Social responsibility towards Khoi-San people of South Africa and the traditional uses of Sceletium tortuosum plant

INTRODUCTION

This short introduction to the Khoi and San peoples serves to introduce the people behind the traditions of Sceletium plant (Figure 1) utilization that will be described further, and to highlight the necessity for companies to share benefits with these indigenous people when commercializing products from Sceletium.

Based on National Geographic’s Genographic Project, summarized in book The Journey of Man by Spencer Wells (1), it is believed that the direct ancestors of modern humans lived in southern Africa about 60,000 years ago. These earliest groups of modern humans have their present-day descendants among the San and Khoikhoi people inhabiting the western-southern portion of Africa.

Figure 1 – Sceletium tortuosum (Canna, Kanna, Kougoed). ©Nigel Gericke

Figure 1 – Sceletium tortuosum
(Canna, Kanna, Kougoed).
©Nigel Gericke

The genotypes of today’s San (also known as “Bushmen”), original hunters and gatherers, have some of the oldest genetic markers found in human beings. The Y-chromosomal DNA haplogroup (type A) is among the oldest markers split at the dawn of humanity from the haplogroup BT that has been found in the rest of humanity. Based on this discovery, the San may be the most genetically pure direct descendants of our first ancestors. The San have distinct physical characteristics (Figure 2). They are distinguished from Bantu-speaking Africans by their smaller stature, delicate body build, lighter skin and Asiatic facial features. The San share the epicanthal fold with the people of East Asia, such as the Chinese and Japanese. The San are known for having extremely keen eyesight, exceptional skills as trackers and an extraordinary sense of music and art (Figure 3).

Figure 2 – A typical San hunter, of central Kalahari, is slight and compact in stature. ©Nigel Gericke

Figure 2 – A typical San hunter, of central Kalahari, is slight and compact in stature. ©Nigel Gericke

Unlike the San, who have been mainly hunters and gatherers, the Khoikhoi (meaning “people-people”) are typically pastoral tribes whose known history starts in about the first century AD. The Khoikhoi most likely branched off from the San. Most of the Khoikhoi have disappeared as a distinct people, except for the largest group, the Nama. The Nama people developed from hunter-gatherers into nomadic herders and then into a settled farming population, and are directly related to the original Khoikhoi people (Figure 4). The Nama’s alternative historical name, “Namaqua”, simply stems from the addition of the Khoikhoi language suffix -qua/khwa, meaning “people”.

The Nama, despite having a different lifestyle from the San, have much in common with the San, such as sharing the same linguistic roots characterized by click sounds (Khoikhoi language) and similar physical features, i.e., light skin, and a small stature and delicate frame. The Dutch immigrants to Africa called natives who spoke Khoikhoi language “Hottentots”, which means in Dutch, “stammerer” or “gibberish”, probably in reference to the sound of the language, which had been previously unheard. However, this name that goes back to the 17th century is largely abandoned today and considered offensive.

Figure 3 – Ancient San rock art. The San still retain an esteem for art that depicts their lifestyle; in this case, hunting. ©Nigel Gericke

Figure 3 – Ancient San rock art. The San still retain an esteem for art that depicts their lifestyle; in this case, hunting. ©Nigel Gericke

Encounters between the San and Khoikhoi people and colonial Europeans took place in the early 16th century, and within the following hundred years the expansion of settlers effectively ended the traditional Khoikhoi lifestyle with their social organization being profoundly damaged and practically destroyed in the 17th century. Many of the Khoikhoi and San perished due to successive smallpox epidemics brought from Europe, and further in 1905 to 1907 as a result of the tragic uprising against colonial Germans in what is now Namibia, with several thousands of the indigenous people losing their lives. Only a handful of Khoikhoi and San people have remained untouched by colonization and acculturation and continue their traditional occupations of animal husbandry and farming or live a nomad’s lifestyle. The Khoikhoi people have practically disappeared except for the Nama, now mainly living in Namibia and the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. The San live mainly in Namibia, and Botswana, and smaller numbers in the Kalahari region of South Africa.

Figure 4 – A typical appearance of a Namaqualand inhabitant (2,4). ©Nigel Gericke

Figure 4 – A typical appearance of a Namaqualand inhabitant (2,4). ©Nigel Gericke

Twenty years ago the last remaining area of wilderness in South Africa and a portion of Namaqualand was included in the Richtersveld National Park. In December 2002, ancestral lands were returned to the Nama community and the governments of South Africa and Namibia developed a park across the borders from the west coast of southern Africa to the Kalahari desert, inclusive of Richtersveld National Park. Richtersveld National Park is considered one of the few places where the original nomadic traditions of moving with the seasons, the use of portable domed reed huts (haru oms, or maatjieshuise) (Figure 5) and the original Khoikhoi language survive.

