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Hoodia cactus: Western drug industry exploits developing countries

hoodia cactus

For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia cactus to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips. Hoodia cacti are native to the semi-deserts of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. There are about 20 species in this family but the gordonii is the one that contains a natural appetite suppressant.The Kung bushmen who live around the Kalahari desert in southern Africa used to cut off a stem of the cactus about the size of a cucumber and munch on it over a couple of days. According to tradition, they ate together so they brought back what they caught and did not eat while hunting.

Diet secrets of the Kalahari
The San Bushman of Africa's Kalahari desert could be sitting on a diet-pill gold mine.
It's called Hoodia. It's an ugly cactus that suppresses the appetite, tricks the brain into believing that you're full and makes you feel good -- all with no known side effects (BBC, May 31, 2003).

hoodia peopleThe effects were first observed in 1937 by a Dutch anthropologist studying the San Bushman of the Kalahari Desert. He noticed that they munched on the stem of a certain variety of Hoodia plant as an appetite suppressant and thirst quencher before and during nomadic hunts through the sandswept and sparsely vegetated area. Interestingly, the San, who can trace their heritage back 27,000 years based on rock paintings, are one of the world's oldest and most primitive tribes. They have known about the properties of Xhoba for thousands of years.

For thousands of years, the San -- the oldest people in southern Africa -- have chewed the bitter Hoodia twice a day to suppress hunger and thirst during long hunting trips. ”Our ancestors taught us to survive by being attentive to the land, rain, game and plants,” says Kxao Moses, a Namibian San

Besides alleviating hunger and thirst, Xhoba also provides a state of alertness but without the jittery feeling produced by the current Western diet remedy of ephedra stacked with caffeine. Thus it is an ideal choice for days' long hunts where prey is tracked over hundreds of miles.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)

Hoodia sat on the back shelf in a lab for almost another thirty years when South African scientists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) began studying it. Lab animals fed the flesh of the cactus lost weight, but otherwise suffered no ill effects.
It was during these tests that CSIR researchers discovered the plant contained a previously unknown molecule, which has since been christened P57. CSIR, which patented the compound in 1997, sold the license to a Cambridgeshire, England bio-pharmaceutical company by the name of Phytopharm plc, which in 1998, subleased it and the marketing rights to U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Corporation for US$32 Million plus royalties from future sales.

CSIR has been accused of selling something that didn't belong to it in the first place although it claims to have the best interests of the San at heart. The San and their attorneys have a different opinion, however. As for the Bushmen, the unhappy current situation finds many of them smoking large quantities of marijuana, suffering from alcoholism, and having neither possessions nor any sense of the value of money.

At a simple but moving ceremony in Andriesvale, a remote corner of the Kalahari, the South African San Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa signed an agreement that recognises and rewards the San as holders of traditional knowledge. The San will get up to eight percent of profits from a diet drug derived from the Hoodia, a plant they know well.

The San, who had shared their knowledge with CSIR scientists, were out of the picture. To the extent that, in mid-2001, when a Pfizer spokesperson in Britain described P57, the San were said to be extinct.

It was a thorny issue at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg because indigenous knowledge systems clash with Western intellectual property rules (IPR). The latter view knowledge as the property of an individual or a company, while traditional knowledge is collectively owned and handed down through generations.

The San badly needs such windfall. Present in the region for 40,000 years, in the last 2000 they have been dispossessed by several waves of newcomers. Today, commercial ranching, large-scale agriculture, even national parks threaten their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

”The San's soft culture does not do well in a Western capitalist world,” says Chennels. For centuries their culture has been devalued as ”uncivilised”. Even their language is on the verge of extinction, squeezed out by Afrikaans and English. Less than two dozen elderly San speakers survive in South Africa.

Effects of Hoodia

  • According to Dixey, the hypothalamus is the organ affected by the P57 molecule because it's the location of the "nerve cells that sense glucose sugar. . . .When you eat, blood sugar goes up because of the food, [and] these cells start firing [so you feel full]. What the Hoodia seems to contain is a molecule that is about 10,000 times as active as glucose. It goes to the [hypothalamus] and actually makes those nerve cells fire as if you were full. But you have not eaten. Nor do you want to."
  • When the first human clinical trial was conducted, a morbidly obese group of volunteers were placed in a Phase 1 Unit. In this controlled environment, where subjects were literally incarcerated, all they did was read, watch television, and eat. Half were given Hoodia and the other half, a placebo. Fifteen days later the Hoodia group had reduced their caloric intake by 1000 a day and suffered no ill effects.

