Privatizing Hoodia: Patent ownership, benefit-sharing, and indigenous knowledge in Southern Africa
In March of 2003, San peoples sat beside South African scientists and government officials to sign a contractual benefit-sharing agreement. At the centre of the agreement was Hoodia gordonii , a Kalahari Desert succulent plant known by San as !Xhoba, used for generations to suppress hunger, increase energy, quench thirst, treat wounds, and ease breast feeding. Through the use of biochemical assays and clinical animal trials, scientists with the South African Council for Scientific Research (CSIR) identified Hoodia-based extract processes and chemical compositions for suppressing appetite. They provisionally patented their invention in 1997 and entered into a partnership with Pfizer, and eventually Unilever, to develop Hoodia gordonii into a blockbuster anti-obesity product for humans. Hoodia patents, however, sparked controversy. Indigenous San peoples, with a coalition of lawyers and environmental activists, accused CSIR of stealing San traditional knowledge without prior informed consent and began demanding compensation. 2 After two years of opposition and negotiation, the parties gathered to sign the San-CSIR Hoodia benefit-sharing contract, which granted San peoples monetary and non-monetary rewards from potential Hoodia sales and positioned San as “stakeholders” in the privatization and commercialization of Hoodia.