Figure 5 – Nama shepherd’s reed house, called haru oms. ©Nigel Gericke

Figure 5 – Nama shepherd’s reed house, called haru oms. ©Nigel Gericke

There is pride and propriety in nomenclature distinction on the part of the modern San people, and this has bearing on a formally recognized relationship that is a model of sustainability for the production of a health-promoting ingredient. On October 1, 2010, Andries Steenkamp, Chairman, South African San Council, starkly addressed recent claims in the press by “so called ‘Khoisan’ movements” to attain rights of recognition, such as for language, land and for traditional knowledge and the benefits stemming forth thereof. Specifically, he declared, “We wish to make it clear that we alone speak on behalf of the San peoples of Southern Africa, and that we do not recognise or appreciate the term ‘Khoisan’. ‘Khoisan’ is a term that was devised by foreign anthropologists to describe both the San and the Khoikhoi peoples of Southern Africa, and the term is misleading, even insulting when used to describe San peoples.”


SOUTH AFRICAN NOMADS AND THEIR USE OF THE ENDEMIC PLANT SCELETIUM TORTUOSUM

Figure 6 – Skeletonized lower leaves of Sceletium tortuosum.

Figure 6 – Skeletonized lower leaves of Sceletium tortuosum.

The San are the archetypical hunters and gatherers who lived harsh and demanding lives. Their intimate knowledge of nature enabled them to secure all their food, medicine and material needs from the wild, and to thrive for tens of thousands of years in the most challenging environments. One of the most important functional food plants of the San, and later of the Nama, was the stamina-building Sceletium tortuosum (L.) N.E. Br. (Fam. Mesembranaceae.) – a plant endemic to the Namaqualand and the Little Karoo areas of South Africa. The botanical name of the plant has been derived from the Latin sceletus meaning “skeleton,” which refers to the prominent vein markings visible in the leaves (Figure 6).

The Nama and San traditionally called Sceletium tortuosum “Canna” or “Kanna”, which was gathered in October, dried and stored in the nomads’ huts and widely traded. It was chewed as a masticatory and used as a restorative tea served not only to adults but also to children. Kanna is nowadays known by the Afrikaans name “kougoed”. Etymologically, the Afrikaans word kougoed, referring to the common use of Sceletium as a masticatory, is derived from the old Dutch word Kauwgoed meaning “chewing stuff,” i.e. kou (to chew) and goed (stuff). This vernacular name was first recorded for Sceletium tortuosum in 1830 (2). To this day “Kougoed” is held with great esteem by indigenous people as a versatile masticatory, tea, health tonic, and herbal tincture.

Painting from 1685 of Sceletium from Simon van der Stels Journal.jpg

Figure 7 – Painting from 1685 of Sceletium from Simon van der Stel’s Journal

The history and practical aspects of the preparation and utilization of Sceletium by indigenous people became the subject of field research conducted in 1984–1995 by South African ethnobotanist Fiona Archer and continued from 1995 by the South African physician and ethnobotanist, Dr. Nigel Gericke. Two of the localities for this ethnobotanical research were the rural communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier in the Namaqualand region of area of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Some aspects of the uses and preparation of Sceletium by people in these communities was published by Smith et al. (3) and Gericke & Viljoen (4).
The results of this recent research, together with written historical accounts dating back to 1685, confirmed that Sceletium tortuosum has been widely used by the San and the Khoi, and subsequently traded with European settlers. Most local people, who were interviewed in the study, knew about the usefulness of the plant in everyday life. In addition to its common use as a masticatory, and as a tea, the aerial parts of Sceletium tortuosum also are used for medicinal purposes, especially for gastrointestinal ailments and respiratory conditions. Dried Sceletium tortuosum leaves are used to treat colic in infants, to improve bowel regularity and to treat abdominal cramps. Interestingly, Sceletium tortuosum has been used by traditional healers to combat addictions, and to wean alcoholics off alcohol.
The most common traditional use of Sceletium tortuosum is as a masticatory, an application locally described as “kougoed”. The purpose of chewing kougoed is to impart endurance, clarity of thinking and enhance decision-making. While kougoed is not a thirst-suppressant or hunger-suppressant in its own right, it is considered invaluable to deal with the stress from being thirsty or hungry when walking long distances in the wilderness. After the dry Sceletium plant material has been chewed thoroughly, the saliva produced is swallowed, and the remaining mass of depleted fibrous plant material is expelled.
Kougoed is used by indigenous people on a regular basis, often on a long-term daily basis. Some of the elderly residents of the communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier, and some elderly Nama shepherds, reported in interviews, said they have used it daily for more than 40 years and related that kougoed has imparted a beneficial impact on their health and well being. Dr. Gericke’s research showed that despite everyday use, kougoed does not have addictive properties. No physical or psychological withdrawal was reported by the indigenous communities when local stocks run out, and there were no users of kougoed who were socially dysfunctional as a result of use of kougoed.
The traditional of use of Sceletium herb predates the earliest written reports of the use of the plant by many thousands of years. Figure 7 shows a painting dated 1685 from the journal of Simon van der Stel, the Dutch Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. The information accompanying the illustration has been translated from the original Dutch: “This plant is found with the Namaquas on some of their mountains. It is gathered in October and is called Canna. It is held in great esteem by them… On account of its fragrance, taste and effect one can expect considerable profit from its cultivation” (5).
In his two journeys to the eastern Cape of South Africa between 1772 and 1774, the Swedish physician and botanist Carl Peter Thunberg reported on the use of Sceletium by the Khoikhoi: “It is found in the driest fields only, and is gathered chiefly by the Hottentots, who live near this spot. These afterwards hawke it about, frequently to a great distance, and exchange it for cattle and other commodities”. The Khoikhoi “keep it by them for chewing, especially when they are thirsty” (6).
It is believed that plants of the genus Sceletium have been used as masticatories and for the relief of thirst and hunger, to combat fatigue, as medicines, and for social and spiritual purposes by San hunter-gatherers and Khoi pastoralists for millennia before the earliest written reports of the uses of these plants by European explorers and settlers (4).

