangered species of wild flora and fauna, which would protect pelargonium.

The IUCN had concluded that pelargonium did not yet need protection. Yet both species had been listed as protected in the Eastern Cape Environmental Bill because of concerns about unsustainable harvesting practices.

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