10 000 San to benefit from bio-prospecting license

Monday, October 4, 2010

Cape Town - About 10 000 members of three San communities in the Western Cape are expected to benefit from a royalty sharing agreement, with the awarding of South Africa's first bio-prospecting license.

Handing over the license to HGH Pharmaceuticals in a ceremony held at the Khwa Ttu San Cultural and Education Centre, near Yzerfontein, the Minister of Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica, said the granting of bio-prospecting licenses would help local communities benefit from indigenous knowledge.

The license, issued in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (2004), allows local company HGH Pharmaceuticals to produce and export Zembrin, a product to treat stress and anxiety which is derived from the plant Sceletium tortuosum.

Under the act and its related regulations, no person or entity may carry out any commercial bio-prospecting on any indigenous biological resource, or export any indigenous biological resources from South Africa without a permit.

The regulations also require that any benefits from indigenous biological knowledge be shared with community members.

Sonjica said her department had received 52 applications for bio-prospecting, but only two had so far been granted - with HGH Pharmaceuticals being the first.

The succulent Sceletium tortuosum, also known as kama, channa, or kougoed, has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties by the San.

Sonjica noted that in 1662 Jan van Riebeeck had bartered with local inhabitants and received "kanna" and sheep in return.

Shortly thereafter, the Dutch Cape colony's second colonial governor Simon van der Stel, observed how local inhabitants became intoxicated after chewing on the plant.

HGH Pharmaceuticals, which is working together with German firm Gehrlicker GmbH, has already concluded a US distribution deal with American company PL Thomas and is presently in talks with South African distributors.

The plant will be grown by contracted growers, to avoid depleting local wild plant stocks.

Royalties from the sale of Zembrin will be paid to the South African San Council via a Bio-prospecting Trust Find and the local company will also acknowledge the San's contributions to indigenous knowledge by including their endorsement logo on the product.

In all, 50 percent of the royalties received by the San will be distributed to the Paulshoek and Nourivier communities, said Sonjica.

HGH Pharmaceuticals did not wish to disclose the royalty percentage stating that this was confidential.

Sonjica said although South Africa is ranked third in the world in terms of biodiversity (after Brazil and Indonesia), a lack of bio-prospecting regulations had resulted in local indigenous biological resources "sometimes in destructively excessive quantities" being stolen and exported overseas for commercial or research purposes.

She said about 20 to 50 percent of the pharmaceutical sector's turnover of $650 billion came from genetic resources, which produce among other things herbal remedies and cosmetics.

"These natural and cultural resources underpin a large proportion of the economy and many urban and rural people are directly dependent on them for employment, food, shelter, medicine and spiritual well being," said Sonjica.

HGH Pharmaceutical research director Nigel Gericke said it was an honour to receive the bio-prospecting license.

"It is the culmination of eight years of hard work and a testament to our commitment to working in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable way," said Gericke.

He commended researcher Fiona Archer, who in 1990 had introduced him to the plant and who had five years later introduced her to the Nourivier community.

Andries Steenkamp, the chairman of the South African San Council thanked the government for granting the license.

"This benefit-sharing agreement is fully compliant with the Convention for Biological Diversity of 1992 with the subsequent 2002 Bonn Guidelines, which together encourage the equitable sharing of benefits derived from the use of traditional knowledge. South Africa is a signatory to these binding conventions," said Steenkamp.