PROTECTING THE CULTURAL HERITAGE OF NAMA PEOPLE WITH BENEFIT-PROFIT SHARING AGREEMENT

Figure 8 – Dr Nigel Gericke ceremonially receiving South Africa’s first Bioprospecting & Export Permit from Buyelwa Sonjica, MP, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs.

Figure 8 – Dr Nigel Gericke ceremonially receiving South Africa’s first Bioprospecting & Export Permit from Buyelwa Sonjica, MP, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs.

In 2006 the South African company HGH Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. initiated a Sceletium tortuosum research and development program whose purpose was to create a dietary supplement from a standardized extract of cultivated Sceletium, trademarked Zembrin®, for international markets. In view of the well-established historical and extant use of Sceletium, the company made the ethical decision to share benefits arising from the future commercial products with representatives of the South African San and of the Namaqualand communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier. The Sceletium tortuosum plant from which Zembrin® is derived is a protected species. HGH is totally opposed to wild harvesting of this plant, and pioneered the domestication and first intensive commercial farming of a particular naturally occurring chemotype of Sceletium tortuosum, which complies with the traditionally used plant, and also ensures a standardized product. The intensively managed conditions under which the selected plants are cultivated, harvested, dried and extracted play a vital role in ensuring Zembrin®’s quality and efficacy.
A number of meetings and negotiations were held with the South African San Council during 2007, with the South African San Council being assisted by the well-known human rights attorney Roger Chennels. The South African San Council holds the position that the San, as the First People of South Africa, and as the original indigenous knowledge-holders of Sceletium, are the legitimate beneficiaries of any future benefits to accrue from the commercialization of Sceletium. A key concern of HGH, however, was the need to recognize the role of two Namaqualand communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier, who had provided important local knowledge on the use of Sceletium, including identifying which local plants were particularly favored. The San Council readily acknowledged the important contributions made by these two communities, and agreed to share 50% of any benefits with the two communities, who would thus receive 25% each.

Figure 9 – Deon Hofmeyr, Director, HGH Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. holds the proclamation.

Figure 9 – Deon Hofmeyr, Director, HGH Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. holds the proclamation.

A groundbreaking benefit-sharing agreement between HGH Pharmaceuticals and the South African San Council was signed on February 21, 2008, thus signifying the first prior-informed consent benefit-sharing agreement to have been signed with an indigenous group in southern Africa. The agreement includes payment over three years of up-front amounts prior to commercialization, and a % royalty on all future income to be derived from the commercialization of Sceletium by HGH. This agreement effectively includes the South African San Council as partners in Zembrin®. HGH receives endorsement from the San Council through exclusive use of the San Council logo on the standardized extract of Sceletium, Zembrin®, and for use on other products derived from Sceletium.
In terms of the agreement, the South African San Council agreed to formalize agreements between the Council and representatives of the two Namaqualand communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier. The first meeting with these communities was held in February 2008, and the subsequent San Council–Community agreements were signed on June 21, 2008.