    Bio-piracy

    Today's pirates are cheating the poor and are now emerging as a threat to peoples’ right to food. They take plants from the fields and forests of developing countries – sometimes literally - and apply for exclusive legal rights to them in the form of patents. Patents give “intellectual property rights” to the holders. They were designed for industrial innovations – such as electrical appliances - and they give the owner exclusive rights to aninvention for 18-20 years.

    There are now 918 patents on rice, maize, wheat, soybean and sorghum. The six major agrochemical corporations hold the vast majority - 633 patents, or nearly 69 per cent – on the staples that are vital for the poor. In the case of soybean that figure is 76 per cent.

    These figures demonstrate that the basics of the food chain are being cornered by a handful of corporations. People in developing countries are concerned that farmers will be at the mercy of corporations and lose control over their food supplies.

    Whilst 90 per cent of biological wealth is found in developing countries, corporations and groups from the industrialised world (who own 97 per cent of all patents) are privatising what is overwhelmingly a resource from the developing world.

    Africa stands to lose huge benefits from its biodiversity for lack of legal protection against biopiracy, concluded the Second South-South Biopiracy Summit held last week in Johannesburg during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

    Biopiracy is the theft of biological matter, like plants, seeds and genes. In the absence of laws regulating access to these resources, pharmaceutical, agrochemical and seed multinationals exploit Africa's biological wealth and obtain rights of intellectual ownership to the resources and knowledge of communities. Multinationals make huge profits from African biodiversity but do not share these with the communities who discovered, kept and transmitted the knowledge, activists argue. "They are stealing the loaf and sharing the crumbs," said Dr Tewolde Berhan Egziabher, a leading expert on the topic at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia.

    Thousands of patents on African plants have been filed. To name just a few: brazzeine, a protein 500 times sweeter than sugar from a plant in Gabon; teff, the grain used in Ethiopia's flat "injera" bread; thaumatin, a natural sweetener from a plant in West Africa; the African soap berry and the Kunde Zulu cowpea; genetic material from the west African cocoa plant.

    Increasingly, developing countries are going to court over patents on their indigenous plants. India overturned American patents for basmati rice and wound-healing turmeric. Thailand is appealing a patent on jasmine rice. The latest patent to make headlines involves the Hoodia cactus from the Kalahari desert. For centuries, the San people of Southern Africa ate pieces of the cactus to stave off hunger and thirst.

    Paradoxically, the poorest people in the world live in the world's biodiversity hot spots. If they derive a benefit from their natural resources and indigenous knowledge, they would be keen to protect them. That approach, however, is in conflict with world trade rules.

    The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, ratified by 183 countries and in force since 1993, recognises the sovereignty of states and communities over their genetic resources

    But the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) does not. Since 1995, WTO requires its member countries to comply with TRIPS.

    Under international law, an invention qualifies for patent protection only if it is new and involves an inventive step. This excludes traditional products, developed and handed down over generations. The system is rooted in the European industrial and scientific tradition. It views knowledge as a commodity owned by an individual or a company with the goal of trade. Indigenous knowledge has a transgenerational, communal and cultural nature.

    At the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, the African group took the lead in opposing the patenting of life and protecting community rights over their agricultural and biological heritage

    Now the Hoodia, which grows to 6ft - taller than the bushmen themselves - is at the centre of a bio-piracy row. Campaigners say the cactus has attracted the interest of the Western drug industry, which exploits developing countries through the international patent system. In April, when pharmaceutical giants were being accused of failing to provide affordable Aids drugs in Africa, Phytopharm, a small firm in Cambridgeshire, said it had discovered a potential cure for obesity derived from an African cactus. It emerged that the company had patented P57, the appetite-suppressing ingredient in the Hoodia, hoping it would become a slimming miracle.

    UK based company, Phytopharm, patented P57, the appetite suppressing ingredient in Hoodia, claiming it as the next big slimming aid. Phytopharm’s share price rocketed as city traders expected rich returns from a drug that would revolutionize the slimming market, worth £6 billion. The company has since cashed in on the biopiracy and sold the rights to license the drug for $21m to Pfizer, the US pharma-ceutical giant. It will be ready in pill form within three years.


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