BIODIVERSITY ACT

The Zembrin project including San community is part of larger efforts defined by the biodiversity act which comprises activities to sustain diversity of life forms in an ecosystem. With land and marine ecosystems around the world under intense pressure from human activities, efforts have been undertaken for a global strategy to protect the biodiversity.
In South Africa as early as in 1998 the National Environment Management Biodiversity Act (NEM BA) has been implemented to provide for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity. This includes: the protection of species and ecosystems; the sustainable use of indigenous biological resources; the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from bioprospecting involving indigenous biological resources; and the establishment of a South African National Biodiversity Institute.
The Act stipulates that the Minister must prepare and adopt a National Biodiversity Framework, which provides for the identification of priority areas for conservation, as well as an integrated, coordinated and uniform approach to biodiversity management in protected areas. It should also reflect regional cooperation with respect to biodiversity management. The Act defines a bioregion as a region containing whole or several, nested ecosystems. The goal of biodiversity management in these bioregions must be aimed at ensuring the long-term survival of species in nature.
The National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act 10, 2004), also known as NEMBA, was passed into law to provide for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity including the protection of species and ecosystems that warrant national protection, the sustainable use of indigenous biological resources, the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from bioprospecting involving indigenous biological resources, and for the establishment and functions of a South African National Biodiversity Institute.
The Biodiversity Act requires any person or company involved in the research, supply, export or commercialization of any South African biological resource to obtain a permit from the Government. Prior informed consent is required from landowners and indigenous communities before a permit is issued, and benefit-sharing agreements must be entered into with indigenous communities who use the resource traditionally, or who have knowledge of its properties (7).
Buyelwa Sonjica, MP, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, South Africa, explains that “biodiversity is the term used to describe life on earth – the variety of living things, the places they inhabit and the interactions between them. These interactions provide us with a number of essential natural services or ecosystem services such as food production, soil fertility, climate regulation, carbon storage – that are the foundation of human well being.”
According to Minister Sonjica, South Africa is rich in biodiversity and is ranked third after Brazil and Indonesia. The nation is the origin of approximately 24 000 plant species. 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.
South Africa is a signatory to various international multilateral agreements relating to the conservation and management of biodiversity, and in particular the Convention on Biological Diversity or CBD. The Convention has three objectives – the conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of the biological diversity, and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources. Minister Sonjica emphasized that “fair and equitable sharing of benefits is a central pillar to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.”
The previous lack of bioprospecting policy framework and legislation had allowed unrestrained access to South African indigenous biological resources and indigenous knowledge, with biological and genetic resources being harvested, sometimes in destructively excessive quantities, and being exported for research and development at institutions abroad for innovative value addition, and off-shore financial benefit.
In placing this into context, it is worthwhile to realize that between as little as 20% to as much as 50% of the pharmaceutical sector’s turnover – which is estimated at $ 650 billion annually – is derived from genetic resources. An astronomical variety of OTC, prescription and cosmetic products produced by pharmaceutical companies are derived from medicinal plants, a large number of which are indigenous to South Africa. This invites and attracts innovative concerns to South Africa to obtain novel resources on which to conduct research for the development of new health and beauty products and drugs.

BIOPROSPECTING AND EXPORT PERMIT

On December 8, 2009, HGH Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd became the first company in South Africa to be granted a bioprospecting and export permit, Permit number 0001, signed by Buyelwa Sonjica, MP, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs (Figures 8, 9). This permit allows the company to legally continue to research and develop Sceletium and to export Sceletium raw material and the company’s proprietary standardized Sceletium extract Zembrin®. To date no other company has been awarded a bioprospecting or export permit for Sceletium.
In view of the HGH’s pioneering prior-informed consent benefit-sharing agreement, and successful cultivation of Sceletium as a new crop, the Minister of Environmental Affairs hosted a celebration wherein the permit was ceremonially awarded to HGH. Also present at this function were the South African San Council, and representatives of the Namaqualand Communities from Paulshoek and Nourivier. HGH’s partner for Zembrin® in the USA, PL Thomas, was represented by Paul Flowerman, CEO.
On October 1, 2010, the first bioprospecting permit was issued in terms of the National Environmental Management; Biodiversity Act, Act 10 of 2004 (NEMBA) and its associated Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing or BABS Regulations of 2008 to HGH Pharmaceuticals. Under terms, as the permit holder, HGH Pharmaceuticals may only use the indigenous biological resource for the purpose of local and international research on cultivated plant material and extract from Sceletium tortuosum and to commercialize the product. HGH Pharmaceuticals will pay the South African San Council an annual royalty of the net proceeds they receive. During the first three years the royalty will only be payable in respect of net proceeds received during each year in excess of R 5-million (approximately US $ 700, 000).
Minister Sonjica said, “The bioprospecting project will focus on local and international research on cultivated plant material and extracts from Sceletium with the aim to successfully produce and market a scientific validated South African medicinal plant. The indications are that the pharmaceutical application of the indigenous biological resource will be for central nervous system conditions. The beneficiaries of the bioprospecting project include the South African San Council (San), Paulshoek and Nourivier or Nama communities.”
Andries Steenkamp, representing the South African San Council, expressed the Council’s gratitude for its partner, HGH Pharmaceuticals, as well as to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, “for their commitment to make this agreement successful in the interests of South Africa, as well as of the individual role-players. We look forward to Zembrin® becoming an international success.”

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